Titans switched coaches, did not swap out as much of roster as others

Often, NFL coaching changes are more a reflection of the caliber of the team than the performance of the man who is fired.

Teams make a change at the top as the first step in what they hope will be a total transformation of the organization.

That is not the case with the Tennessee Titans. Many of the same players who went 7-9 last season under Mike Munchak reported Friday and were set to take the field Saturday under new coach Ken Whisenhunt.

The Titans were one of seven NFL teams that changed coaches after last season. Many of them also changed their rosters significantly. Barring injury, as many as four of the seven could have a new starting quarterback in Week 1. Minnesota and Cleveland each had two first-round draft picks.

Tennessee, though, did not feel compelled to perform a major roster overhaul, and its first-round selection, tackle Taylor Lewan, might spend his entire rookie season as a backup. The roster includes seven players added through free agency and six more from the draft. The 13 notable newcomers are fewest among the franchises with new coaches.

“There’s no reason to say we’re this or that right now,” Whisenhunt said. “We haven’t even had a padded practice. I like the players that we have on this team.

“The only thing I can speak to that on is when we came here in the third game of last season when I was with San Diego and played this team I thought it was a pretty good football team. That impression has not changed from my vantage point.”

SEASON OF CHANGE
A look at the number of notable newcomers to the seven NFL teams that changed head coaches:

Minnesota
Free agents 11, draft picks 10. Total: 21

Tampa Bay
Free agents 14, draft picks 6. Total: 20

Washington
Free agents 12, draft picks 8. Total: 20

Cleveland
Free agents 11, draft picks 6. Total: 17

Detroit
Free agents 9, draft picks 8. Total: 17

Houston
Free agents 6, draft picks 10. Total: 16

Tennessee
Free agents 7, draft picks 6. Total: 13

In the Titans’ case, it’s not just the smaller number of new players on the roster.

Among the free agent additions, only free agent linebacker Wesley Woodyard and tackle Michael Oher enter training camp as clear-cut starters. Oher replaced David Stewart, whose career ended, and Woodyard was added to play inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, a spot that did not exist last season.

Linebacker Shaun Phillips and running back Dexter McCluster will be prominent, albeit situational players. Phillips was signed as a pass rush specialist and McCluster was brought in to create match up problems but will not be an every-down back.

Running back Bishop Sankey, the second-round draft pick, is the only rookie who currently figures prominently into the offense or defense.

By comparison, the Titans signed more than 20 free agents in 2013. That group included guard Andy Levitre, tight end Delanie Walker, defensive tackle Sammie Hill, safety Bernard Pollard, defensive end Ropati Pitoatua and linebacker Moise Foukou – all starters when the season opened. The draft yielded two other starters, guard Chance Warmack and center Brian Schwenke.

If all 13 of this year’s newcomers make it to the start of the regular season, that still accounts for nearly 25 percent of the 53-man roster, which is a good chunk. It’s just not nearly as big a change as is taking place other places or what Whisenhunt faced in 2007 when he became head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, a franchise that had not won more than six games in any of the previous five seasons.

“I’m hoping that it’s going to be hard to get to 53,” Whisenhunt said. “That, to me, is a sign of a team you have a chance with. When I first went into Arizona, it wasn’t as hard to get to 53 as it was in ’09 after we had gone to the Super Bowl.

“…Really, the only thing that matters is what players in this room feel like. I think they’re pretty confident that we have a good season if we have a good camp.”

Jul 25, 2014 2:21 PM

Different offense, same training camp division of labor for Locker, other quarterbacks

The offense is different. Again.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker, however, expects his workload in this year’s training camp to be much the same as those of previous seasons.

“I feel like every year in camp, to this point, you take at least half the reps, especially in these first couple of weeks,” Locker said Friday. “Then it begins to increase from there as we get a little closer to game week. So I expect it to be similar to that.”

Chris Palmer was the offensive coordinator for Locker’s first two training camps and he employed a scheme deeply rooted in run-and-shoot concepts. Dowell Loggains had the job last year and implemented a simplified program that sought to create and take advantage of one-on-one matchups.

