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 need for Jake Locker to stay healthy and play well enough to get the Titans back to the playoffs.
• The issue: Locker, the team’s first-round draft pick (eighth overall) in 2011, has been the starting quarterback for two seasons but has started just 18 games. He has missed time with three different injuries and has spent time each of the past two offseasons recovering from surgery. Heck, even as a rookie, he missed several plays during a relief appearance against New Orleans because of injury.
• Plan B: Unlike the previous two years when veterans Matt Hasselbeck and Ryan Fitzpatrick served as his backup, Locker now has four and half times the number of NFL starts as the other three quarterbacks currently on the roster combined. Charlie Whitehurst has started four times in eight NFL seasons and won just one. Tyler Wilson and Zach Mettenberger never have started. Thus, if Locker misses any significant amount of time this fall it will be a problem.
• Historical perspective: One important aspect of the Titans’ 1999 Super Bowl season was the presence of veteran backup Neil O’Donnell. He went 4-1 as a starter when Steve McNair was sidelined by back surgery and when McNair was healthy he ran the scout team offense so effectively and competitively that it prepared the defense about as well as possible for what it would see in the game.
Also, 1999 was McNair’s third season as the unquestioned starter. Unlike Locker, however, he did not miss a single game in 1997 and 1998 plus he started six other times (he won four) in the two seasons prior to that.
• Statistically speaking: The first six quarterbacks drafted in 2011 all have started more than 20 games. Locker was second only to first overall pick Cam Newton, but his eight victories as a starter are fifth and his 22 touchdown passes tie him with former Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert for fewest among that group. On the positive side, his 1.47:1 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions is comparable to those of Newton (1.52:1) and Andy Dalton (1.63:1) both of who have started all 48 games of their NFL careers. So it seems Locker’s decision making is ahead of his experience.
• What to watch for: With a new coaching staff and a new playbook, Locker won’t have the luxury of sitting out the preseason to make sure he’s healthy for the start of the regular season. One thing to look for when he is on the field, therefore, is his ability to sense the pass rush and then get the ball or himself out of trouble. He is a great athlete who runs well. He has not, though, shown elite pocket presence and he tends to keep his eyes down the field in hopes of making a play rather than rely on outlet passes to relieve pressure.
• No contest: Typically, the most interesting training camp issues are the battles for jobs. No one will be watched more closely in the Titans’ camp than Locker, who has to compete with injuries, inaccuracy (his career completion percentage is 57.2) and inexperience rather than another player.
• Prediction: If Locker plays 14 or more games, the Titans have a chance to make a playoff run in a division that looks like it could be one of the league’s worst. Yet it is impossible to imagine he will do so until he actually does it.
He’s going to get hurt again this fall. The Titans just have to hope that the law of averages works in their favor and that whatever ails him this time won’t cause him to miss more than a game or two.
It is still a possibility that Jake Locker will be the Tennessee Titans quarterback for a long time.
There was a sense that his days were numbered, though, when franchise officials capped their participation in the 2014 NFL draft Saturday with the sixth-round selection of quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
It has been just three seasons since the Titans got Locker with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft. After Steve McNair was drafted fifth overall in 1995 it was four years before the team used another pick on a quarterback. Likewise, it was four years between Vince Young’s selection at No. 3 and the next time the Titans chose a quarterback.
“I can’t speak about a long-term situation with Jake, that’s something that will play itself out based on how everybody plays,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Every player in the NFL, it’s based on what he does now. It doesn’t matter what he has done in the past or what you think he can do in the future.
“… We feel good about Jake. That doesn’t change our opinion on Jake. We are just trying to make our football team better.”
Mettenberger is similar to the others who followed the first-round selections in that was selected late in the draft. The Titans used a fifth-round pick on Kevin Daft in 1999 and a sixth-round choice on Rusty Smith in 2010.
The good news for Locker is that those two never advanced beyond third on the team’s depth chart.
Neither, however, faced the same level of college competition as Mettenberger, LSU’s starting quarterback for the last two seasons. Daft played at Division II California-Davis and Smith starred for Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt Conference.
“I think playing in the SEC against some great talent and good defenses, you get a real sense of where he is physically,” Whisenhunt said.
Plus, Mettenberger has arm strength that far exceeds what the other two displayed.
“He is just so big and throws the ball so well,” general manager Ruston Webster said. “And the talent level … they say that a quarterback’s talent is in his arm and that’s the case for him. He throws the ball really well.”
