|WALKER ON FOOTBALL: Fisher, Young prove strong combination in Titans' revival|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 27 September 2007 08:54|
The small market franchise that fell off the NFL map during a salary-cap-forced rebuilding goes into its bye 2-1, the Titans' best start since 2003, when they earned their last playoff berth.
The Ravens revamped the roster and are headed back in the right direction thanks to drafting Vince Young, choosy spending on free agents, and a savvy, stable coaching staff led by Jeff Fisher, the longest-tenured coach with his team in the NFL.
And the coach who tied for the league's best record between 1999 and 2003 will be around to see if he can do it again thanks to a contract extension through 2011.
``The thing is, the secret is out of the bag now,'' veteran center Kevin Mawae said. ``I think we showed that we can run the ball, we can win against good teams. So it's not going to be a surprise to anybody down the road.''
A year ago, the Titans were mired in an 0-5 start. Since then, they have won 10 of 14, including eight of their last 10 with Young leading the way on the field.
Call it magic or momentum, but not even an offseason filled with the departure of their running back and top two receivers, nor the season-long suspension of their top defensive player, cornerback Adam ``Pacman'' Jones, has slowed the Titans.
And as good as 2-1 looks, the Titans are a couple plays away from an undefeated start. The 22-20 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Colts hasn't been forgotten, especially by Fisher.
But he likes the team he has right now.
``They think they can win. They think they can play with anybody,'' Fisher said.
Credit goes to Fisher, the coach who never loses control with a poise that spreads through the locker room.
An ex-player himself, he knows when to push. For example, he made no schedule changes during nearly three weeks of 100-degree heat in the preseason, which prepared the Titans for the opener in Jacksonville. He took them inside to practice two days before that game as a break from that heat.
He'll allow no bye week distractions, either. He set the bye schedule before last Monday night's game at New Orleans so the players could make travel plans for their time off. They won that game 31-14 to earn a four-day break.
Linebacker David Thornton said Fisher keeps them focused on the specifics of how to improve each day.
``Whenever you've had a leader who's been around for a few years and understands where this team is going, it's only going to be bright for us,'' Thornton said.
Getting back to this point is something the Titans - from Fisher to owner Bud Adams - have worked toward since their last playoff run disappeared in injuries in 2004.
They slashed expensive veterans, winning a total of nine games in 2004 and 2005. With money finally freed up, they rebuilt with players who have a history as winners.
They drafted Young, the quarterback from Adams' hometown in Houston fresh off his national title with Texas. And LenDale White from powerhouse Southern California in April 2006. They signed Thornton away from perennial division winner Indianapolis, safety Chris Hope from Pittsburgh weeks after he won a Super Bowl, and Mawae, who for most of his career has been one of the league's top centers.
Bringing in the six-time Pro Bowler set up the transition to Young from his mentor, Steve McNair. It also established the face of the Titans for a decade.
They traded McNair in June 2006, clearing the path for the rookie with the uncanny knack for the big play.
``He takes pride in his work,'' receiver Brandon Jones said of Young. ``When we're out there and behind, he feels like we can get in the game no problem. He makes everybody around him better, and he gets everybody up.''
Knowing McNair would be too expensive to keep in 2006, Fisher lured Norm Chow out of the college ranks to his first NFL job as offensive coordinator in 2005. Then Fisher and Chow helped ease Young's transition to NFL starter by paring the offense and running the ball.
Young provided the spark. The first rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead consecutive comebacks of 14 points or more among his five fourth-quarter rallies became NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
With a full offseason, Young worked hard with Chow to avoid a sophomore slump.
The Titans also were busy.
Adams chose not to keep general manager Floyd Reese and replaced him with Mike Reinfeldt, a man determined to prudently spend $36 million in cap space.
In came Nick Harper with his Super Bowl ring from Indianapolis, and he's kept the Titans from missing Jones, New middle linebacker Ryan Fowler came from Dallas and veteran Eric Moulds was signed to tutor a young receiving corps.
Reinfeldt gave the Titans depth they haven't had in years by signing cornerback Kelly Herndon from Seattle, defensive tackle Corey Simon and linebacker Gilbert Gardner from the Colts, and trading with Seattle for end Bryce Fisher.
With five new starters, coordinator Jim Schwartz's defense is back to the stingy unit Fisher wants. Tackle Albert Haynesworth is leading the way, proving so far that his second chance was well deserved.
This team won't leave anything to chance after missing the playoffs by one game last year. October offers opportunity to pad the record, with 0-3 Atlanta visiting Nashville, followed by trips to Tampa Bay and Houston. Then the Titans start a home stand against Oakland.
``We've just got to keep winning and let everything take care of itself,'' linebacker Keith Bulluck said. ``If we win, the playoffs will come to our doorstep.''