In both cases, the quarterback group included a veteran – Matt Hasselbeck then Ryan Fitzpatrick – who had no more experience in the offense than Locker.

Now it is the offense of coach Ken Whisenhunt and coordinator Jason Michael, a scheme Locker’s new backup, Charlie Whitehurst, knows from last season in San Diego.

“We have to get Jake reps,” Whisenhunt said. “We have to get Charlie reps. We have to get two other quarterbacks reps. That’s one of the concerns going in is getting everyone enough reps. One of the things these players have to understand is make them count when you’re in there.

“We have a plan of how we’re going to designate the reps and make sure we feel comfortable with how many Jake’s getting, Charlie’s getting and all of them are getting.”

Theoretically, with Whitehurst’s presence Locker could – and should – get more work than a starter normally would since this is his first year with the offense. In his mind, though, that’s not necessary.

“After OTAs and minicamp I felt really good about where we were and where I was, mentally and physically, in this offense,” Locker said. “I just hope to continue to build on that.”

Jul 25, 2014 1:55 PM

Titans report for start of camp in shape, at proper weights

For Jason McCourty, it is not a big deal that every player who participated in Friday’s pre-training camp conditioning test passed.

“A conditioning test isn’t really too impressive to me,” the veteran cornerback said. “It’s just running. We’re not track (athletes) so it’s just a matter of getting out there and showing that you’ll be able to practice (Saturday) without injury and you are in shape and you put in the work during the offseason.

“For the most part, everybody looked good.”

Not everybody ran it, though.

Of the 90 players on the active roster, two did not and are not cleared to participate in the first camp practice, Saturday morning.

• Starting left guard Andy Levitre is on the non-football injury list following an appendectomy earlier this week. He is expected to miss the first two weeks of camp.

• Rookie free agent defensive end Marcus Dixon is on the physically unable to perform list because of a calf injury.

“The designation for Levitre is that it’s the worst excuse for getting out of a running test I’ve ever seen,” coach Ken Whisenhunt joked.

Everyone else completed the required two 300-yard shuttles (25 yards up and back six times) within the allotted time. They also came in at, or under the weight that coaches demanded (last year’s top choice, Chance Warmack actually was a pound over but given that he weighs more than 300, he was given a pass).

“There were a couple guys that were close, that’s because we put some tough weights on guys,” Whisenhunt said. “I think a little bit of it was trying to manage the four-week period they were away (following minicamp). So I think that will stabilize. There’s not really anyone I’m worried about from a weight standpoint.

“…I was pleased with the conditioning test. Everybody did what they were supposed to do.”

Jul 25, 2014 1:33 PM

Countdown to camp: Change at the top; Whisenhunt takes over

The Tennessee Titans report for the start of training camp Friday so each day this week the Nashville Post will look at a significant issue that faces them as they prepare for the 2014 season.

Today: The switch to head coach Ken Whisenhunt after three seasons under Mike Munchak.

The issue: The franchise has never experienced a change as extreme as what has taken place since Munchak was fired and Whisenhunt was hired to replace him. While Munchak was his own man, a lot of the schemes were connected to, or exact replicas of the ones the team used during the Jeff Fisher era. With Whisenhunt, everything is new.

Voice of experience: While the Titans’ current five-year playoff drought seems like an eternity, it pales in comparison to what Whisenhunt inherited when he became Arizona Cardinals head coach in 2007. That franchise had gone eight straight years without a playoff appearance and had been to the postseason just once in 24 years. He led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in his second season and back-to-back playoff appearances (2008 and 2009) for the first time since 1974-75.

Object of affection: The Titans were one of three teams that reportedly interviewed Whisenhunt regarding coaching vacancies in the days prior to San Diego’s divisional playoff game at Denver. Cleveland and Detroit also talked to him, and the prevailing opinion was that the Lions were the best fit for him. That made his decision to accept Tennessee’s offer something of a shocker for most league observers.

The whole process was in stark contrast to the search for Fisher’s replacement. Few, if any, considered Munchak a potential head coach before late-owner Bud Adams asked him to interview for the job. Munchak, himself, probably had not considered the possibility of running a team until Adams brought it up.

