Thursday, September 22, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Few teams in the NFL underwent as much change in the offseason as the Tennessee Titans. Few teams needed those changes as much as they did.

Unfortunately for the Titans, they had to make many of the moves they did in hopes of getting under the salary cap instead of improving a team that was 5-11 last season.

The cap casualties included many of the team’s best players such as receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle, safety Lance Schulters, defensive end Kevin Carter and tackle Fred Miller, among others. Those subtractions left many holes for the Titans to attempt to patch up with little to no cap room.

Instead of being active in free agency, Tennessee decided to try and bolster its fledgling offense by making some changes to the coaching staff. The Titans hired Norm Chow as offensive coordinator on Feb. 10.

Chow brings with him a college pedigree that is matched by few, if any coordinators around. In his 32 years coaching at the college level, Chow coached three national championship teams, three Heisman Trophy winners and three times won the assistant coach of the year award.

Most recently, Chow led the USC offense to one of the most dominant runs in recent memory and coached Bengals’ quarterback Carson Palmer and future top draft pick Matt Leinart to Heismans.

Chow hopes to get Titans’ quarterback Steve McNair back to his MVP form of 2003. McNair has battled injuries for the better part of the past few years (2003 included) and had one of his least productive seasons in his 11 years last season.

In 2004 McNair played in just eight games, missing the rest because of a sternum injury. He finished with 1,343 yards passing, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. His absence led to the emergence of backup Billy Volek, who performed admirably in McNair’s stead, but couldn’t do enough to get the Titans in the win column as often as they’d like.

Volek is one of the league’s top backups and should McNair suffer another injury, Volek will be called upon to take his place. Volek had more success than McNair in his 10 appearances, throwing for 2,486 yards and 18 touchdowns for a rating of 87.1.

While Mason was often McNair’s favorite target in the passing game, Volek’s emergence coincided with the materialization of a new receiving threat in the form of Drew Bennett.

Bennett was one of the league’s top receivers in the final weeks of the season, catching nearly everything thrown his way. Bennett ended up with 80 catches for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns. With Mason’s departure, Bennett is officially the No. 1 receiver leaving the Titans hoping for former second-round choice Tyrone Calico to emerge this year.

Calico has great size (6’4) and speed, but has yet to show it as injuries have limited him to two starts in two seasons in the league. Second-year tight end Ben Troupe could emerge as another target for McNair who also has Erron Kinney working at end.

The Titans’ running game was one of the team’s most pleasant surprises a year ago when Chris Brown emerged as the top back. Brown got off to an excellent start last year, rushing for 1,067 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games before a turf toe injury sidelined him.

To supplement and compete with Brown for the top back’s job, Tennessee traded for former Buffalo back Travis Henry. Henry was also injury-plagued when with the Bills, but he provides insurance in case Brown struggles to stay healthy.

The offensive line has undergone some changes in the absence of Miller, using Daniel Loper at left tackle, Zach Piller at left guard, Justin Hartwig at center, Benji Olson at right guard and rookie Michael Roos at right tackle.

The Titans had almost as much turnover on defense as the offense. The subtractions of Carter, Schulters and Rolle ripped away much of the heart of the defense.

Linebacker Keith Bulluck leads the charge for this group. After a Pro Bowl appearance in 2003, Bulluck played just as well last year in making 171 tackles, five sacks to go with a pair of interceptions.

Bulluck is joined in the linebacking corps by Brad Kassell in the middle and Peter Sirmon on the left side. Outside of Bulluck, the group is young, but there is some athleticism to work with.

The front four has undergone most of its change through an influx of players added in the draft. Defensive tackles Randy Starks, Albert Haynesworth and Rien Long were selected in recent years and provide the bulk in the middle. Haynesworth is 6’6, 320 pounds and is probably the best of the bunch, but hasn’t lived up to the status of being the 15th pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Kyle Vanden Bosch and Antwan Odom handle the pass rushing duties off the end, but neither has proven to be able to get to the quarterback regularly yet. Odom had two sacks last season and Vanden Bosch had zero, leaving much to be desired in the pass rush.

The Titans lost not only Rolle at cornerback, but fellow starter Andre Dyson also departed via free agency. Rolle went to Baltimore while Dyson signed with Seattle. Replacing those two are Andre Woolfolk and Tony Beckham, who are both rather inexperienced.

Tennessee used the sixth pick in the draft on Adam “Pacman” Jones, but he has run into some off the field problems that have kept him from the starting lineup. Jones was one of the most exciting athletes in the draft, but has been unable to combine the mental with the physical so far.

Tank Williams handles the strong safety duties and is joined by free safety Lamont Thompson. Williams was solid last season and is a big hitter in the secondary, but doesn’t provide as much in coverage.

With all of the changes Tennessee has made, it will be difficult for it to improve much on last year. Pittsburgh pounded the Titans 34-7 in week one and Tennessee looked anemic on both sides of the ball.

Jeff Fisher is one of the best head coaches in the league, but without the majority of his best players from a team that won just five games, it will be tough to make anymore magic in Music City.