Jake Locker injury casts pall over Titans' surprise 3-1 start
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The mood here changed rather dramatically in an instant late Sunday afternoon. With Jake Locker under center, the Tennessee Titans were on their way this season. Without him, for however long they might have to endure, they could still be going places, but they're not entirely sure where this next bend in the road might lead.
This wasn't the plan for Mike Munchak's surprise 3-1 team, to lose Locker just as he seemed to be hitting his stride as an NFL quarterback. Tennessee dismantled the New York Jets 38-13 at LP Field on Sunday, burying the rookie quarterback Geno Smith and his teammates beneath an avalanche of first-half points off of turnovers. But just as the party was really starting to rock, someone pulled the plug in Music City, as Locker left the field on a stretcher with a right hip injury, after being hit high by Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and getting clipped by outside linebacker Quinton Coples on his way down.
Locker was taken to a local hospital for an MRI and further evaluation, leaving his team to celebrate the big victory amid some decidedly bittersweet feelings. With Locker down and possibly out, the Titans, like it or not, become veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick's team.
Now what? No one in Nashville really knows at the moment, at least not until Locker's injury and what it means become clearer. It's hope for the best, brace yourself for the worst time.
"There are a lot of mixed feelings in here right now,'' said Titans veteran receiver Nate Washington, who had touchdown receptions of 4 and 77 yards against the over-matched Jets, passing the 5,000-yard career receiving threshold with his four-catch, 105-yard day. "Because 3-1 is where we wanted to be in the first part of the season. But at the same time, there's mixed feelings because we lost our quarterback. We'll try to find out what's going on with Jake, and if need be, try to rally around Ryan.
"It's unfortunate, but that's how things happen in this game. Jake was playing really well. Jake's grown a lot. He's able to do a lot of things now that he wasn't able to do in the past. He understands the offense, he understands the game. It's kind of slowed down for him. But we'll just have to move forward.''
Sunday was only Locker's 15th career start in the NFL, and for the first time, the third-year veteran threw three touchdown passes in a game, all coming in the first half, after three Jets turnovers. Tennessee led comfortably at 24-6 when Locker went down with 11:14 left in the third quarter, and he left having completed 18-of-24 passes, for 149 yards, with those three touchdowns, no interceptions and a sterling 130.0 passer rating.
No wonder the air went out of the stadium, and the Titans offense, for a while after Locker exited. This was how it was all supposed to look and go when Tennessee drafted Locker eighth overall in 2011, and began grooming him to take over the reins from longtime starter Matt Hasselbeck. After the injury, Fitzpatrick came on and finished out the win in decent fashion, completing 3-of-8 passes for 108 yards, including the 77-yard scoring bomb to Washington.
But the surging Titans are tied for first place in the AFC South with Indianapolis (3-1), are coming off confidence-building consecutive home wins and are gearing up for a visit from undefeated AFC West co-leading Kansas City (4-0) next week. The Locker injury was really the only part of the puzzle that didn't fit on Sunday.
"I think everybody kind of went into a lull, I'd say on the offensive side,'' said Munchak, the team's third-year head coach. "The defense continued to make plays. But on offense, it affected us, there's no doubt about it. When it's your quarterback, [injured], it seems to hurt more. He was doing exactly what we hoped he would do. He got the ball in the first half and converted all three turnovers into touchdown passes. He was playing about as good as I think he could play in this game today.''
If Locker isn't hurt seriously, or just misses a game at most, there's still a lot worth celebrating about these Titans, who haven't made the playoffs since 2008. For starters, they're playing great fundamental football, with no turnovers in four games, an astounding feat at any point in the season, let alone the first month. On defense, the Titans have a plus-9 turnover ratio, with five interceptions and four fumbles recovered in four games.
Tennessee forced Smith and the Jets into four turnovers (all four of which turned into Tennessee touchdowns) in Sunday's blowout, with Smith throwing a pair of interceptions to Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner and fumbling twice. Smith was also sacked five times. Verner recovered one of those fumbles -- his four picks in four games are tied for the league lead, and he has six takeaways overall -- and the other was recovered by Tennessee defensive lineman Karl Klug in the Jets end zone for a touchdown, after he strip-sacked the Jets rookie.
The first tone-setting takeaway came on the game's second play from scrimmage, when Smith threw deep toward receiver Stephen Hill, but instead found Verner, who returned it 34 yards to the New York 18. Five plays later, the Titans cashed in, with Locker hitting tight end Delanie Walker from 1 yard out just 3:03 into the game. All game long, really, Tennessee made Smith look very rookie-like.
"Those guys were playing hard,'' Munchak said of his defense. "Our defense is really coming together. The thing we were missing was the two things that happened today: the fast start and getting turnovers. They accomplished both today and put the offense in position to score a lot of points.''
The defense that new Titans defensive assistant Gregg Williams has helped put back on the map might need to step up like never before if Locker is out for any significant length of time. Fitzpatrick, of course, is no slouch. He's started 67 games in the first eight years of his NFL career, including 52 starts the past four seasons in Buffalo. But the Bills gave up on him this offseason after his repeated slumps as a starter, and the Titans signed him as a replacement for backup Hasselbeck, viewing the move as a clear-cut upgrade.
"He's a wily veteran,'' Washington said of Fitzpatrick. "He understands the game. Even though he doesn't get a lot of snaps in practice, he's still talking to us a lot, even before Jake a lot of times, making sure we're all on the same page. Ryan brings a lot to the table. We have to make sure everybody's doing what's best for him. Whatever he has to do right now, we'll make sure we come in and rally around him.''
Next man up is of course the NFL mantra that never goes out of style. But for these Titans, with a schedule of Kansas City at home, at Seattle, and San Francisco at home coming in the next three weeks, before their Week 8 bye, keeping the positive mojo going without Locker, if need be, will be challenging.
"We feel good about ourselves, but we know it's going to be tough,'' Tennessee running back Chris Johnson said. "We have a stretch coming up with three or four tough teams back-to-back. We just have to step up our game and hope Jake hurries up and comes back.''
In Tennessee, the path to bigger and better things in 2013 is still very much open for the Titans. But if Locker is missing for long, the road just got bumpier and the trip a little more complicated.