2 Tennessee Titans
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The titanic task: Forget about a devastating playoff loss to you-know-who
By Peter King
Jeff Fisher went through the off-season without speaking to any of his players about the strangest, bitterest loss in his memory. Then, when he met with the full squad for the first time in training camp, on the night of July 27, the Titans' coach said, "I want to show you guys something." Up on the big screen in the meeting room went this chart:
"When the players saw it, they gasped," Fisher says. The numbers showed how the winningest team of the last two seasons (26-6) lost in the AFC divisional playoffs in Nashville last January.
"We knew that was the Super Bowl game," says quarterback Steve McNair. "We felt strongly these were the best two teams in football." A blocked field goal and an interception, both returned by the Ravens for touchdowns, decided the game in the fourth quarter. Fisher wanted his players to enter the season knowing how formidably they'd played against Baltimore, which went on to manhandle the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game and the Giants in the Super Bowl, but not to be obsessed with the Ravens. So he turned off the stats and went straight into the business of training camp.
Neat. Tidy. Effective. In the locker room this summer there was plenty of evidence that Fisher's ploy had worked. The players didn't seem devastated by their early exit from the playoffs. "We have to do against Baltimore what we have to do against the other good teams we play," says McNair. "We've got to spread the field and establish the passing game to take the pressure off Eddie."
Eddie George, that is, the sturdy and speedy running back who's the key to Tennessee's offense. So the Titans, who let ace fullback Lorenzo Neal escape to the Bengals as a free agent, will play more three-receiver formations, with Frank Wycheck playing a unique hybrid role -- blocking back, slot receiver, tight end and wideout -- to force opponents to spend more energy accounting for him. This, Fisher hopes, will make it harder for defenses to stack up to stop George. Assuming that wideout Kevin Dyson recovers from knee surgery enough to play a solid third receiver, he and starters Derrick Mason and Chris Sanders should also give George some relief.
Of course, that assumes that George and McNair stay healthy. McNair finally emerged as an accurate passer (62.6% completions) last year, but he also ended the season with a throbbing throwing shoulder. After an MRI showed no damage, McNair visited renowned orthopedists James Andrews in Alabama and Richard Steadman in Colorado. Although McNair was sore, the doctors found nothing wrong with the shoulder. On Feb. 5, however, McNair awoke in severe pain. The joint was infected, though no physician could figure out how it got that way.
Doctors decided that the best way to treat the problem was to drill three holes around the shoulder and flood the infected area with purified water. "They flushed 15 gallons of water into the shoulder," says McNair, "and for six weeks after the surgery I had to give myself a shot of antibiotics at 6 a.m. and another at 6 p.m. Finally the shoulder felt good."
George, meanwhile, had surgery on his right foot to repair a frayed tendon that had nagged him all last season. He was held out of the first two preseason games. Although it seems a stretch, George says he'll be at full speed for the season opener against the Dolphins on Sept. 9.
One thing that will help McNair and George is the consistency of the offensive line, which returns intact from a stellar 2000 season. Only one blocker, right tackle Fred Miller, isn't at least a two-year starter for the Titans. More tinkering was done on the other side of the ball, where Tennessee traded for end Kevin Carter, the 1999 NFL sack leader, but lost corner Denard Walker (to the Broncos) and free safety Marcus Robertson (to the Seahawks) as free agents.
One day during training camp, as he sat in his office, Fisher was asked how much time he spent in the off-season trying to solve Baltimore's defense. "Well, we don't play [the Ravens] until ... wait a minute," said Fisher, and he spun around in his chair to the schedule on the wall behind his desk. "October 7. That week is when we'll worry about 'em."
Just a hunch: The man who doesn't have his dates against the Super Bowl kings memorized won't put all his eggs in the Ravens' basket. As it should be.
Issue date: September 3, 2001