When football fans talk about the NFL's top coaches, they tend to focus on the dudes with Super Bowl rings – Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, Mike Shanahan. Ask people in the business, however, and Jeff Fisher's name inevitably comes up, something I'm frequently asked to explain to skeptical outsiders.
Aside from his longevity (Fisher has held his job longer than any current coach, having landed his gig with the Titans since 1994, when they were the Houston Oilers) and a near-miss Super Bowl XXXIV defeat to the Rams, Fisher hasn't provided casual fans with blatant illustrations of his excellence. What he has brought to Nashville is professionalism, physicality and preparation of the highest degree, and he has a knack for motivating players without grandstanding or constantly flexing his power.
On Monday night, Fisher's Titans showed up in Jacksonville and dominated the Jaguars, rolling to a 30-3 victory in a game that ended up as a battle between backup quarterbacks. As usual, Tennessee was equipped to handle the adversity, retaining its ability to move the football after starter Vince Young(notes) went down with an early knee sprain and veteran Kerry Collins(notes) took command of the offense.
By night's end the Titans (4-2) were in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South with the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, a pair of quarterback-driven teams that likely would have folded in similar circumstances.
Then there are the Jags (3-3), who looked equally ineffectual with starter David Garrard(notes) or newly acquired backup Trent Edwards(notes) under center. They suffered the kind of dispirited defeat that can lead to a lost season. If so, coach Jack del Rio will likely lose his job, something more than 100 of Fisher's peers have done since he took over on an interim basis for the fired Jack Pardee 16 years ago.
There's a long way to go in Fisher's 17th full campaign, but I like where the Titans are after the first month-and-a-half.
Two years ago, with Collins stepping in for the injured Young during the opening game, they got off to a stunning 10-0 start and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the AFC, only to lose a tight divisional-round game at home to the Ravens.
Last season, Tennessee sputtered to an 0-6 start before Fisher finally replaced Collins with Young, and the Titans somehow clawed their way back into playoff contention (as they had in 2006, Young's rookie season, after a similarly atrocious start) before finishing 8-8. Had the turnaround come a week or two earlier, Fisher's team may have pulled off a shocking postseason run.
This year, with little fanfare, the Titans have stayed firmly in the mix of a competitive conference while avoiding the dramatic mood swings. They've scored decisive victories over the Raiders, Giants and Jags, pulled out a tight game on the road against the favored Cowboys and suffered disappointing home defeats to the Ben Roethlisberger(notes)-less Steelers and Broncos.
Tennessee has a bona-fide superstar in halfback Chris Johnson and a few other guys who non-hardcore fans have heard of, but this is not a sexy team. The Titans' strengths include punishing play in the trenches, a hard-hitting, gang-tackling defense and a head coach who, as we saw so resoundingly with the Music City Miracle more than a decade ago, will work with a strong group of assistants to have his players ready for almost any circumstance.
I can't tell you whether these Titans will do what Fisher's teams couldn't in '99, or 2000 (when they suffered another divisional-round home playoff upset to the Ravens), or 2002 (lost to the Raiders in the AFC championship game), or '03 (absorbed a close divisional-round defeat to the eventual champion Patriots) or '07 (lost a first-round playoff game to the Chargers) and win a championship. But I can confidently predict that, as Tennessee showed on Monday night, this is a team that won't crumble when one of its most important players goes down, or in similarly jarring circumstances.
The sight of the mobile Young clutching his knee and grimacing in pain while lying on the EverBank Field turf midway through the first quarter would have caused some coaches to lose their focus. Fisher had the presence of mind to challenge the on-field ruling that Young had lost a fumble on the play, and the replay official ultimately overturned the call, depriving the Jaguars of a chance to begin a drive at the Tennessee 18.
Instead the Titans, who already led 7-0, picked up a first down before punting and pinning the Jags at their own 6-yard line. By midway through the second quarter Tennessee had a two-touchdown lead, and Garrard had been knocked out of the game with a concussion.
When the Titans return to work on Wednesday, you can bet the focus will be on the Philadelphia Eagles, who they'll host Sunday in an interconference battle of first-place teams. And though it may not be obvious to outsiders, Fisher, as always, will be the man with the plan, and his players will follow.
IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …
Before the Titans attempted the 33-yard field goal that put them up 20-0 early in the third quarter, Gruden said, "This guy, Rob Bironas(notes), he's almost automatic. In all of football, there might not be a better kicker than this guy, Rob Bironas." Once more, with truth serum: This guy's almost automatic. You know who isn't automatic? Sebastian Janikowski(notes). When I was coaching the Raiders, my boss, Al Davis, used a FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK on this chubster. Can you believe that? Forget guys who could actually swing the game your way on offense or defense; the great Al Davis wanted a [expletive] kicker ahead of everyone else on our board. I think Al must have been drunk; or maybe that was 'Seabass' who was. Anyway, did you see that this guy had a 32-yard field goal that could've won a game in Arizona last month? And what happened? Shank-a-roonie. That's just pathetic. But for some reason it made me laugh really, really hard.
TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU
Chunks of empty seats
Chris Johnson still running wild
Fantasy is king
ONE E FOR FREE
You and Brett Favre(notes) have a lot in common … I used to love watching Favre play and I used to love reading your articles when I was in college. Now it's embarrassing for both of you. Your articles don't have anywhere near the crisp and polish they used to. They used to be exciting to read and full of relevant information, witty quotes and cool trivia. Now, like Favre, you're a top-heavy behemoth relying only on the ghosts of your past to carry you along. I find myself just skimming through your hastily put together articles where your politics and personal rantings take up about as much space as actual NFL information. No, I can't do any better, but it's not my job to. Even your 32 Questions aren't witty anymore. So i guess the question is … when should aging writers past their prime retire?
Man, it has been 147 years since such a furious assault has been seen in your fair town, and Favre and I are collectively feeling almost as embattled as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his troops did back in the day. While the old gunslinger and I do have our share of ghosts to dodge – remember, we've combined to throw for more than 70,000 yards and write more than 70 Sports Illustrated cover stories (cue spooky theme) – I like to think that we both have our moments and consider defiance a virtue. Like Favre, I'm grateful that I've been able to extend my career in a new locale, and there's nowhere I'd rather be than Yahoo! It's true that I have to compose my articles a bit more hastily than in my magazine days, but I am still the king, and I plan to remain so until I am at least four score and seven years old, if you get my drift.