Q/A with Tom Gower of Total Titans

It’s that time again! One of the great side benefits of playing the Titans is another Q/A with Tom Gower of Total Titans and the Football Outsiders. Tom’s last Q/A was honest to God one of the highlights of the whole season for the Colts. I think they are going to put it on the NFL Films video yearbook. Tom’s a great guy, and he’s coming in for the game this week. Here are my questions and his answers.

ND: The Titans have already won 7 games for what would be the 12th time in 15 seasons in Tennessee. That’s a lot of respectable football. Is it fair to describe the franchise as “Upper Middle Class” in the NFL’s social order?

TG: The term “upper middle class” seems to get tossed out a lot by people who are solidly middle class and solidly upperclass but not uber-wealthy, so I’m not sure how much weight it should get. In the sense that the Titans have rarely been among the dregs, but their stays in the upper-class have been some combination of sort of unexpected, not particularly long-lived, and relatively frequent, the appellation probably fits better than my initial reaction to the term would make you think.

ND: Is this season what you expected? The Titans have a positive point differential (like last year). Is this team all that different from last year’s squad, save maybe for injuries at the quarterback position last year?

TG: I was very pessimistic heading into the season, setting my expectations at 5 wins +/-2, so with a couple winnable games left the Titans are poised to exceed my expectations. The defense has been better than I thought it would be and more consistent.

It’s weird, as the pass defense fell apart the second half of last season when the Titans stopped pressuring opposing passers. This year, the Titans’ pass rush has been horrible (they’re 29th in FO’s Adjusted Sack Rate measure), but the secondary has been much more sound in both man and zone coverage. I still think they’re vulnerable against better quarterbacks (the Saints would’ve scored 28 points on four straight possessions this past week, but Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham couldn’t handle catchable balls in the end zone), but they haven’t faced too many of those.


ND: Is Jake Locker going to be ‘the guy’ for this franchise? Is he the starter four years from now? Do you have any gut feeling at all?

TG: Well, if he starts this weekend (it’s uncertain as of when I write this Wednesday evening, but I expect him to), it’ll be his first in the NFL. I expatiated on his play against the Saints at some length and saw a mix of good and bad, which is to be expected from a rookie quarterback. Overall I’m on the pessimistic side because of his college work, but thus far at least he’s not making head-scratching plays like the guy who used to wear #10.

ND: Chris Johnson was barely credible as an NFL caliber running back early in the season. He’s since come on. Who do you blame more for his not being ready to go? If he had been in shape from week one are the Titans on top of the AFC South right now?

TG: Obviously, Chris Johnson is now playing better because I wrote a post declaring I was pretty much done with him. The Titans weren’t reporting an injury. He hasn’t admitted to having an injury. I didn’t see an injury. Was he out of shape at the start of the year? He probably wasn’t in great shape, but LenDale White was in lousy shape and it didn’t prevent him from running with his head down, not locating holes, not trying to cut, and going down easily when confronted a defender (well, forget that last, but for different reasons). I think CJ’s problems earlier in the year were mental. He was great against the Bucs and Bills and kind of mediocre, but not as bad as he’d been early in the year, against the Saints. I think right now he’s a week-to-week player, which is better but still frustrating.

Even if Johnson had replicated his 2010 season, which is more or less where I think he is right now, I still see the Texans atop the AFC South. I have a lot of respect for that team, and particularly for the magnitude of the defensive turnaround.

ND: There were rumors were that Hasselbeck was approached by the Colts but elected to sign in Tennessee. You’ve seen him all season. Given how atrocious the Indy QBs have been this season, what is the Colts record right now if he had chosen Indianapolis.

TG: The conspiracist side of me I rarely listen to says that if they couldn’t win the division, the Colts wanted to get the #1 pick, and Hasselbeck doesn’t play defense, so they’d have put him on injured reserve early in the season with a convenient injury like they did with Kerry Collins.

Taking off my tinfoil hat, though, Hasselbeck’s success has come as one short and intermediate passes thrown largely in rhythm off three- and five-step drops. He’s savvy enough to thrown the ball away (like Collins), and is more accurate on those passes, but he’s not real mobile and doesn’t have the arm to threaten defenses. He’d have better targets in Indy than he does in Tennessee, but a worse offensive line. To be honest, I haven’t seen the Colts play much lately, so I’m not sure exactly how much Painter/Orlovsky have set them back. Maybe 4-8, maybe 6-6. Take where you think they’d be with Peyton, and shave a couple games off that.

ND: I know the Titans are still fighting for the playoffs, but Indy fans are all intently focused on 2012. One year from now the Titans are…? Do you have a sense about what direction the franchise is headed?

TG: Offensively, I feel like there are some major question marks. I expect Locker to be all but handed the starting job, but am not sure how he’ll play over a sustained period of time. Wideout Kenny Britt should be back from his ACL injury, but he missed time last year, too, so who knows if he’ll be able to stay healthy, and he has off-the-field question marks as well. While I don’t expect them to, they could cut Chris Johnson and find a new starting running back who gets paid less than $11 million a year. They better also look for at least one new starter on the offensive line, as Jake Scott is in the last year of the deal he signed after leaving the Colts and is not really living up to his current salary.

