Know Thy Enemy: Interview with a Titans Blogger

Will Matt Hasselbeck help the Titans be 2011 contenders? (Grant Halverson | Getty Images)

In preparation for the upcoming NFL season, Coltzilla’s Greg Cowan sat down with bloggers that cover each of the Colts’ AFC South rivals. Next up in the series is an interview with Totally Titans writer and FootballOutsiders.com contributor Tom Gower.

In an effort to get to know the 2011 Tennessee Titans better we spoke about former head coach Jeff Fisher and their new head coach, Mike Munchak. We also talked about the Titans’ quarterback situation, discussed the enigmatic cases of wide receiver Kenny Britt and running back Chris Johnson, and analyzed the Titans’ defense.
And just for the fun of it, there’s also a question dedicated to Colts starting quarterback… Kerry Collins.  Digest that for a bit.

Greg Cowan:  Jeff Fisher had been the coach of the Oilers/Titans franchise since 1994, and was the only coach the fans in Tennessee knew.  What is it like covering the team for its first preseason without Fisher?  Did you agree with the decision to fire him?  Do you think Mike Munchak will be successful in his first head coaching job?

Tom Gower: It’s been very weird writing about the Titans without Jeff Fisher around.  With the continuity, it felt like I got to know and understand in large part just how the Titans would operate, but Munchak’s more of a blank slate.

With respect to the decision to fire him, I think the best thing I can say is that it wasn’t clearly the wrong move.  While they played the Colts tough, there were too many flat performances the second half of 2010.  People who talk to people in the locker room (i.e., not me) indicated that Fisher’s message wasn’t getting through the way it had been in the past, and he seemed to be worn out at the end of the year.  It was time.

I think Mike Munchak has a chance to be every bit as successful as the last offensive line coach who was hired without any higher level coaching experience.  Considering that Mike Tice, that’s not a very high bar, though I’m not absolutely positive he’ll clear it.  In his press conference after this year’s first training camp practice, he talked about how he’d never really watched a 7-on-7 drill before.  He has no experience managing more than 10-12 people.  Fisher, while often conservative, tended to be very good in game situations and knew the rulebook extraordinarily well.  Munchak’s deficiencies in both areas will probably cost the Titans a win this year.  I’m foreseeing a very steep learning curve.

GC:  Chris Johnson’s holdout was the major story for all of training camp and most of the preseason.  With the contract now done, what are your feelings on the deal?  Did the Titans pay too much, or is it a deal both sides can feel good about?  In most of these contract situations, the fans seem to take management’s “side”.  Do you feel that Chris Johnson’s relationship with fans was hurtthrough this process, and if so, will the fans forget about it the moment he steps on the field in week 1?

TG: Chris Johnson played all 16 games last year, including the final 9 games where the Titans went 1-8.  Running backs are not really the key to victory and defeat in the NFL.

That said, Johnson with his abilities had the ability to force teams to adjust to his skills.  With more versatile quarterbacking, the Titans should be able to take better advantage of Johnson’s skills.  In that way, he’s not quite a normal running back and I’m not too unhappy they paid him a premium for the position.  That said, I still think Kenny Britt and Matt Hasselbeck are the Titans’ two most important offensive players.

I’m far from the first person to comment on this, and it’s something coaches have recognized for a long time (think Vince Lombardi paying black barbers to come up to Green Bay or Bill Walsh hiring Harry Edwards as a consultant), but CJ just reinforced the idea that he’s culturally different from most fans of the Titans or any other NFL team.  The first long touchdown run on Sunday should solve about all of his problems, though he’ll still be different.

GC: The Titans drafted Jake Locker 8th overall in the 2011 draft, but then signed former Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck to a 3-year $20 million contract.  First, how has Locker looked in camp and the preseason?  Do you expect Locker to start any games this year, assuming Hasselbeck stays healthy for all 16+ games?  Do you think Hasselbeck and Locker’s off-the-field relationship played a part in the Titans signing Hasselbeck?  Finally, do you expect Hasselbeck to remain with the Titans for all 3 years of his contract?