Dual threat: Another significant difference is that unlike Fisher or Munchak, who delegated to their coordinators, Whisenhunt will call the plays on offense during games. CEO Tommy Smith said that was a factor in the decision to offer the job to Whisenhunt.

That approach certainly can work. Jon Gruden with Tampa Bay, New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy all have won Super Bowls while doubling as head coach/play callers. Conversely, Bill Belichick at New England and Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants have won multiple Super Bowls without calling plays.

So there’s no right way to do it. It’s up to the players to make this method work.

Statistically speaking: Even with his early success, Whisenhunt’s record as a head coach is not exactly awe-inspiring. He was 45-51 in six seasons with the Cardinals.

His offense ranked 11th or better in points and 14th or better in yards in the three years future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner was his starting quarterback. In the other three years his offense was 24th or worse in points and 19th or worse in yards, including dead last in 2012, which led the Cardinals to fire him.

Even at his best, Jake Locker does not look like a guy who is bound for Canton so the Titans have to hope that is not what is necessary to make Whisenhunt’s offense work.

• What to watch for: Under Munchak, the Titans were a team that too often allowed opponents to dictate what they did on offense and defense. Likewise, little that they did set up things for later in the game or the season.

Watch during preseason games to see if opposing offensive lines have trouble identifying pass rushers and whether opposing defenses have trouble matching up with someone in the pass pattern. If those things happen, then the changes to the schemes are taking hold and having the desire effect. If not, it could be another long season.

Prediction: Although it might take time, Whisenhunt ultimately will be a significant upgrade from Munchak. He has shown he is comfortable in the role and is confident with all the things that require his attention, two things his predecessor never displayed.

The fact that Tennessee was 7-9 last season with a sub-par coach means that – barring injury – this team has a real chance to be one of this season’s bigger surprises.

Jul 25, 2014 5:15 AM

Titans finally conclude negotiations with first-round pick prior to camp

One day before players are scheduled to report for the start of training camp the Tennessee Titans concluded their final piece of significant offseason business.

The team and first-round draft pick Taylor Lewan agreed to terms on a contract. The left tackle out of Michigan and 11th overall pick was the only remaining unsigned player from the 2014 draft.

General manager Ruston Webster broke the news during an appearance on The Midday 180 on WGFX 104.5-FM on Thursday.

The team formally announced the deal a short time later.

The current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players’ association established rules for rookie contracts that eliminated much of the negotiations, even for the top draft choices.

Even so, the Titans have struggled to get deals done with their first-round picks. Wide receiver Kendall Wright was the next-to-last player to sign in 2012 and missed the first three training camp practices. Guard Chance Warmack was the last first-round pick to sign in 2013 and he missed the first five days and four workouts of camp.

Nonetheless, Wright and Warmack were significant contributors as rookies.

Lewan now has all of training camp to try to earn playing time on an offensive line that includes veteran tackles Michael Roos and Michael Oher.

Jul 24, 2014 2:06 PM

Top Vanderbilt pitching recruits follow the money, not Beede's example

Tyler Beede drew a lot of national attention three years ago when he was the 21st overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft but turned down the money and decided to pitch for Vanderbilt.

Rather than follow that example, a quartet of his potential replacements followed the money directly into professional baseball.

Last Friday was the deadline for 2014 draft picks to sign a professional contract. Ultimately, the post-draft signing process was costly for the Commodores in the wake of their 2014 College World Series championship.

Beede accepted a bonus of $2.632 million and signed with the San Francisco Giants, who drafted him 14th overall. According to Baseball America, that was the 12th largest bonus paid out to this year’s draft picks.

The decision, which was expected, ended his college career after three seasons.

Four pitchers who signed national letters-of-intent with Vanderbilt earlier this year never even started theirs because they were among the 67 who accepted bonus offers of $1 million-plus. One even got more money than Beede.

The rundown:

• Touki Toussaint (16th overall), a right-hander from Miami, accepted a $2.7 million bonus (15 percent higher that his slot value) from Arizona.

