Interview with Total Titans

Tom Gower of Total Titans is one of my favorite bloggers.  Tom is also one of the Football Outsiders, and always worth a read and a follow on Twitter.  Today, we trade answers about tonight’s game.

1.  The Titans’ season has come off the tracks in the last few weeks.  Was this inevitable, or just the product of Vince Young getting hurt?  Or was it Kenny Britt going down?

TG:  Well, even when the Titans were 5-2, I never thought they were an elite team.  My preseason expectation for the team was 8-8, give or take a game.  Early in the year, the defense showed an ability in some ways reminiscent of the 2007 team to exploit bad opposing quarterbacks, which made me think 9-7/10-6 was possible.  Other people, of course, disagreed.  Lately, the defense is playing more at what I think is its true level, whatever his other flaws Vince Young was the Titans’ best quarterback this year, and the offense is really missing Kenny Britt’s ability both on deep balls but also to do something with short and intermediate passes.

2.  So the Randy Moss era has been scintillating…
TG: Yeah.  It’s been so scintillating I haven’t even written a post on his play yet because I don’t feel like I have a good enough idea of how he’s actually played to write a decent post.  The team is 0-4 and the offense hasn’t scored a touchdown in the past three games.  Whee.  Part of the issue, I think, is Moss and Nate Washington are too similar in that neither is particularly good at short and intermediate passes, especially over the middle.  Lots of fans have a lot of ire for Justin Gage, but I think and have consistently believed he should be starting over Washington opposite Moss because he’s a better complement.

3.  Who starts are quarterback for the Titans next year?  Who should start?

TG:  My current best guess is Vince Young will start for the Titans next year.  The Vince thing is very frustrating, because since his reinsertion into the lineup at 0-6 last year, he’s shown flashes that he can be a competent NFL starting quarterback-average or even above-average but with one or more flaws that keep him from being part of the true upper echelon, kind of like how I think about Matt Schaub.  He’s just not reliable enough, especially off the field and in the practice room, to be average or above on a consistent basis, and he’s not good enough on the field a team has to put up with that.

As to who should start, I don’t have a specific name.  The biggest name who might be available is probably Kevin Kolb, but (a) with Vick’s propensity to get injured, I’m not sure the Eagles will trade Kolb and (b) Kolb in the time he’s played this year was not regularly throwing with anticipation, and a quarterback who doesn’t do that cannot win in the NFL unless the rest of the team around him is truly superb.  It’s tough, because they’re not going to draft high enough to grab Andrew Luck, and then it’s a tough question of taking a more questionable prospect or making do with an available mediocre veteran.

4.  That the Titans have struggled to pass isn’t a huge shock, but they have a bottom 10 run game by DVOA.  You couldn’t have seen that coming…

TG:  Guys who rush for 2,000 yards average like a yard less per carry the next year.  Chris Johnson averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year and is averaging 4.3 yards per carry this year.  My personal prediction was 308-1357-9, and right now he’s on pace for 315-1368-12, so a few more Javon Ringer carries near the end zone and I’d be even closer to spot on.

That said, he’s been less consistently successful than I thought he’d be.  Many Titans fans blame the interior of the offensive line, but they’re just ignoring that the Titans were lousy running up the middle last year, too.  The real problems are on the edges, especially running right end.  Teams are definitely scheming more to set the edge and prevent him from turning the corner, and he’s dancing too much to take consistent 2-4 yard gains that tend to be available against defenses not attacking the line quite as aggressively and letting their players flow to where he’s going.

5.  The Titans on paper have an elite defense, but I was watching Sunday.  Were you surprised to see them get shoved around by Jacksonville early in that game?

TG:  I’d like your piece of paper.  The Titans have gotten elite results out of their defensive at times this season, but they’ve relied a lot on the defensive line’s pressure to camouflage a mediocre back seven.  The linebackers, especially, are lousy in pass coverage.  WIll Witherspoon is the best, but can get beat athletically.  He did well against Zach Miller (OAK), Brent Celek, and Jason Witten earlier in the year, and I’m optimistic he’ll do ok if they line him up against Tamme.  Stephen Tulloch looked semi-competent in pass coverage earlier in the year, but that’s proved illusory, and Gerald McRath still looks like a second-year player adjusting to the game.

