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Mid Way through a passing drill during the first week of Titans training camp, wide receivers coach Steve Walters jumped onto the field to applaud the efforts of wideout Chris Sanders. A fifth-year veteran, Sanders had read a change in coverage and switched from a short route to a fly pattern. "Great job, Chris," yelled Walters. "You see that defender standing there, you just run right past him. Head downfield. Go deep. Don't ever stop."
"Go deep" appears to be Tennessee's motto for 1999. Last season quarterback Steve McNair completed only three passes of more than 40 yards, and one of those was a Hail Mary. The Titans were so conservative that the team's leading receiver was a tight end: Frank Wycheck caught 70 passes for 768 yards. Only one of Tennessee's top four pass catchers was a wideout (Yancey Thigpen finished third, with 38 grabs).
"The key to the offense, and probably the season, is the wide receivers," admits Thigpen. "Big plays are backbreakers. Last year we had one or two all season. This year we need to have one or two a half."
For coach Jeff Fisher's sake, one a game would be nice. After three consecutive 8-8 seasons, it's no secret that Fisher is on the hot seat. The Titans move into 67,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville, and owner Bud Adams, who brought in former Vikings executive Jeff Diamond as the club's president and chief operating officer, is talking of the franchise's first playoff appearance since 1993. "With this talent," Adams said this summer, "I'd be real surprised if they don't play outstanding football."
If Tennessee doesn't have a receiver who can stretch the field, however, defenses will again stack eight men at or near the line of scrimmage and punish running back Eddie George, who became less productive as the game wore on—he averaged 4.1 yards in the first quarter, 3.1 in the fourth—and less effective as the '98 season wore on. Last year George gained 1,294 yards, but in the final eight games he had only 420 yards. "Teams just didn't respect our deep ball," says Fisher. "But we didn't throw it less than anyone else. We just didn't catch it."
The team is still waiting for moves made before last season to pay off. After signing a five-year, $21 million free-agent deal in March 1998, Thigpen missed seven games with a variety of ailments and caught only three touchdown passes. The Titans signed Sanders to a five-year, $9.5 million extension. The 188-pound Sanders is a burner, but he had only five catches in 1998 and was deactivated for two games. The club also used its first-round pick last year to select Utah wideout Kevin Dyson, who quickly became known as the receiver taken five spots ahead of Randy Moss. Dyson struggled to learn the offense and finished with only 21 catches and two scores.
McNair suffered accordingly. "Steve just didn't have any confidence in his wide receivers last year," says Thigpen. "For this team to win, it has to become second nature for him to let the ball fly and know we'll make a play for him."
Fisher has encouraged McNair to become more vocal about sloppy routes and miscommunications, and he wants the fifth-year quarterback to look downfield before working back to the tight end. The team also plans to use more three-wideout sets with Dyson and Sanders spread wide and Thigpen in the slot.
The biggest hurdle, however, may be getting McNair to unlearn the edict that coaches have drilled into his head since he was drafted in 1995: Whatever you do, do not throw interceptions. McNair has carried that directive to an extreme; he was picked off a franchise-record-low 10 times last year. "Steve needs to cut loose with a throw once in a while," says Fisher. "He has unfolded his game a little bit each year. This season he needs to unfold his game all the way."
Fisher would like to see McNair run less and not be so quick to dump the ball to a tight end or a running back. McNair, however, doesn't appear to have fully embraced the new philosophy. "The object of the game is to move the chains, not throw deep," McNair says. "My slogan is still, 'Don't force the ball.' You don't understand. I hate interceptions."