Published November 20, 2014
Forget everything you know about the Tennessee Titans.
Forget the new coach (Mike Munchak), the new quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) and the new call to order to purchase 2011 season tickets on the team's website ("Be There When the New Legacy Begins").
Because unless one particular order of business is handled successfully prior to the outset of the 2011 regular season, none of those other things are going to matter quite so much.
As the abbreviated offseason turned into the final week of the preseason, the Titans still had not made nice with their most important and prolific offensive weapon -- running back Chris Johnson.
The fourth-year pro, he of the catchy nickname (CJ2K) and eye-popping stats (4,598 rushing yards in three seasons, including 2,006 in 2009), is still a less-than-happy camper as the first game draws nearer, continuing a holdout that saw him miss each and every snap of the Titans' summertime training camp and its first three preseason games.
Johnson and agent Joel Segal met with general manager Mike Reinfeldt and Vin Marino, the team's vice president of football operations, on Aug. 24, but did not emerge from the get-together with a signed contract, a handshake deal, or anything else amounting to tangible financial progress.
"Basically my plan is to continue to handle my part and let Joel handle his part," said Johnson, who's scheduled to be paid $800,000 this season despite leading the NFL in rushing yards over the past three seasons and making the Pro Bowl each time. "All I can do is continue to work out and stay in shape. All I can do right now is keep working out and keep waiting."
Johnson wants to scrap the final two years of his existing deal to become one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. Reinfeldt has said publicly that he was willing to alter the contract to make Johnson the highest-paid running back in league history.
"I'm not sure there was any progress made, but I do think it was beneficial to meet," Reinfeldt said. "We were able to discuss several different elements of a potential contract, but there was no agreement on those topics."
Meanwhile, new coach Munchak is left to hope the dispute gets settled before the real schedule begins Sept. 11 in Jacksonville, while he prepares as if it might not be.
In fact, post-game discussion after Tennessee's Week 3 preseason win over Chicago drifted to what exactly the Titans plan to do if the Johnson mess becomes more prolonged -- including adding personnel to augment Javon Ringer and 2011 fourth-round draft choice Jamie Harper -- the next two placeholders on the depth chart.
Ringer, who's missed part of the preseason due to injury, was a fifth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2009 and has totaled 287 yards on 59 rushing attempts in 22 NFL games. Harper is a 5-foot-11, 233-pounder who had a team- best 760 rushing yards on 197 carries with seven touchdowns in his junior season at Clemson.
"I think it will come down to the running backs we have," Munchak said. "What shape is Ringer in? That will be a factor in this whole thing. Jamie, we have confidence in -- more confidence than we thought we would have at this point, than we would normally have in a rookie.
"But like I said before, if we have two guys, and if Chris is not with us for whatever reason, then yes, we are going to have to obviously do something there."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Tennessee Titans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 6-10 (tied 3rd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Mike Munchak (first season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Chris Palmer (first season with Titans)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jerry Gray (first season with Titans)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Chris Johnson, RB (1364 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 12 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Michael Griffin, FS (108 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 27th overall (17th rushing, 25th passing), tied 16th scoring (22.3 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 26th overall (20th rushing, 29th passing), 15th scoring (21.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Matt Hasselbeck (from Seahawks), DT Shaun Smith (from Chiefs), OLB Akeem Ayers (2nd Round, UCLA), MLB Barrett Ruud (from Buccaneers), QB Jake Locker (1st Round, Washington), RB Jamie Harper (4th Round, Clemson), TE Daniel Graham (from Broncos), OG Pat McQuistan (from Dolphins), CB Frank Walker (from Vikings), S Jordan Babineaux (from Seahawks), S Anthony Smith (from Packers)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Vince Young (to Eagles), TE Bo Scaife (to Bengals), DE Jason Babin (to Eagles), DT Tony Brown (released), MLB Stephen Tulloch (to Lions), QB Kerry Collins (to Colts), WR Randy Moss (retired), DT Jovan Haye (released), DT Marques Douglas (not tendered), OLB David Thornton (retired), OLB Jamie Winborn (not tendered), MLB Colin Allred (not tendered), S Donnie Nickey (not tendered), S Nick Schommer (released)
QB: It was out with the old, in with the new time for the Titans under center in the offseason, when they bid farewell to former starters Kerry Collins, who retired then unretired to fill in for the injured Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, and Vince Young, who was released and subsequently signed as a "Dream Team" backup to Michael Vick in Philadelphia. Left in their absence are offseason signee Hasselbeck, who comes in off of a playoff appearance in Seattle and 3,001 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions over 14 regular-season games in 2010. A three-time Pro Bowler, he left the Pacific Northwest as that franchise's all-time leader in pass attempts, passing yards and postseason games. Hasselbeck will be the bridge to rookie hotshot Jake Locker, who was selected eighth overall in April's draft after completing 184- of-332 passes for 2,265 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at the University of Washington. Second-year No. 3 man Rusty Smith remains to provide emergency depth.