Defensively, they need to find a pass rusher somewhere, and it probably won’t be somebody on the roster. They also need to decide how they’re going to handle the secondary. Their top three safeties aren’t under contract for next year, with Michael Griffin the big name, and corner Cortland Finnegan is also set to be a free agent and I’m pretty sure he wants a lot more money than they want to pay him.

Honestly, right now you could tell me they go anywhere from 5-11 to 11-5 in 2012 and I’d say, “Yeah, I could see that happening.”

My thanks to Tom! Great as always.

Q/A with Tom Gower of Total Titans

Every year, my absolute favorite Q/A is with Tom Gower of the Total Titans and Football Outsiders. Tom’s work is insightful and often hilarious. He was kind enough to answer these questions. My answers to him will be up on Total Titans later.

Do yourself a favor and read this whole thing. It’s outstanding.

Compare and contrast the Kerry Collins era to the Matt Hasselbeck era?

Kerry Collins kind of had a couple different eras in his time in Tennessee. At first, it was “why on earth did you bring this guy in less than two weeks before the first regular season game and insist on starting him,” which got him benched after three games and Vince Young inserted into the lineup on a full-time basis, a decision I was fully on board with. As a backup in 2007 and then as a starter in 2008, Collins had transitioned into the cagey veteran role. He wasn’t a great quarterback, but could read the occasional defense, complete passes against teams concentrating on playing the run, and was more than willing to harmlessly throw the ball away rather than take a sack. Kerry Collins the last two years of his Titans tenure transitioned from “cagey veteran” to “veteran whose shelf life is pretty close to up.” He spent too much time throwing the ball away, bailing out of plays, and made more bad decisions with the ball than he had previously, part of which was the arm started to fail him, part of which was he just didn’t seem to be seeing things he used to be able to see.

Six games in, I’m not sure how much of a “Matt Hasselbeck era” there is, but he is different. For the first time in a number of years, the Titans have a quarterback who’s good at throwing short and intermediate timing routes with great accuracy. He’s also proven pretty proficient in his own right at avoiding the sack, primarily by doing a good job of throwing in rhythm on 3- and 5-step drop throws.

It’s only partially related to the quarterback, but new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has implemented a system of wide receiver running option routes where they’re required to read the coverage instead of many more plays where they’re running patterns, as was the norm under Mike Heimerdinger (RIP). Hasselbeck has done what seems like a good job of executing the new system.

Last Sunday all but marked the end of the Colts and Titans exclusive hold on the AFC South. Care to reflect on an era gone by? How long do you foresee the Texans holding the crown?

I wrote the Texans chapter for Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, and one of the questions I had to confront in writing the chapter was how to handle the Texans’ seemingly inevitable rise to the top of the AFC South and when that would begin. Our official predictions when we all thought Peyton Manning was going to be playing had the Colts on top, and I was fully on board with that. The Texans were the clear second-best team in the division, and without a fully-healthy Peyton Manning were clearly the best team. Depending on Peyton Manning’s status in 2012 (ie if he plays the entire season at the same level he was in 2010, this won’t necessarily happen), I’d expect the Texans to win at least three of the next four AFC South Titles.

I don’t really think of it as the Titans and the Colts, it’s really the Jeff Fisher Era and the Peyton Manning Era, and they happened to overlap in the same division by quirks of fate. Obviously, they did have something to do with each other; Fisher reportedly hired Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator back in the day because he had a plan to slow down Peyton, which would obviously be an important task for the Titans going forward. I think the Titans also demanded a different element from the Colts, a toughness that they didn’t always have. I think both teams probably made the other better.

The loss to Houston was something of a reality check for Titans fans, I guess. Which was the mirage: the start or the blowout last week?

My preseason prediction was 5-11, give or take two wins. I was ready to start re-evaluating my preseason prediction, thanks to strong pass defense in in particular. The only game where it’s been actually good, though, was against the Ravens, and I think that’s more a reflection of Joe Flacco’s limitations as a quarterback than especially good play. I’m actually very curious to see how they do against Curtis Painter, and think it should be a good test of his skills. The last couple weeks have shown opposing quarterbacks can find and hit passes against the secondary, especially zone seams. Can Painter do that?

After years of playing Peyton Manning, what is it like as a Titans supporter to now see Curtis Painter under center? Is it a relief? Is it in any way sad? At all?

Maybe a couple exceptionally diehard Volunteers fans are sad to see Peyton injured, but most Titans fans see “opposing team’s best quarterback not in game, that’s a better chance for us to win,” and some of them add “he’s just a choker anyway.” Personally, I miss him being out because he was maybe my favorite player to watch in the entire league.

What do you think of the Titans’ handling of Locker? Do you favor playing the rookie QBs right away? If you could redraft the draft, do you think the Titans would still take Locker?