Those aren’t the only differences.
When Daft and Smith were drafted Jeff Fisher, who had a defensive background, was entrenched in his position and the team embodied his core principles of ball and clock control.
The current situation is unique in that Whisenhunt is in his first year as Titans coach and likely looking to put his personal stamp on the organization. He has an offensive background, calls his own plays and works closely with the quarterbacks.
“I enjoy working with quarterbacks,” Whisenhunt said. “They’re all different. I’ve been very lucky to work with some outstanding quarterbacks, each one of them is different.
“I’m excited to work with Zach. I’m excited to work with Jake, obviously, [and] with Charlie [Whitehurst] and even Tyler [Wilson]. Our four that we’ve got on the team right now, all different, came different ways, but [I am] excited to work with all of them.”
McNair and Young also were unquestioned starters at the time the next quarterbacks were drafted. McNair started every game in 1997 and 1998. Young, although in and out of the lineup during his first four seasons, started the final 10 games of 2009 and won eight of them.
Injuries limited Locker to just 18 starts the last two seasons and a little more than a week ago the franchise declined to exercise an option that would have extended his contract through 2015. That means Locker is in the final season of the deal he signed as a rookie.
Now comes Mettenberger.
“I will tell you one thing about it,” Webster said. “There is one guy that I don’t worry about handling things, and it is Jake Locker. Jake and I have a really good relationship, or I feel we do.
“In talking to him, he is really not fazed by any of it.”
He’s certainly not on solid ground either.
It is understandable that the Tennessee Titans would rather turn the page on Chris Johnson than lock the doors to him.
Two of the franchise’s more embarrassing incidents in the last decade or so involved players who expected to take part in offseason workouts at times when their days with the team ultimately were numbered.
The next phase of the Titans’ offseason program is set to begin April 7. That has prompted speculation that Johnson, the record-setting running back who has led the team in rushing in each of his six seasons, will be released before then if talks with other teams do not produce a trade.
Johnson, who has three years remaining on his current contract and is scheduled to earn $8 million in salary this season, told The Tennessean last week that he planned to take part in scheduled offseason activities with the team.
"Yeah, I plan on being there," Johnson told the newspaper. "If I haven't been traded or released by that time, I will show up in Nashville and be ready to go from day one with the team. There's been a lot of speculation about the future, and where I'll be. But I am under contract with the Tennessee Titans. That's my team. And whatever team I am with when the offseason program starts, that is where I am showing up.
"I want to run and lift with the team and do what I can to make the team better. If April 7 gets here and I am on the Tennessee roster, then I am going to show up ready to go."
It’s doubtful that franchise leadership wants to see him.
In 2003, after he accepted a pay cut to stick with the Titans, linebacker Randall Godfrey was escorted from the practice field during an offseason workout. Shortly thereafter he was released.
In 2006, quarterback Steve McNair was asked to leave the team’s training facility altogether rather than work out in the weight room or even spend time in a meeting room. Before that offseason ended McNair was traded to the Baltimore Ravens.
In both cases, then-franchise officials took the unusual — not to mention disrespectful — steps to ensure that neither player would be injured. Had that happened, it would have had salary cap implications at times when the team had little financial leeway.
Current General Manager Ruston Webster was not with the Titans for either of those instances but it is unlikely he wants to connect with that dubious legacy. The expectation since the end of the 2013 season has been that Tennessee would not keep Johnson for the coming campaign. To that end, Webster thus far reportedly has explored trade possibilities, but the optimum window to deal is closing.
Absent a trade, the Titans can keep Johnson all the way through training camp before they release him and the effect on the salary cap is the same.
That, however, would create the awkward situation of what to do with him during conditioning, position drills, organized team activities, minicamp sessions, training camp and preseason games. If team officials are not willing to pay what his contract demands, they certainly have no interest in paying it so that he could spend the season on injured reserve rehabbing an offseason injury.
History has shown, after all, that ‘protecting’ players from offseason injury is ugly business.
It’s best for everyone that the Titans conclude their business with CJ and before it comes to that, even if it means they get nothing in return.
The Tennessee Titans lost Jake Locker for the season yet kept one of the elements that supposedly set him apart from other quarterbacks – his ability to run.
In the eight games he’s played because of Locker’s injuries, Ryan Fitzpatrick has kept the offense moving with his feet when needed.
