Amidst controversy, Jaguars kick off 2011 campaign vs. Titans
For the first time since 1994 -- the NFL's 75th anniversary - there will be someone other than Jeff Fisher roaming the sidelines for the Tennessee Titans.
Titans owner Bud Adams opted not to bring back the longtime head coach and promoted offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the position this offseason. Tennessee's new man in charge had an interesting time leading up to Sunday's 2011 season opener versus the AFC South-rival Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field, and is certainly no stranger to the organization.
A former Houston Oilers offensive lineman and a Hall of Fame player, Munchak will finally get his feet wet as a head coach and hopes his first season doesn't turn out like Fisher's debut back in 1994, when the team went 2-14.
Munchak gutted the previous coaching staff after taking over, naming Chris Palmer as offensive coordinator while putting Jerry Gray in charge of the defense. Palmer's job got a lot easier when Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson finally ended his lengthy holdout, though it's fair to question his readiness for Sunday's test after sitting out all of training camp and the preseason. . Johnson received a four-year contract extension worth $53 million -- with $30 million guaranteed -- and said during his subsequent press conference he stayed in shape by working out in his hometown of Orlando. Johnson added he is ready to win a Super Bowl with the Titans and wants to hit the 2,000-yard mark once again, like he did in 2009.
"He's not very bashful when it comes to what he thinks he can accomplish, and that's a good thing, so we're going to have to be careful to make sure we don't over do it, especially early," Munchak said about getting his top weapon back.
Tennessee finished 6-10 last year and missed the playoffs for second straight time, even with Johnson playing all 16 games in each campaign. It has made the postseason only twice since 2004, but will try to reverse the trend with a new face under center in veteran Matt Hasselbeck.
Expected to tutor rookie Jake Locker while also holding down the role as the Titans' starting quarterback, Hasselbeck joined Tennessee this offseason after spending the last 10 years with the Seattle Seahawks. His experience should be a positive for a franchise that's aiming to put the Fisher years in the past and make a move in the AFC South. And no time is better than now with Indianapolis Colts All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning out indefinitely with a neck injury.
The Jaguars are looking to pounce in the division race as well and made a stunning move just before the season commences, releasing veteran quarterback David Garrard on Tuesday.
Garrard, who at one point replaced Byron Leftwich in a similar manner in 2007, was on the losing end of a quarterback race with Luke McCown and rookie Blaine Gabbert. Garrard was drafted by the Jags in 2002 and amassed 16,003 yards passing with 89 touchdowns to 54 interceptions. He was given the opportunity to remain as the starter during the preseason, but a shaky performance ultimately led the team to decide to go a different way.
McCown is expected to start Sunday's versus the Titans.
"He just couldn't get it going," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said of Garrard. "We were hoping for some sign of life, for him to pick it up and get it going. We went to the 11th hour in hopes of having that happen.
"It was obvious it wasn't going to happen, and this was the right decision for us moving forward."
Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis said during a radio interview he was stunned by the decision and the team will have to rally around McCown in moving forward. He also added that Gabbert is not ready yet, but is moving along quickly in grasping the team's offense.
Garrard may have seen the writing on the wall when the Jaguars selected Gabbert 10th overall in this past April's draft. Gabbert had a promising tenure at the University of Missouri, but isn't deemed ready to start the season opener.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio may not be around to see Gabbert progress as a professional, as he may be on a short leash since the team has missed the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons. Since going 11-5 in 2007, Del Rio has averaged just six wins per season.
Jacksonville does have one of the game's best running backs in Maurice Jones- Drew, however. A proven leader both on and off the field. Jones-Drew will be asked to carry the load with his powerful legs once again, especially now that there's uncertainty under center. He is back at full strength after undergoing knee surgery to correct a problem that sidelined him late last season, and has had no problems giving the skeptics a heads-up on what to expect.
"I can still carry the load regardless of what surgery I had or what not," Jones-Drew said. "[The team is] going to be kind of anxious to throw [injured backup] Rashad [Jennings] in, and they're already kind of scared of my knee. I want to be able to be out the gates playing, because it's a production-based business."
