George wasn't always so motivated. He was a slacker for his first two years at a suburban Philadelphia high school until his mother, Donna, stepped in with a two-word solution: military school. Off he went ("in tears," says George) to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, where soon he had an awakening. "My coach, Mickey Sullivan, told me one day, 'Anything you want you can get if you change your attitude,' " George recalls. "Suddenly, it was like a new world clicked in. It changed my whole philosophy. I'd miss lunches and dinners to get in a workout."
Fisher frets about George's perfectionism. The two have talked lately about Walter Payton, to whom Fisher was close when they were Chicago Bears teammates from 1981 to '85. "Eddie detests making mistakes," says Fisher. "It's part of his competitive drive. That's good. But I tell Eddie that he should ease up on himself. Walter had as much drive as anyone, but he used to laugh off mistakes, forget about them and move on."
George never met Payton, but he has adopted him as a role model. "I know I can't be exactly like Walter because I don't have his outgoing personality," says George, "but I want to understand his work ethic, the process it took for him to get to the top. I'm more of a leader by example, but I've tried to be a little more vocal this year, be a guy that players can come to."
Tennessee needs more of that because its other franchise player on offense, the 26-year-old McNair, is also a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy. In keeping with the Titans' image, he is also rock-ribbed tough. McNair could spend his days complaining that Fisher and offensive coordinator Les Steckel have turned his cannon of an arm into a BB gun by ordering conservative routes for tight ends Frank Wycheck (Tennessee's leading receiver the last three seasons) and Jackie Harris, rather than letting him throw down-the-field crowd-pleasers to wideouts Kevin Dyson and Chris Sanders. (Thigpen missed Sunday's game with a sprained left ankle.) Instead, there was McNair against the Steelers, lurching into the end zone from two yards out for a first-quarter touchdown and then making a flying leap from the one to score later in the period. He was just 10 weeks removed from the back surgery that had kept him out of five games. "It means something when your quarterback lays his body on the line the same as everybody else," says Wycheck. "The sacrifices that Steve has made for this team are unbelievable." George, sounding leaderlike, put it this way: "Steve's performance was uplifting."
As was that of the Titans' defense. Fisher, who played safety in Buddy Ryan's 46, has brought that system to Tennessee, where two ingredients are in place to make it work: an imposing front line and quicksilver cornerbacks. After only 10 games the 6'4", 260-pound Kearse has officially reached the scary stage. His speed off the ball—he's as fast as George in the 40—twice caused Pittsburgh linemen to move prematurely; this was after Kearse, who ran his sack total to 7½ with a fourth-quarter takedown of Kordell Stewart, lost his breakfast on the sideline early in the game. "I guess I just got too excited," he said with a smile. (Prediction: In five years Kearse, ferocious on the field, engaging off it, will be the game's dominant defensive player as well as a popular pitchman.)
As for the speed of corners Denard Walker and Samari Rolle, consider these two plays. In the third quarter Stewart threw a perfect bomb toward wideout Hines Ward. Rolle came flying out of nowhere to tip it away. In the fourth quarter Stewart noticed that Tennessee was in an eight-in-the-box, go-and-get-the-quarterback alignment, a characteristic scheme of the aggressive 46. Stewart called an audible and went long to wideout Troy Edwards. It didn't matter: Walker was right there, as was free safety Marcus Robertson, and they broke up the pass.
The Titans are the proud owners of a pair of one-point victories, three three-point wins and a six-point triumph. This is starting to look less like an accident and more like Fisher's guiding philosophy—score early, close up the bag of tricks (a small bag to begin with) and pray that the defense can hang on. That's not the case, the Titans say, but subconsciously that's what they might be doing. It's a dangerous formula. Either way, barring a collapse, the franchise should make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, when Warren Moon was under center. No, Tennessee hasn't overwhelmed anybody, but it appears there will be no head-lopping ceremony at season's end.