Just four days before their eminently winnable opener against the visiting Jets, the Titans still don't know -- or aren't saying -- who their starting quarterback will be. If the recently acquired Kerry Collins gets the nod over presumed starter Billy Volek despite having less than two weeks of familiarity with Tennessee's offense, there's only one real reason for the 11th-hour move: Volek was doing more presuming than practicing, perfecting and performing.
Simply put, Volek was handed the No. 1 job once Steve McNair left for Baltimore, but he didn't seize the opportunity. Tennessee sources say Volek has consistently overestimated his grasp on the starting job, believing he was further along in his development than he actually is. And even more telling, Volek is said to have shown little inclination to put in the long hours of work necessary to hone his craft, even after the Titans made Texas star Vince Young the third overall pick in this year's draft.
That's where Volek might have been negatively influenced by McNair, whom Volek caddied for the past six years. McNair never was one to wear his coaches out with overpreparation and always had an air of "I've got it, it's under control'' about him. He was generally among the last Titans to show up in the morning and one of the first to leave. But while that easy-does-it style worked for McNair, the only Oilers/Titans quarterback to take his team to the Super Bowl, Volek didn't seem to realize he hadn't earned the right to that kind of laid-back approach.
In addition, Volek isn't an ideal fit in offensive coordinator Norm Chow's system, which includes some West Coast concepts. Chow likes his quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly, make good decisions and spread it around. Volek is more in the mold of what former coordinator Mike Heimerdinger (2000-04) liked in a quarterback: a drop-back passer who took his shots down the field, testing a defense vertically and going for the home run ball several times a game.
Volek disappointed Titans coaches this preseason with his shaky decision-making and his lack of expertise in running Chow's offense. There were parts of the offense he still wasn't embracing or showing significant improvement in. That's why Tennessee obtained Collins, a 12th-year veteran who has been exposed to several systems in his career and has a proven track record of production that includes more than 33,000 yards passing and 173 career touchdown passes.
The Titans at least know what they're getting in the 33-year-old Collins. Accuracy has never been his strong suit (163 career interceptions, and a 55.6 completion percentage), but he led one team to an NFC title game (Panthers) and another to the Super Bowl (Giants). Despite an erratic second season in Oakland last year, Collins threw for nearly 3,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. In essence, he has been there and done that, and then done it again. As a bridge to the Young era, the Titans believe he'll do fine.
From all indications, Collins is being prepared to start against the Jets, with Titans head coach Jeff Fisher on record as saying he'll look for ways to insert Young into the game for a series or two. That way, the Jets and any future opponents have to spend valuable practice time preparing for multiple Titans quarterbacks.
As for Volek, the Titans explored trade options last week but apparently got no offers to their liking. They'd rather not release Volek and receive nothing in return, but Thursday could be the key date to watch. If Volek is on the roster at that point, his entire $1 million base salary becomes guaranteed.
That's a hefty price to pay for a potential third-team quarterback. The Titans could choose to retain him and deal him sometime before the October 17 trade deadline, but they're also wary of the potential locker room distraction he could create in the meantime.
With the regular season just days away, the quarterback question in Tennessee remains unanswered. Volek thought it was his job to lose. And he did. Now the call is out of his hands.
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The first starting quarterback in danger of being benched in 2006? The RexGrossman watch continues in Chicago, but put my buck on Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich. Even though David Garrard seemed to play himself back into his customary No. 2 role this preseason, Leftwich didn't exactly lock down the Jags' top job. In his 14 preseason series that came against his opponents' first-team defense, Leftwich led Jacksonville's offense to zero points.
Only in Washington could they have a backup quarterback controversy. Redskins assistant head coach Al Saunders told me in early August that veteran Todd Collins would be the first arm off the bench if anything should happen to starter Mark Brunell, ahead of 2005 first-round pick Jason Campbell.
So what to make of this week's announcement that Washington considers Collins its in-game backup, and Campbell their man if there's a whole week to prepare for a pinch-hit starting assignment? That's just Joe Gibbs trying to have it both ways.
He knows Collins knows Saunders' offense cold and thus could best step off the bench and handle a live situation. But he's also playing a little bit to fans and media expectations in not wanting to label Campbell strictly an emergency No. 3 option for a second year running.