Postcard from camp: Titans
Tennessee is entering its first season under new coach Mike Munchak
Star running back Chris Johnson is holding out for the second straight year
Matt Hasselbeck is still learning the playbook, but is fitting in otherwise
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The Titans' two-hour padded practice on Tuesday, conducted before a sun-drenched crowd at the team's year-round facility in Nashville, felt like the first day of a new school year: Your classmates are virtually the same, but the teachers are totally different. The fact that Jeff Fisher, the dean of NFL coaches before his firing at the end of last year, isn't roaming the fields in wraparound shades and a sandpaper beard anymore takes some getting used to. But Tuesday was a reminder that the show does indeed go on.
1. The Titans love them some drama. For the second straight season Chris Johnson is holding out for more money and Kenny Britt is trying to inspire a few positive headlines after creating a flurry of negative ones for his run-ins with the law. And last week Cortland Finnegan bolted from camp, citing a personal issue. He returned on Monday and explained the real reason he left was because he was upset over contract talks and wanted to huddle with his wife, Lacey, about his next move. (The team extended him in August 2008, and he is going into the final year of that deal, making more than $3.7 million this season.)
"Was it wrong? Absolutely," Finnegan said as part of a lengthy public apology. "But it was something that I needed to talk about with her." Will he be fined? Almost certainly, said new coach Mike Munchak, and the price for missing a day of camp is now $30,000 under the new CBA. Gotta spend money to make money, right?
2. Jake Locker isn't ready for prime time -- yet. You expect a rookie passer to have a few balls get away from him, but not while throwing against air. Such was the case for Locker, whose performance in receiver drills was a far cry from his near perfect pro day in March. Some of that is a function of the lockout. (In a typical offseason, he would've had thousands more throws underneath him by now.) Some of that is just the fact that Locker has always been a much better thrower on the run.
Only when pressured in scrimmages did Locker consistently find his targets, and he was on the money rolling to his right. Still, there's no doubt he has the skill set and the discipline to get all the steps down. One veteran training camp observer told me he thinks Locker's already further along than Vince Young was at the same point.
3. We are family. Looking at the Titans coaches run through practice, you'd think you were at an Oilers reunion. Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray played with Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, in 1992. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer coached receivers that year. When asked about deepening the Titans' historic roots in February, Munchak said, "That's not something I even think about when I'm looking at people. "It just happens it's been falling that way so far."
But then he hired another former Oiler, Hall of Fame teammate Bruce Matthews, to replace him as offensive line coach. And then another, Frank Bush, to coach linebackers. And they join yet one more, secondary coach Marcus Robertson, a former All-Pro safety. So if you've got any powder blue jerseys or oil rig helmets that need signing, come on down! They'll be here all week.
Tracy Rocker, defensive line coach. Jim Washburn might be one of the finest position coaches in the league, and losing him to the Eagles in the offseason was a big blow. But his replacement is no slouch. Not only did Rocker play the position in college -- and well enough at Auburn to earn induction into the College Football Hall -- but also in his 17 years as a college coach he's developed a number of future stars, including DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora and Nick Fairley.
Whereas in the past Titan linemen were tasked with getting to the quarterback at all costs, this year they'll take more of a read-and-react approach. "We all want to sack the quarterback; I understand that," Rocker said. "But the quarterback might drop back 50 times. Hopefully you get four to five sacks a game. No one accounts for the other 44 or 45 times. Those are the things that I'm trying to make sure we're better at in terms of pushing the pocket and taking passing lanes away."
Matt Hasselbeck is hard to miss. He doesn't have all of the playbook down yet, or his full complementary cast (beside the aforementioned Johnson holdout, Britt is limited with a hamstring injury). But he's making the most of his new challenges and having fun tweaking his old-school coach.
Throughout camp, Munchak has pitted offense against defense in mini-competitions. Tuesday's edition, a one-on-one receiver drill, would have ended in victory for the offense had not a receiver taunted after the catch. As the official loser, Hasselbeck and the rest of his unit had to do a series of up-downs -- kind of a half push-up, half stationary run, but in rapid succession. "That made us very sloppy for the next period," Hasselbeck joked. "That might be Munch's way of getting back at a coach who did something to him back in the day. I know he's got the offensive linemen on that sled. He couldn't have liked the sled as a player."
The first five games -- three of them on the road -- could be rough, but then the Titans get four of their next six at LP Field. If they can make the most of that homestand, they leave themselves room for error in season-ending matchups at Indianapolis, against Jacksonville and at Houston -- games that might well decide who goes to the playoffs as division champs and who goes as the wild card.