Together the two have combined for 359 rushing yards, which already is the most by Titans’ quarterbacks since 2007 figures to exceed that number as well. In other words, the franchise has not gotten this much running from that position since Vince Young rolled up 552 rushing yards as a rookie in 2006.
“Usually there’s either a reason I’m running or you’ll find me in space either doing that awkward hard-first dive or whatever it is or picking my spots to slide,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is helpful for us, I think, sometimes in picking up first downs and making the defense stay honest and all that.
“It’s not something I’d prefer to do but it’s something that I think helps us a little bit.”
Fitzpatrick, in fact, has outgained Locker 204 to 155 and his 13 first downs on runs (seven or third or fourth down) are second on the team to running back Chris Johnson. Locker moved the chains nine times (five on third or fourth down) in his seven appearances.
Together they can become the first pair of Titans quarterbacks to top 400 rushing yards in a season since the days of Steve McNair and Neil O'Donnell, and in those days McNair did most of the work. This is the first time two quarterbacks each topped 100 yards in the same season.
RUSHING YARDS, QUARTERBACKS
Titans era (1999-2013)
2013: 359 yards (Fitzpatrick 204, Locker 155)
2012: 329 yards (Locker 291, Hasselbeck 38)
2011: 108 yards (Locker 56, Hasselbeck 52)
2010: 126 yards (Young 125, Collins 1)
2009: 296 yards (Young 281, Collins 15)
2008: 76 yards (Collins 49, Young 27)
2007: 392 yards (Young 395, Collins minus-3)
2006: 552 yards (Young 552)
2005: 181 yards (McNair 139, Mauck 39, Volek 3)
2004: 178 yards (McNair 128, Volek 50)
2003: 141 yards (McNair 138, Volek 4, O’Donnell minus-1)
2002: 437 yards (McNair 440, O’Donnell minus-3)
2001: 442 yards (McNair 414, O’Donnell 28)
2000: 402 yards (McNair 404, O’Donnell minus-2)
1999: 338 yards (McNair 337, O’Donnell 1)
Fitzpatrick’s total this season already has surpassed the 197 yards he gained (on 13 more carries) last season with Buffalo, when he started all 16 contests. He needs 101 to top his career-best 304 set in 2008, when he started 12 games in place of an injured Carson Palmer.
His 26-yard run against Kansas City – his first start for the Titans – was his longest in four years and his three rushing touchdowns already are a career-high.
“I knew he was a good athlete,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “I knew he was a good runner. And he’s done a really good job with it – he has his whole career. I think following in the system that was designed for Jake, it’s kind of been natural for him to run a little bit more.”
Steve McNair’s murder is the subject of the latest episode of ‘True Crime with Aphrodite Jones,’ which promises “new information that suggests his mistress may not have been capable of conducting a murder/suicide as it was ruled.”
The episode, titled 'The Mystery of Steve McNair,' airs 8 p.m. Thursday on Investigation Discovery.
Jones, a true crime author and investigative reporter, suggests the case should be reopened.
Metro police closed the case after it ruled that McNair’s mistress, Sahel Kazemi, committed a murder/suicide early on July 4, 2009, at a downtown condominium.
Jeff Fisher called his time as Tennessee Titans coach as “a great run” but downplayed any emotions that might be associated with facing his former team for the first time.
“I think it would be different if we were coming there,” he said Wednesday during a conference call with Nashville media. “Gosh, we’ve got a short week and we have to get everybody ready to play. … They’ve done a great job with the roster. They’re playing well. This is just about our team and the matchups and trying to find a way to win.”
The Titans (3-4) are fresh off a bye as they prepare to face Fisher’s St. Louis Rams on Sunday at St. Louis (noon, CBS). The Rams (3-5) lost by five to the Seattle Seahawks and had a chance to win at the end on Monday night.
St. Louis was 2-14 in 2011 but improved to 7-8-1 last season in its first season under Fisher. The Rams’ last winning season was 2003.
“There’s a sense of urgency to win a football game every week,” Fisher said. “We’ve got a plan in place. I really appreciate our owner’s vision for what he wants to get accomplished here. He understands where we are.
“We had to come in and we had to quickly assess the personnel and start making changes. We’ve been fortunate to acquire the draft choices. So far so good. We’re very, very young. … The process has been fun.”
Other notable comments from Fisher:
• On Tommy Smith, who on Monday was publicly introduced as the new Titans CEO: “Tommy, for a number of years, was very active on a day-to-day basis. He’s a good businessman and an outstanding communicator. … I know Tommy had some say in the decision there when I was retained as the head coach. So I’m very grateful to Tommy but I think Tommy will do a good job.”