RB: As mentioned previously, there's a bit of a chasm between Johnson and the next-best ball-toting candidate on the Tennessee roster. The holdout finished fourth in the NFL with 1,364 rushing yards in 2010 and went for 100 or more yards in eight games, tied with Houston���s Arian Foster for tops in the league. He reached 4,000 career rushing yards in his 40th career game, making him just the seventh player in NFL history to accomplish that feat. Johnson's 2,006 yards in 2009 also made him just the sixth in league history to reach that mark, joining such legendary names as Eric Dickerson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and O.J. Simpson, and was the first among that group to amass 500 receiving yards in the same season. Ringer is a 5-9, 207-pound speedster who had eight carries in his rookie season and 51 last year, in which he averaged 4.9 yards per run with two touchdowns. At fullback, sixth-year Texas product Ahmard Hall has started 33 games in five seasons, but has carried just 11 times while catching 64 passes for 515 yards and two scores.
WR/TE: Randy Moss retired after a forgettable stint with the Titans in 2010, leaving seventh-year man Nate Washington (42 receptions, 6 TD) and third-year standout Kenny Britt as the top two aerial targets for Hasselbeck. Washington has spent two seasons with Tennessee and caught 89 passes with 12 touchdowns since coming over from Pittsburgh, where he spent four seasons, caught 104 passes and played in two Super Bowls. Britt, a first-round pick in 2009, emerged as a big-play threat in 2010 after scoring nine touchdowns and catching 42 balls for an average of 18.5 per reception. He had at least one touchdown catch in five straight games between September and October, highlighted by a 225-yard, three-touchdown outburst against Philadelphia. Burly Craig Stevens took over as full-time TE in 2010 and started 13 games while contributing 11 catches and two touchdowns. Other receiving personnel includes wideouts Justin Gage (20 catches, 1 TD), Damian Williams (16 catches) and tight ends Jared Cook (29 catches) and Daniel Graham (18 catches with Broncos).
OL: Two bookends, left tackle Michael Roos and right-side starter David Stewart, are back from a unit that's helped spring Johnson to the bulk of his yards for the past few seasons. Roos enters his seventh season and has twice been named an All-Pro (2007, 2008), while Stewart -- nicknamed "Big Country," is also a seventh-year man who's regarded as one of the league's better run blockers. Combined, they helped the Titans allow just 27 sacks in 2010, sixth- fewest in the NFL. Center Eugene Amano started 13 games in his seventh NFL season in 2010 and is flanked by fifth-year left guard Leroy Harris and eight- year veteran Jake Scott, who started 16 games at right guard in 2010. Scott is a battle for his job with Ryan Durand, a second-year pro who played sparingly as a rookie but whom the team is high on.
