While the Tennessee Titans have a new, but familiar, head coach, they are more grateful to have their best player still in the mix.
These AFC South rivals hope a mix of old and new will be the recipe for success as they open the season Sunday in Jacksonville.
While Jacksonville avoided a third consecutive losing season with an 8-8 mark in 2010, it was not nearly good enough to reach the postseason.
Tennessee, meanwhile, started 5-2 but finished 1-8 to miss the playoffs for a second straight year. That second-half tailspin and the drama and distractions that came with it led to the release of quarterback Vince Young(notes) three weeks before the team parted with coach Jeff Fisher - who took over in November 1994 when the franchise was based in Houston.
Longtime Titans assistant Mike Munchak steps in for Fisher and former Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) takes over under center with eighth overall pick Jake Locker(notes) waiting in the wings.
“The beauty of the NFL is you can go from 6-10 like we did last year to winning it all, so why not us?” Munchak said.
More important, star running back Chris Johnson is ready to play after he followed the lockout by holding out for a four-year contract extension worth $53 million—$30 million guaranteed.
Currently the NFL’s highest-paid running back, Johnson has led the league with 4,598 rushing yards over his first three seasons. He has his sights set on a big year for himself and the Titans.
“We haven’t been to the playoffs in two years, so I want to get back to the playoffs, hopefully win the Super Bowl here,” said Johnson, who followed his 2,006-yard 2009 season with 1,364 last year. “I’ve got a lot of team goals, and I always got that goal to rush for 2,000 yards again.”
Johnson could find racking up the yards a bit of a challenge early on with fullback Ahmad Hall suspended four games for inadvertently using performance-enhancing substances. Johnson has averaged 105.3 yards in six games against the Jaguars but has scored just three touchdowns. He was held to 53 yards on 13 carries in a 17-6 home loss to Jacksonville on Dec. 5.
With Johnson and receiver Kenny Britt(notes) (nine TDs in 2010) set to pace the offense, the Titans hope the additions of tackle Shaun Smith, linebacker Barrett Ruud(notes) and safety Jordan Babineaux(notes) will help upgrade a defense that ranked 26th in total yards allowed per game (367.7) and 29th against the pass (252.0)
The Titans have won three of four at Jacksonville, including 30-3 on Oct. 18 - the worst home loss in Jaguars’ history.
Tennessee won’t need to worry about trying to stop Garrard, who was set to start before he was cut Tuesday. Garrard was 39-37 as a starter, but a shaky preseason and a $9 million price tag made him expendable.
“I don’t like the idea that the timing went down the way it did, but it did,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “Ultimately as an organization we’ve got to make decisions when they’re not comfortable and make the best decision for the football team.”
Luke McCown(notes) will start under center with 10th overall pick Blaine Gabbert(notes) ready and waiting. McCown has played 16 games - starting seven - in five seasons with three teams, throwing for 1,739 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Whether its McCown or Gabbert for an extended stretch, the play at quarterback could be another area of scrutiny for the embattled Del Rio.
“The pressures and the demands, that’s part of what we do,” Del Rio said. “I enjoy it. I love that part of it.”
“You’re the only one that can put pressure on yourself,” said Jones-Drew, who has rushed for just 225 yards and three TDs on 55 carries in five home games versus Tennessee. “No one else can put pressure on you. It’s self-inflicted. For me, I just want to go out and play football.”