• On the Titans’ defense under senior assistant Gregg Williams: “The scheme has changed significantly from last year to this year. Obviously, Gregg has had a tremendous influence on it. You recognize things and it presents challenges. He’s played some very solid offenses and played them well. … Obviously, I’m familiar with the scheme and recognize what they’re doing and they’re doing it very well.”
• On comparisons between former Titans quarterback Steve McNair and current quarterback Jake Locker: “I think it’s still kind of early but I would venture to guess the comparisons are based on [Locker’s] toughness, his arm strength and his athletic ability.”
• On reminders at St. Louis’ training facility of the Rams’ victory over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV: “I’ve gotten used to it. It was hard at first. ... The thing that’s been kind of fun is getting to know some of those guys.”
Former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair is one of seven Mississippians slated for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame next July, the organization announced Monday.
The 2014 class includes two other NFL players, Doug Cunningham and Deuce McAllister, broadcaster Robin Roberts, sprinter Calvin Smith and Richard Williams, the only coach ever to take a Mississippi team to the NCAA Division I Final Four.
“I think it’s important to note that all seven are from small-town Mississippi,” Rick Cleveland, the MSHOF’s executive director said. “They should serve as inspiration to youngsters — boys and girls no matter their background — across the Magnolia State.”
McNair, of course, was from Mt. Olive, Mississippi, which as of last year had a population of 979.
He was the third overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft, started 153 games in the NFL (131 for the Titans/Oilers), was the league’s 2003 co-most valuable player and led the Titans to their only Super Bowl. He also was a record-setting college quarterback at Alcorn State in Mississippi.
The formal induction will take place July 25, 2014 at Jackson, Miss.
Whether or not you believe Jake Locker is the quarterback who can lead the Tennessee Titans back to prominence – and there are plenty of folks on either side of that issue – it is tough to say that the coaches’ commitment to him is a bad idea.
Based on what’s happening around the league at the moment, there’s nothing to suggest that waffling on who plays that position would be better.
Minnesota opened the season with Christian Ponder then tried Matt Cassel before it brought in Josh Freeman and threw him headfirst into the pool Monday night. Freeman completed 20 of 53 passes and ended up with a concussion that likely brings the Vikings back to Ponder.
Jacksonville has gone back and forth between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne and – for now – has decided to stick with Henne over Gabbert, taken two spots after Locker in the 2011 draft.
Cleveland has given up on Brandon Weeden twice this season. The first time it looked as if it would work out when Brian Hoyer, who ultimately sustained a season-ending knee injury, led the Browns to three victories in three starts. Now they have opted for Jason Campbell ahead of their 2012 first-round pick.
In case anyone is wondering, Minnesota, Jacksonville and Cleveland are a combined 4-16 at the moment and none of their young quarterbacks have shown the level of improvement Locker has.
Simply put: There are not 32 quarterbacks worthy of being starters in the NFL.
Certainly there never are going to be 32 prepared to play right away in the manner of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Thus, teams that don’t get someone like that have two choices. Either commit to one and try build him into a quality starter or bounce back and forth between two or more and hope you get lucky.
No one thinks Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is the best quarterback in NFL history but he has started every game since he entered the league in 2008 and last year led his team to a Super Bowl victory. The Ravens, unwilling to gamble on the unknown, rewarded him with a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
The Titans waited two years before they named Steve McNair their starter then endured two 8-8 seasons that were inconsistent enough to test their resolve. The investment paid off when McNair led them to the Super Bowl in 1999 and was named the league’s co-MVP in 2003.
When it came time to replace McNair, the franchise drafted Vince Young third overall in 2006. For the next five seasons coaches went back and forth between Young and veteran Kerry Collins – and the Titans did not win a playoff game.
So it was back to the drawing board and Locker with the eighth overall pick. Coaches named him the starter as soon as they felt they could – the beginning of last season – and twice have brought him back from injury as soon as they possibly could, most recently last week against San Francisco.
“I thought overall [he was] very competitive,” coach Mike Munchak said Monday. “I never thought once to take him out of that game. I never once thought it was a bad idea. He’s special that way, and I think that’s why we keep saying when the smoke clears the guy is going to be a winner. We’ve got some work ahead of us this year, but it was a good start for him.”
Locker’s original contract extends through next season. By then, the Titans ought to know whether they ought to give him another one because they are determined to give him every chance to show he is – or is not – worth it.