TG: Obviously preseason is preseason, but the early signs on Locker’s play are fairly encouraging.  The biggest obvious question I had on him was his accuracy.  He hasn’t impressed me with it the way a guy like Sam Bradford did, but nor has it been horrible.

I expect Hasselbeck to start every game he’s healthy.  I could easily see Locker getting a few starts at the end of the year once the Titans are eliminated from the playoffs, like the Broncos did with Tim Tebow last year.  That said, if the team starts 0-5 and looks as horrible as they did in 2009, then Locker could start as soon as Week 7 after the bye.

Aside from being Seattleites, Locker and Hasselbeck didn’t have much of a relationship before the draft.  I just think they liked Locker in the draft and considered Hasselbeck a good option in free agency given what they were looking for.

The view I have of Hasselbeck’s tenure is he’ll be starting this year until it makes sense to start Locker and he’s likely to be the backup next year as Locker is installed as the starter.  I expected his deal to be a two-year one.  The third year is probably partly for bonus proration, and also to force a decision.  If he’s there for the third year without renegotiating his contract, Locker is already a bust.

GC:  2009 1st round pick Kenny Britt seems to have all the talent in the world- is big, strong, and fast-and seems to be a big play machine.  But for all of his greatness on the field, he seems to be equally inept off of it, having been arrested multiple times in the past 6 months alone.  Do you see Britt emerging as a legitimate number 1 wide receiver this year?  And is he in danger of being cut by an organization that appears to be distancing itself from such behavior?

TG: First thing’s first: Kenny Britt is not getting cut.  He’s an idiot off the field and spends time with some people who are apparently not good influences, but a good player getting cut normally requires being a jerk on the practice field, in the locker room, and even during games.  Pacman was getting to that level, Britt doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to it.  The more important off-the-field issue is his conditioning and preparation.

That ties into the biggest question about Britt, his hamstring.  It cost him a few games last year, and offensively the Titans really missed him.  He’s big, physical, fast, and can do things after the catch.  Literally the first or second pass he caught in his game back against the Colts last year (the Thursday night game) was the best YAC move a Titans receiver had had since Britt before he got hurt.  His hamstring has limited him again this preseason, as the final game was the only one he played him, and the Titans have already said they expect him to be limited Week 1 against the Jaguars.  With him in the lineup, the Titans have an acceptable receiving corps.  Without him, they’re in trouble.

GC:  Vince Young was released by the Titans this off-season.  Why didn’t he work out in Tennessee?  How was he viewed by Titans fans towards the end of his time in Nashville?

TG:  Ah, Vince Young… making a long story short, he didn’t work out in Tennessee because he wasn’t good enough on the field and because he thought he was better or at least more important than he was.

I think most Titans fans by the end were tired of the whole Vince Young Experience and were happy to move on.  There were and still are, of course, a few Texas fans who supported him and some other fans who didn’t see his flaws.

GC:   A quick question about a former Titan player, if you don’t mind:  What can Colts fans expect to see from Kerry Collins.  We know that he’s getting up there in age (he will turn 39 in December), but if he’s asked to start a game in place of Manning, can he be effective?  Should we fear for his safety behind an offensive line that features Ryan Diem?

TG:  Continuing with the previous question, most Titans fans were also happy to see Kerry Collins leave town, though I’m not sure the antipathy was as personal as it was with Young.  Think what Colts fans thought of Aaron Francisco.

Collins by this point is an old quarterback.  He has trouble throwing down the field effectively, which was VY’s best attribute.  I don’t think he’s ever been, and is not now, precisely accurate on short and intermediate passes.  I’m not sure if the Titans philosophically just didn’t want him to, but he didn’t make many playcall changes at the line of scrimmage.  His first response to feeling pressure (which isn’t always real) is to throw the ball away; he won’t really stand up in the rush.  He doesn’t move in the pocket effectively.