DL: Under new coaching personnel, the front line of the Titans' 4-3 alignment is in some flux. Among the returnees, however, is fourth-year end/tackle Jason Jones, who's tied for ninth in the league among interior players with 12 1/2 sacks since arriving in 2008. He had 3/12 sacks and a team-best 34 quarterback pressures along with a career-high 38 tackles in 2010. The versatile lineman posted 3 1/2 sacks during a rookie-year game against Pittsburgh in 2008. At the other end position, talented youngster Derrick Morgan is back after the 2010 first-round draft choice's rookie season was scrapped due a knee injury in his fourth game. Prior to getting hurt, he racked up five tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Morgan will share time with fourth-year man William Hayes (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Sen'Derrick Marks (22 tackles, 1 INT) and free-agent addition Shaun Smith (56 tackles, 1 sack with Chiefs) are penciled in for starting slots at the tackle positions, with a collection of players also in the mix for time, including rookie tackles Jurrell Casey (3rd Round, USC) and Karl Klug (5th Round, Iowa) and end Dave Ball (30 tackles, 7 sacks).
LB: Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (118 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) is a new Titan after six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, including four straight with 100 or more tackles and at least one interception. The former second-round draft pick has 779 tackles, five sacks, six interceptions, 23 passes defensed and six forced fumbles in 95 career games. Rookie Akeem Ayers was selected in the second round of April's draft and is expected to have an immediate impact as a starter as an outside slot. The early entry compiled 68 tackles, four sacks, 10 tackles for loss and two interceptions as a junior at UCLA along with scoring three times in his college career, twice on interception returns and once on a fumble. Vying for time on the other side are 10th-year veteran Will Witherspoon (91 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and third-year man Gerald McRath (57 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Witherspoon has missed just two games in nine seasons with Carolina, St. Louis, Philadelphia and the Titans.
DB: Safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope are present or past Pro Bowlers, with Griffin a 2010 participant and Hope last selected in 2008. The Titans' first-round selection in 2007, Griffin had a career-high 108 tackles along with four interceptions last year and has never missed a game in four seasons, in which he's racked up 15 picks. Hope, entering his 10th season in the league, was credited with 100 tackles in 2010 while starting all 16 games for the third straight season. Still, the Titans had just the 29th-best pass defense in the league. At one cornerback slot is hard-hitting sixth-year pro Cortland Finnegan, who had two interceptions, nine passes defensed, a sack and 100 tackles last season. He'll be joined on the other side by either third-year man Jason McCourty (44 tackles, 2 INT) or Alterraun Verner, who'll arrive for his second season after amassing three interceptions and 94 tackles as a rookie. Also on hand are veteran safeties Vincent Fuller (30 tackles, 1 INT) and Jordan Babineaux (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT with Seahawks), along with experienced corner Frank Walker (22 tackles, 1 INT with Vikings)
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Rob Bironas was again rock-solid in his sixth season with Tennessee, making 24-of-26 field-goal attempts (92.3 percent) with a long of 55 yards and all 38 extra-point tries in 2010. Punter Brett Kern (42.9 avg.) marked his first full season with the Titans with a solid 39.1-yard average on 77 punts last year, with 24 landing inside the 20-yard line. The return game begins and ends with second-year specialist Marc Mariani, a seventh-round pick last season who was named to the Pro Bowl as a specialist after finishing fourth in the NFL with a 12.2-yard punt return average and fourth in the AFC with 25.5-yard average on kickoffs. He's backed in both roles by Williams.
PROGNOSIS: Though it's been a liability in the past, the fact that the Titans call the AFC South home might be a valuable tonic this season. Perennial powerhouse Indianapolis is a question mark with the health of Peyton Manning, Houston is an unproven commodity with no track record of big wins in late- season spots, while Jacksonville seems a middling threat at best. That makes Tennessee a potential surprise team, provided the lingering issues with Johnson get settled quickly. The Titans open at the Jaguars then host Baltimore before meeting Denver and Cleveland in Weeks 3 and 4. A trip to Pittsburgh and three straight home games with Indianapolis, Houston and Cincinnati in the season's second quarter will be vital to late-season positioning. A foursome of Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Buffalo then sets things up for a tough final month where Tennessee will face New Orleans, the Colts, the Jaguars and the Texans. Put it all together and the Titans could be among the conference's sleeper teams. The schedule looks favorable for a possible positive record by that September stretch, and there's a chance for as many as 10 wins by New Year's Day if everything falls into place.