If only Jacksonville's defense had that much confidence. The Jaguars are hoping a few additions such as linebackers Clint Session and Paul Posluszny can solidify a unit that was 22nd against the rush and 28th in pass defense in 2010. Safety Dawan Landry joined the Jags as well this offseason and will be playing alongside one of the league's top defensive backs in Rashean Mathis.
Tennessee comes in with an 18-14 lead in its overall regular-season series with Jacksonville, with the two divisional foes having split the home-and-home set in each of the past two years. The road team prevailed in each of last season's matchups, with the Titans posting a 30-3 Monday night rout at EverBank Field in Week 6 and the Jaguars getting revenge via a 17-6 triumph in Nashville in December. Tennessee has left with a victory in three of its last four stops in Jacksonville, with the only Jags' win over that span coming in 2009.
These teams have also met one time before in the playoffs, with Tennessee scoring a 33-14 road victory in the 1999 AFC Championship. Del Rio has compiled a 7-9 record against the Titans in his eight seasons as the Jaguars' head coach.
The Titans and Jaguars will be squaring off in the regular-season opener for the third time in five years.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
No more will Vince Young or Kerry Collins be playing quarterback for the Titans, as the reigns were handed down to Hasselbeck in the offseason. Hasselbeck has passed for 3,000-plus yards in two straight and three of the last four seasons, but recorded just 12 touchdown passes to 17 interceptions with Seattle last year. It will be interesting to see how he runs this offense for Munchak. The new head coach was pleased to get stud running back Johnson (1364 rushing yards, 11 TD) back in the fold, and now that both sides have ironed out their differences, progress can be made on the field. Johnson is arguably the best running back in the game and will come to Hasselbeck's rescue on many occasions. The offensive line may not have such an easy time protecting the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, but opening holes shouldn't be too much of a problem because of how quick Johnson is. Right guard Jake Scott will make his 105th straight start on Sunday, while tackle Michael Roos is expected to make his 97th in a row and center Eugene Amano started 13 games last year until a neck injury ended his season. Fullback Quinn Johnson was acquired from Green Bay and is looking to earn another Super Bowl ring as Johnson's new lead blocker. Wide receiver Kenny Britt (42 receptions, 9 TD) has led the Titans in receiving yards in each of his first pro two seasons, and the team hope he has also put a troubled offseason in the past. Britt and Nate Washington (42 receptions, 6 TD) each tied for the team lead in catches in 2010 and tight end Craig Stevens (11 receptions, 2 TD) takes over as the primary option at that position after former starter Bo Scaife went to Cincinnati in the offseason.
Jaguars defensive end Aaron Kampman (25 tackles) battled injuries last season and will be out to end the recent trend of high-priced pass rushers that never pan out in Jacksonville. He still has this season to redeem himself, but has to play more than eight games and record over four sacks to make that happen. Fellow end Jeremy Mincey (31 tackles) led the defense with five sacks last year and Matt Roth was added in the offseason after posting 86 tackles and four sacks with Cleveland in 2010. Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu (38 tackles, 4 sacks) and Terrance Knighton (34 tackles, 4 sacks) must plug Johnson's running lanes in order to keep the Jaguars in the game, or it could get ugly. Johnson has a quick first step, but so do Jacksonville outside linebackers Daryl Smith (97 tackles, 4 sacks) and Session, who spent the first four years of his career with Indianapolis. He played in only five games due to injuries last season, but registered 38 stops and one sack. Gone is linebacker Kirk Morrison, who ended second on the team with 89 tackles in 2010, as he signed with Buffalo in the offseason. Mathis (58 tackles) had only one interception a year ago, while cornerback Derek Cox (49 tackles) was tops on the team with four picks. Landry is the new free safety after coming over from Baltimore and had a career-best 111 tackles last season, but came up with no picks for the third time in four years.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