So, if you’re asking if he can do the things Peyton Manning did that made the Colts’ offense so successful, no, he can’t.  He’s an experienced veteran who won’t get rattled, can have occasional success throwing the ball in the intermediate range, can run an offense, doesn’t throw too many interceptions, and won’t be too mad sitting on the bench.  It’s not his fault Ryan Diem wasn’t replaced two or three years ago.

GC:  The Tennessee Titans’ defense, which was probably better than most people thought last year, finishing top-10 in DVOA, and top-15 in conventional scoring, lost DE Jason Babin, DT Tony Brown, and LBs David Thornton (ex Colt, retired), and Stephen Tulloch.  How do you expect the Titans’ defense to perform this year?  And specifically, is their defensive line going to be able to get pressure on the quarterback?

TG: Last season was a tale of two halves for the Titans’ defense.  The first 7 games, the defense was actually pretty good, keyed by an outstanding pass rush.  The second half of the season, the pass rush dropped off and the secondary got shredded.  Babin was a great find and an excellent scheme fit, but the Titans were right not to re-sign him.  Tony Brown’s knees are apparently shot; his inability to play and be effective when he was in the lineup was a reason the defense dropped off.  David Thornton missed all of 2010, so they won’t really miss what he provided lately.

I don’t know how they’re going to pressure the quarterback.  The apparent answer from the preseason has been to bring extra players, sometimes 5 but more often 6 or 7.  That’ll put a lot of pressure on a secondary that struggled to cover last year without a strong pass rush.  The new coaching staff apparently decided the Titans’ biggest problem last year was other teams converted 3rd-and-1 too easily (true, as far as it went), and decided the defensive line had to get bigger and stronger, which meant it mostly also got slower and less quick.  Considering they were 3rd in DVOA last year, and the run defense didn’t fall off nearly as badly as the pass defense, I’m very, very skeptical the Titans will have an effective defense this year.

GC:  Name a player (on either side of the ball) that most of the country has probably never heard of, but you expect to make a big contribution to the Titans.

TG:  Hmm, who’s somebody people haven’t heard of?

Jason Jones has showed up on a lot of these lists.  He’s a quick defensive tackle who’ll be playing more defensive end this year.  He basically got Leonard Davis benched last year in the Titans’ game against the Cowboys by beating him off the snap over and over, but has trouble staying healthy.  I’m not sure he’ll be a great outside speed rusher, but the Titans will be looking at him for big contributions.  The other defensive end is second-year player Derrick Morgan, who was a first round pick last year, and will be another guy the Titans are looking at for big contributions.

GC:  What are your expectations for the Titans this year?  Will the Hasselbeck signing make them good enough to compete for a playoff spot, or do you think the team should have started Locker from day 1 and allowed the team to grow up together?

TG:  This year should be all about Jake Locker’s development, and what’s best for him.  I’m very skeptical with his need to improve as a quarterback and the truncated offseason that starting him Week 1 would have been a productive exercise, and I think the David Carr Experience shows you can permanently ruin potentially decent quarterbacks by starting him too early.  Let him be the backup this year, give him some action late in the year, and make him the starter in 2011.

As to how the team will do, I expect them to not be very good and finish last in the AFC South.  I’m expecting about 5 wins +- 2.

GC:  Peyton Manning still has a group of fans in Nashville from his days at UT, how have fans reacted to the news of his neck injury:  are they excited by the prospect of the Colts struggling, or upset to hear about a former hero fighting through injury?

TG:  I’m in the Chicago area, so I can’t comment firsthand on the mood in Nashville.  I think the UT fans are hoping he’ll be healthy, and the Titans fans are happy.

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I would like to thank Tom for taking them time to answer my questions.  If you are interested in learning more about the Titans or reading Tom’s excellent work, please visit Total Titans and FootballOutsiders’ Scramble for the Ball.  We will try to check back in with Tom as the season progresses, and have tentatively scheduled him for a visit on Check it to Pancakes the week of the Titans games!

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