• Tullahoma’s Justus Sheffield (31st overall), a left-hander and the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, took $1.6 million to sign with the Cleveland Indians.

• Dylan Cease (40th overall), a right-hander from Georgia, got $1.5 million from the Cubs.

• Cody Reed (54th overall), a left-hander out of Alabama, got a $1.0345 million bonus and signed with Arizona.

Jul 24, 2014 11:58 AM

Former Predators' tough guy sent to prison for armed robberies

Patrick Cote was the first — and maybe the best — Nashville Predators enforcer.

Now 39 years old, Cote has been on the wrong side of law enforcement for much of his post-playing career. Earlier this week, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for two counts of armed robbery.
According to reports, officers arrested Cote when they found him stranded in a car that was reported stolen. During interrogation, he admitted involvement in two bank robberies, the first of which occurred May 23.

He pleaded guilty in court on June 4.

His legal issues have come on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. In 2002, he was pulled over for speeding in New York and charged with possession of more than 14 kilograms of marijuana. His criminal record reportedly includes “drugs, assault, robbery, aggravated assault and break and enter.”

The Predators claimed Cote from Dallas in the 1998 expansion draft. He set a franchise record and led the NHL with 30 fights in 1998-99, Nashville’s inaugural season. He dropped the gloves another 12 times (in just 21 games played) in 1999-00 then was traded to Edmonton following that season. He last played in the NHL in 2000-01.

The Stars drafted him in the second round (37th overall) by Dallas in 1995.

Jul 24, 2014 10:20 AM

UT sees rise in football season tickets, expects to top 60,000 for opener

he University of Tennessee expects to surpass 60,000 football season ticket holders for the first time in three years, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Thursday.

It is far from the 76,000-plus of the early 2000s but it is a positive trend for a program that has not been to a bowl game since 2010.

As of Wednesday, Tennessee had sold about 59,000 football season tickets, senior associate athletic director for external operations Chris Fuller told the News Sentinel.

Fuller expects to pass the 60,000 mark before the Vols kick off against Utah State at Neyland on Aug. 31.

UT hasn’t sold 60,000 season tickets since it sold 63,362 in 2011, according to records Fuller provided to the News Sentinel.

“That still leaves us considerably below our high-water point,” Fuller said. “But it really is a testament to how strong people feel about Coach (Butch) Jones and his staff. I think they’ve gotten really fired up about our recruiting efforts. I think it’s also a testament to people on staff here.”

The slide in season ticket sales began late in Phillip Fulmer’s tenure as head coach and continued with his string of successors, Lane Kiffin (2009), Derek Dooley (2010-12) and Butch Jones, whose recruiting and public appearances have renewed excitement for the program.

According to the report, UT last topped 70,000 in season ticket sales in 2008. That figure dipped below 60,000 in 2012. There were 57,499 season-ticket holders last season.

The Volunteers open the season with home games against Utah State (7 p.m., Aug. 31) and Arkansas State (noon, Sept. 6). Their first SEC home game is Oct. 4 against Florida.

Jul 24, 2014 9:51 AM

Countdown to camp: A different approach on defense

The Tennessee Titans report for the start of training camp Friday so each day this week the Nashville Post will look at a significant issue that faces them as they prepare for the 2014 season.

Today: The move to a 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Ray Horton and coach Ken Whisnehunt.

The issue: From the time the franchise arrived in 1997 the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans have been a 4-3 defense. They drafted players to fit that scheme. Their defensive identity has been rooted in that approach and coordinators from Gregg Williams to Jim Schwartz to Chuck Cecil to Jerry Gray have added their respective twists, some more successfully than others.

What it means: It’s simple. Instead of four down linemen with three linebackers the Titans now will have three down linemen and four linebackers on many snaps. The chief benefit is that it creates confusion for opposing offenses because even though there are three lineman a fourth player typically is involved in the rush. The offense just does not know which player will be the fourth.

Often, the two outside linebackers have the opportunity to record a lot of sacks and the two inside linebacker have the chance to make a lot of tackles.