As previously mentioned, Lewis (58 receptions yards, 10 TD) and the Jaguars will rally around McCown now that he's been anointed starting quarterback for the time being. Lewis has played a major part in the offense the past few seasons and got into the end zone the most of any Jacksonville player last year. The quarterback position was the most discussed during both the lockout and preseason, but ultimately the Jaguars decided to go in another direction for the 2011 campaign. Though the timing of the move to release Garrard was odd with less than a week to go before the season kicked off, McCown has prepared like a starter and should move into his new gig gracefully. He appeared in one game last season, completing 11-of-19 passes for 120 yards, and will man the ship until Del Rio decides the rookie Gabbert is ready. The team is not ready to roll the dice on the youngster just yet, and hopes McCown can keep things afloat for now. Jones-Drew (1,324 rushing yards, 5 TD) certainly can be relied upon and tied Garrard for the team lead in rushing touchdowns last season. The stocky back carried the ball 299 times before getting hurt, second only to his career-high 312 touches from 2009. How he goes the Jaguars go, and Jones- Drew seems to have a favorable matchup against the Titans' defense led by a new coordinator. Jones-Drew also caught 34 passes for 317 yards last year and is an accomplished receiver. Wideout Mike Thomas (66 receptions, 4 TD) had a breakout year in 2010 and is expecting more success this season. With he and Lewis the only proven receiving threats, the Jags will be counting on Thomas to take another step forward as well.
Gray enters his first season at the defensive coordinator post for the Titans and has a strong group of guys to work with. The front line will miss sack leader Jason Babin, who bolted back to Philadelphia for a lot of cash after recording 13 sacks a year ago for a lot of cash. Tennessee is expecting big season from defensive end Jason Jones (38 tackles, 4 sacks), who led the team with 26 hurries and 12 tackles for a loss last season, and with a rusty McCown now under center for the Jags, he may be able to get started on improving that sack total. Defensive tackle Shaun Smith was signed during the free agency period and played the 2010 campaign with Kansas City, recording 56 tackles and one sack. Much like Jacksonville's defense will be focused on trying to stop Johnson, the Titans' main concern will be about shutting down Jones-Drew. Rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers has ties with the Jaguars' running back, having also attended UCLA, and will start right away on Tennessee's rebuilt defense. A standout for the Bruins over his career, Ayers brings strength and speed to the strongside position. Veteran Will Witherspoon (91 tackles, 3 sacks) will help out from the WILL spot, while middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, a former starter with Tampa Bay signed as an unrestricted free agent, is set to make his Titans debut on Sunday. He led the Bucs in tackles in each of the last four seasons, including 120 last season. Tennessee has quality defensive backs in safeties Michael Griffin (108 tackles, 4 INT) and Chris Hope (101 tackles) and pesky cornerback Cortland Finnegan (100 tackles).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Titans have to be somewhat concerned with Johnson's conditioning, even though he appeared to be in top shape during his press conference to announce the new extension. Running backs generally have a short life span in the NFL, and Tennessee will be counting on him to produce right out of the chute.
Will the Jaguars be able to rally around McCown like Lewis stated? The replacement quarterback hasn't captured many wins at this level following a successful college tenure at Louisiana Tech and hasn't started an NFL game since 2007.
Munchak is trying to start a new era of football for the Tennessee franchise, and his surrounding staff is fresh too. With less time to prepare due to the lockout, it wouldn't surprise if the Titans get off to a slow start.
At least McCown will begin his new role as Jacksonville's starting quarterback at home, and that is one of two advantages going for him. The other will be handing the ball to Jones-Drew 20-plus times a game. Tennessee will surely do the same with Johnson, who's been an MVP candidate each of the last two years, however. Munchak brings a gritty approach to the game, and it will show on Sunday with a big win by the Titans. Hasselbeck will play a part as well for a franchise that has won three of its last four season openers. The Jaguars have lost three of their last four Week 1 outings under Del Rio, and may make it four of out five unless McCown can somehow get the offense in gear.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 27, Jaguars 13