NFL 2014: New coach looks to end Titans' playoff drought with success tied to Locker's health
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ken Whisenhunt has been a much needed breath of fresh air for the Tennessee Titans, snapping them out of routines and holding them accountable for mistakes.
Still, how well the Titans fare in his first season as head coach all depends on one man: Jake Locker.
The quarterback has shown glimpses of talent through his first three seasons mixed with frustration over a string of injuries.
The Titans haven't picked up his option for 2015, but they are banking on Locker to end their five-year playoff drought. He has missed 14 of 32 games since being selected the starter.
"I got all the confidence in the world in him, did last year too," left tackle Michael Roos said of Locker. "He's proved himself. He just unfortunately has had some freak injuries. I think it's just a matter of him staying healthy and who knows if that's anything even he can do or we can do. What we have to continue to do is our job protecting him and nobody gets to him that way, and keep letting him grow and develop as a player."
The eighth pick overall in 2011 was off to a strong start last season before the first of two injuries cost him nine games. Without him, the Titans went 3-6 and helped cost Mike Munchak his job. Locker is only 8-10 as a starter.
Whisenhunt brought Locker the quarterback's third offense in the NFL. Locker has not missed a practice and is fully recovered from the Lisfranc injury to his right foot that cost him the final seven games of 2013.
The quarterback credits Whisenhunt's attention to detail as a teacher who has helped him grow, and Locker also is enjoying getting more responsibility at the line of scrimmage.
Not that it matters if Locker can't stay on the field a majority of the season.
This franchise has not reached the playoffs since 2008 and last won a postseason game in January 2004. Cornerback Jason McCourty said the Titans believe they will be a playoff team.
"We know we just got to go ahead, get to those playoffs," McCourty said. "Once we're there, win games to get to where we ultimately want to be, and that's the Super Bowl."
That game will be played in Arizona, site of Whisenhunt's first head coaching job with a team he took to a Super Bowl too.
Here are some things to watch from the Titans:
OFFENSIVE WHIZ: The Titans love the variety and inventiveness Whisenhunt has brought to the offense, and he'll be calling the plays. Free agent signee Dexter McCluster will be used in as many ways possible along with receiver Kendall Wright, both players whose biggest success last year came out of the slot. Whisenhunt keeping Shawn Jefferson as receivers coach made for a seamless transition in that group. The 6-foot-4 Justin Hunter already has proven to be a favorite target near the end zone on fade routes and could blossom in his second season.
"He's just so big and long and has the ability to jump, and he's got a big catch radius," Locker said. "So you're able to put the ball in a lot of different places to give him a chance."
NO MORE CJ: Chris Johnson was cut in April after six seasons, and the Titans are going with a trio to replace him. Shonn Greene has looked healthier than he's been in a year after two arthroscopic surgeries on his right knee, McCluster will be given a chance to run up the middle and rookie Bishop Sankey out of Washington can both run and catch the ball out of the backfield.
DEFENSIVE QUESTIONS: Whisenhunt reunited with Ray Horton as his defense coordinator, and Horton is transitioning the Titans from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 front. Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley now are outside linebackers. Jurrell Casey had 10½ sacks last season, but the Titans must get more pressure on the quarterback. They also must do a better job of stopping the run after ranking 20th last season.
KICKING IT: The Titans cut the NFL's fourth-most accurate kicker in Rob Bironas in March. Neither Maikon Bonani nor Travis Coons have kicked in a regular season game in a competition that has yet to be decided.
TOUGH START: Tennessee opens the season Sept. 7 at Kansas City, the first of three road games against playoff teams last season. The Titans' home opener Sept. 14 against Dallas is followed by trips to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. If they can survive the early travel, they will be at home for three of their final four in a schedule that features the NFC East after slogging through the NFC West in 2013.
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