By any other name: To be fair, Titans coaches repeatedly have said they intend to be “multiple,” which means they will switch between approaches from game to game or down to down as needed. It is clear in this offseason’s personnel moves, though, that everything is built upon a 3-4 approach. Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips and defensive lineman Al Woods were signed from teams rich in 3-4 traditions.

Competitive balance: It was not that long ago, 2001 to be exact, that the Pittsburgh Steelers were the only one of the league’s 32 teams that ran a 3-4 defense. Based on several reports, it looks as if this season half will operate out of the 3-4 and the other half out of the 4-3.

Statistically speaking: It is worth noting that last season’s top three defenses – Seattle, Carolina and Cincinnati – were all based in the 4-3. However, the bottom three – Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas – also were 4-3. According to a recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analysis, the 15 defenses that played a 3-4 in 2013 allowed an average of 345.9 yards per game, and the 17 that played a 4-3 allowed an average of 350.7 – hardly a noticeable difference.

 It should be noted, however, that the Cowboys switched to a 4-3 coached by Monte Kiffin last season after years running the 3-4 under Wade Phillips and Rob Ryan. They were the only team that allowed more than 400 yards per game and they were well above that at 415.3 – a case that suggests change does not come easy.

• What to watch for: The key will be how well returning players handle new responsibilities. For example, Jurrell Casey, a 4-3 defensive tackle, will have to occupy two blockers as a 3-4 defensive end. Derrick Morgan (pictured), a 4-3 defensive end, will have to cover tight ends and running backs and make tackles in open spaces as a 3-4 outside linebacker. If guys like that along with linebackers Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers can play fast, aggressively and effectively the switch will look a whole lot better than if they don’t.

Prediction: This is not going to be a disaster along the lines of last year’s Cowboys but it’s not likely to be smooth sailing either.

The defense will make more impact plays (sacks and turnovers) than it has the last couple years but it also will struggle at times to get stops on third down, which will prove costly. Overall, it will be more fun to watch but its going to require another couple rounds of personnel changes before it becomes a dominant unit.

Jul 24, 2014 5:15 AM

Snedeker eager to try to win again at a course he's never played

Brandt Snedeker is counting on happy memories to help him at a place he’s never played.

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt graduate is the defending champion of the RBC Canadian Open, which begins Thursday at Royal Montreal Golf Club.

The tournament has switched courses from year to year beginning in 2011. Last year Snedeker recorded a three-stroke victory – his sixth PGA Tour championship – at Glen Abbey Golf Course in Ontario.

The last time Royal Montreal hosted was 2001, three years before Snedeker made his PGA Tour debut.

“I'm excited about that, still have great memories here,” Snedeker said earlier this week. “And even though I haven't played this golf course, it still feels great to be back and seeing my name on the leaderboard or seeing my picture around here. It gives you some confidence knowing that you've done it before, you can do it again.”

Snedeker has yet to win the same event in consecutive years. The closest he came was the 2013 Farmers Insurance Open when he finished tied four second, four strokes behind Tiger Woods. He won the 2012 title in a playoff.

A look at Snedeker’s PGA Tour victories and how he fared the following year:

• 2007 Wyndam Championship (tied for 69th in 2008)
• 2011 The Heritage (tied for 17th in 2012)
• 2012 Farmers Insurance Open (tied for second in 2013)
• 2012 Tour Championship (tied for 20th in 2013)
• 2013 AT&T Pebble Beach (missed the cut in 2014)
• 2013 RBC Canadian Open (TBD)

He is scheduled to tee off from No. 10 at 7 a.m. (CDT) Thursday in a group with Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan. Last year, Mahan was leading in the third round when he suddenly withdrew to be with his wife for the birth of their child, a decision that cleared the way for Snedeker to win.

 “I obviously haven't played Royal Montreal before, but I've heard great things about it, and I remember watching the Presidents Cup on TV and seeing a great finishing stretch of holes and realizing it probably is going to be the determining factor this week on who wins and who doesn't is how you play that last great stretch of golf,” Snedeker said. “So excited about getting out there and trying to defend my championship.”

Jul 24, 2014 5:05 AM