Steve McNair or Robert Griffin III?
Which one evokes the more powerful image?
There is nobility in the decision to play injured as McNair proved so many times during his years with the Tennessee Titans. No matter how bruised or battered, the surprise was when he did not find a way to get on the field Sunday.
For Titans fans and even some members of the current coaching staff, the memories of McNair’s courage are powerful and poignant. The standard he set for himself caused all of his teammates to look at themselves and their own pain differently. The level at which he played, even when greatly diminished, eliminated any and all excuses anyone else might seek.
Jake Locker suddenly has the opportunity to stir this franchise in a similar manner.
Less than three weeks since he sprained his right hip and knee in a freak incident against the New York Jets he has been cleared for contact and has participated in practice – albeit on a limited basis – each of the last two days. No one has said he will play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday (3:05 p.m., Fox). Then again, no one has said he won’t either.
As much as the Titans would love to resurrect the McNair effect in their new franchise quarterback, they also are well aware of what happened to Griffin, Washington’s top choice a year ago and the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. He desire to play through a knee injury late in the year led to a second, more severe issue with the joint. The impact of that decision continues to adversely affect that team 10 months later.
Simply put: Not everybody can do what McNair could. Perhaps nobody can.
Or maybe Locker, who has drawn comparisons to McNair in other regards, has the same sort of fortitude, fearlessness and physiology that allows him to play with and through pain most can’t.
If nothing else, the Titans ought to be able to recognize the signs.
“He’s a guy that has unfortunately been hurt, but he heals usually ahead of schedule,” coach Mike Munchak said. “He definitely loves the game, definitely wants to be part of it, doesn’t want to miss it. These last two weeks have really been hard for him, so I think he’s going to do everything he can to put himself in a situation where he’s ready to play.
“… It’s just a matter of can he do that? Is he quite ready yet with his body? There’s no doubt the more you rest, the more you take off, the stronger your leg’s going to feel.”
Washington’s experience with Griffin is more than enough to make the Titans think twice (or three or four times) before they put Locker out there, especially given that their open date follows this game.
Then again, how can anyone associated with that team not think of McNair and exactly what it meant to have him out there time and time again?
One of Locker’s greatest attributes in his brief career has been his ability to make the right decision on the field. The choice of whether or not to be on the field Sunday might be his most difficult yet.
As a starter … well, Ryan Fitzpatrick is not off to a great start.
The veteran backup fell to 0-2 with the Tennessee Titans with Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, a game in which he averaged 10 yards per completion but threw two interceptions without a touchdown pass.
His job has been made more difficult by the fact that his starts have been against Kansas City and Seattle, both of which currently rank among the NFL’s top six in yards per game allowed and the top three in points per game allowed.
“[The Seahawks] are a good defense but I think if you look at the game, we couldn’t get into a rhythm on offense and a lot of that is me,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t play well [Sunday], really for the last two weeks. [I’ve] played poorly and we haven’t won a game, it’s hard for me to come in and I feel like the momentum has kind of gone into a halt the last two games and the way that we played on offense. … I’m not doing enough out there to consistently move the ball for the offense.”
As bad as his record is, it’s not that different from many others who have had the position over the years.
Of the eight quarterbacks who have started for the franchise during the Titans era, only the first two – Steve McNair and Neil O’Donnell – won their first two starts. In McNair’s case, those victories were for the Houston Oilers late in his rookie season of 1995.
Fitzpatrick is the fourth of the last five who has begun with back-to-back defeats. The man he has subbed for the last two weeks, Jake Locker, did it as well but then won his third start.
TITANS QUARTERBACKS, FIRST TWO STARTS
Ryan Fitzpatrick (2013)
Stats: 38-70 (54.3 percent), 418 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT
Jake Locker (2012)
Stats: 38-62 (61.3 percent), 403 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Matt Hasselbeck (2011)
Stats: 51-76 (67.1 percent), 621 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
Vince Young (2006)
Stats: 24-50 (48 percent), 224 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Kerry Collins (2006)
Stats: 23-57 (40.4 percent), 280 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT
Billy Volek (2003, 2004)
Stats: 65-99 (65.7 percent), 574 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT
Neil O’Donnell (1999)
Stats: 48-72 (66.7 percent), 514 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Steve McNair (1995)
Stats: 25-53 (47.2 percent), 366 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
POSTDATA: WARRANTY DEEDS