Was I surprised they got shoved around? Absolutely, especially coming off an unimpressive performance the previous game against the Texans.  Tulloch and McRath got worked, defensive ends William Hayes and Jacob Ford got blown off the ball and couldn’t set anything, and Cortland Finnegan, Chris Hope, and especially Michael Griffin all did a bad job at tackling.  That said, they also shut out the Jaguars in the second half (thanks in part to Josh Scobee not hitting long field goals).

6.  What is Kerry Collins at this stage of his career?

TG A veteran backup who can be sort of effective for a game or two.  He’s the same guy he was in 2008-he reads the defense, throws the ball away too much, doesn’t necessarily react well to unanticipated pressure, and can’t throw the ball well enough in the short and intermediate area to consistently move an offense down the field.  He’s regressed in two ways since 2008.  First, he’s gotten worse at throwing an accurate deep ball.  Second, he’s responding even less well to pressure, to the point where he’s started feeling it even faster.  A general decline in the offensive line is part of what’s produced that, but part of it is definitely on him.  With Young on IR, he’s the best quarterback the Titans have to start the rest of this year, but the Carolina Panthers have a best quarterback too and that doesn’t mean he’s any good either.

7.  I’d love to hear your assessment of Jeff Fisher’s tenure as head coach.  Is it nearing an end?  Should it be?  I don’t think he’s to blame, but is there a time when things just have to change?

TG:  Jeff Fisher’s teams get beat.  That sort of thing happens to pretty much every coach.  Everybody’s crowning the Patriots right now, but it wasn’t that long ago they got worked by the Browns.  What’s unusual is for it to happen twice in a row, and the Titans did not have a good game against either the Texans or the Jaguars the last two weeks.  It’s possible that after 16 years with the team, Jeff Fisher’s message has finally grown stale.  It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that if the team doesn’t respond to him the rest of this year, he won’t be back in 2011.

And if the team doesn’t respond to him the rest of this year, and especially if owner Bud Adams is committed to Vince as his starting quarterback, then Fisher should not be back in 2011.  It’s weird for me to type that, because I firmly believe that the next coach of the Tennessee Titans has about a 90% chance of having less long-term success than Jeff Fisher, about a 75% chance of having less intermediate-term success than Jeff Fisher, and about an X% chance of having less short-term success than Jeff Fisher.  It’s just that when that X drops from maybe 60-70% to maybe 40-50%, it probably makes sense to make a change just to get some fresh perspective.

As to Jeff Fisher’s tenure as a whole, it seems like the sine qua non for success in the NFL is a top 10 quarterback.  Well, for the vast majority of his time as Oilers/Titans head coach, Jeff Fisher has not had a top 10 quarterback.  It was true for a couple of Steve McNair’s seasons-definitely 2002 and 2003, maybe 2001-but the rest of the time not.  Judged by that baseline, Fisher’s run has been remarkably successful.  He hasn’t had great playoff success, there are points where I disagree strongly with his perspective, and I wouldn’t want him as a Bill Parcells-style organizational czar, but he’s won 8+ games 11 times in the previous 15 seasons.

8.  Let’s say we all just start drinking heavily and forget the rest of this season?  I don’t drink, but I’m strongly considering picking up the habit.  You in?

TG: I did a Q&A before the Texans game where I said if Bud Adams sided with Vince Young over Fisher, I’d start drinking heavily.  Since then, the Titans have been shut out by the team with the worst pass defense in DVOA history through 11 weeks and manhandled by a Jaguars team they’d previously manhandled themselves.  I’m totally in.  Don’t worry, though, as one of your teams will likely win Thursday’s game to give us a ray of hope and one of us gets to return to their normal teetotaling ways.

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