Matt Hasselbeck has been playing very well thus far this year, and has probably been the Titans’ most valuable player. This isn’t 2006 where the overall level of team performance wasn’t likely to decline much from playing the rookie.

My general point of view is that Jake Locker should be inserted into the starting lineup when he’s ready and has a chance to excel. Right now, I highly doubt that’s true. One of the reasons I think that is Nate Washington seems to be the only Titans’ receiver who does a very good job of making the right reads and being in the right place at the right time. Wideouts Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins and tight end Jared Cook just don’t do that. Locker needs to be able to make the right reads and not get discouraged when his teammates are on the wrong page.

Personally, I loved Jake Locker as a college player and found him wildly entertaining to watch, but didn’t think he really had an business being the eighth overall pick in the first round.  Had they drafted him in the second round, I would have been wildly enthusiastic, but he was not nearly accurate enough of a passer in college to be worth a high pick in the NFL draft. Obviously, the Titans disagreed, and I doubt they’ve seen anything since late April that would change their minds.

Many Colts fans drool over the thought of Jeff Fisher coaching in Indianapolis. Why are they are they right? Why are they wrong?

Well, if you want to hire Jeff Fisher, make sure that Jeff Fisher wants to coach again. He seemed burned out and utterly exhausted by the end of 2010. Maybe a year off has recharged his batteries and he wants to take over, but if he doesn’t actively want the job, don’t hire him just because he’s a big name.

Jeff Fisher has a very complicated reputation among Titans fans. Keep in mind he didn’t make the playoffs the first four years he was a head coach, and he didn’t win a playoff game in his final seven seasons as head coach (0-2). Only once, when the Titans made the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, did his team win more than one game in the playoffs, and twice they lost at home in the first round. In some ways, he’s like an alternative version of Marty Schottenheimer who spent his career in the same city instead of moving around from team to team.

Keep in mind that Fisher really did not get the benefit of a lot of above-average quarterback play in his career. Steve McNair, as rightfully beloved as he is among Titans fans, only had three really good seasons (2001-03), and Fisher had to find a way to win without that. As a USC Trojan of the late 1970s, era of Student Body Right, the solution was the running game, the running game, and the running game. Except for a couple years when the defense was exceptionally bad, the Titans every year ranked among the teams with the highest-percentage of rushing plays. Even when Eddie George’s turf toe had essentially crippled him as an NFL back, Fisher insisted on giving the ball to him over and over and over again and relied on McNair to bail the team out on third and long (that 2001-03 period). That’s… not exactly how the Colts have been successful in the Peyton Manning era.

With Fisher’s faith in the running game came a concomitant faith in his defense and in the ability to play field position. Those are also things I think of as not particularly consonant with how the Colts have been successful in the Peyton Manning era.

Fisher has a reputation for unconventionality and aggressiveness.  Well, he did run a fake punt every or almost every preseason. His aggressiveness came out on occasions, but they tended to be relatively few and far between. You probably remember the 2004 game in Indianapolis when he onside kicked I think three times in the first quarter. He occasionally busted out the Emory-and-Henry formation for punts, though that kind of disappeared. He was toward the more aggressive end in going for it on fourth and reasonable inside the 40, though I think the league has somewhat caught up to him in that regard. It’s tough for me to see him making Belichick’s 4th-and-2 call.

He drew some criticism in late years for running a very (some would say notoriously) soft training camp, sort of like the anti-Mangini. He gave plays time off to do things like take naps in the middle of the day instead of having meetings. I think he may have relaxed a little too much at the end of his tenure (or his message may have just gotten stale, see above re getting tired), but his teams tended to be tough, physical, and unpleasant for opposing teams to play against. After some injury-plagued years with a veteran team, such as 2004, the Titans the second half of the 2000’s annually ranked as one of the healthiest teams in the league. Some of the credit for that probably goes to the Titans’ medical and training staff, but I think some credit definitely belongs to Fisher. Given the problems the Colts have had with injuries, I think that would be an under-looked benefit of Fisher. (I suspect the Colts’ high injury rates are related to their player acquisition strategies, and Fisher would only have a limited influence here, but that’s only my suspicion and a much broader topic than this Q&A).

If Fisher does end up as the Colts’ head coach, let me write a guest post and I’ll expatiate at length on him.

So, um, what do you really plan on watching this Sunday in the second half? I’m like a month behind on Clone Wars episodes myself.

Hey, I watched all of the Week 17 who-cares-fest from 2008 when the Colts tried a very little bit and the Titans tried not at all. I’ll definitely be watching all of Sunday’s game, though if it’s not close or competitive as time winds down it may be on my laptop with the TV tuned to a different game.

And if I did stop watching, it wouldn’t be for Clone Wars. As econblogger Tyler Cowen said, the movie defies every rational choice theory known to man. I also watched the first couple episodes of the cartoon series, and found it to be sort of like the Return of the Jedi for the younger generation-better suited for those age 8 and under. No movie, though, will ever be better than Jedi was for me c. 1983.

Amen to that. Thanks Tom!