The Tennessee Titans have many of the requisite accoutrements of an NFL team-on-the-rise: new name; new riverside stadium in an up-and-coming city; new lakeside practice facility in the burbs; new uniforms (to which even resident clotheshorse and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen gives a thumbs-up); balanced combination of cagey veterans and young talent; soft division in which a half dozen or so wins are virtually guaranteed; and—whaddya know!—an ultimatum from the the guy who pays the bills. Playoffs, or heads will roll.
That was the message that owner Bud Adams gave to general manager Floyd Reese and coach Jeff Fisher before this season. Considering the distractions those two have endured—the death watch as the team, which was known as the Oilers until this season, played its final season in Houston in 1996; the so-called home games it played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in '97 after the franchise moved to Nashville; the use of cramped, aging Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville as home base last season—Adams should be worshiping at the feet of Reese and Fisher instead of putting their necks in a guillotine. But give an owner a strong-armed quarterback like Steve McNair, a durable running back like Eddie George and a stud rookie like defensive end Jevon Kearse, and visions of Roman numerals start dancing in his head.
The idea that these erstwhile nomads could be in Atlanta on Jan. 30 isn't utterly preposterous. Following a typically grinding 16-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Adelphia Coliseum, 8-2 Tennessee shares (along with the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks) the second-best record in the NFL and has already beaten the team with the best (the 9-1 Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-19, on the road). The Titans are reasonably healthy and ecstatically happy, especially considering that last year at this time they were homeless and heading toward the playoff-less .500 purgatory that had been their usual fate. Three straight 8-8 seasons may make you the favorite of the parity-loving NFL office, but they don't do much to dazzle your new fan base. Or your owner. "You'd have expected that if we hadn't had all those distractions, there would've probably been some changes at the top," says Reese. "I'm taking what Bud said seriously. It's time to stop being mediocre."
Even though the Titans have been anything but mediocre, they've remained practically invisible, both within and without the great state of Tennessee. You can call them low-profile, you can call them boring, or, as offensive tackle Brad Hopkins intriguingly puts it, you can call them "un-notarized." It amounts to the same thing. No Titan has been more unnotarized than George. With 1,368, 1,399 and 1,294 yards in his first three pro seasons, George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, has been nothing if not consistent, yet around the NFL there's the feeling that he needs a breakthrough, that he's on the verge but not quite there, that, to damn him with faint praise, he's atop the league's second tier of running backs, well behind Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson and Emmitt Smith.
His performance on Sunday was typical of his career and the season he's having—83 yards on 21 carries, mostly between the tackles, with a long gain of 14. Though the superbly conditioned George (6'3", 240 pounds, 3% body fat, 4.5 in the 40) suggests a sleek BMW, his role isn't much different from that of the Bus, the Steelers' Jerome Bettis, who churned out 88 yards on 14 carries against Tennessee. One keeps waiting for more from the conservative Titans offense, as well as more from George. George included. "Sooner or later, I will get there," he says. "I don't know whether I'll ever get 2,000 yards. That's not my goal. I don't play for numbers. But I want to have the kind of season where people say I'm among the very best backs in this league."
In the off-season veteran free-agent fullback Lorenzo Neal was brought in to help George achieve that goal, since it was widely believed that George would be more effective in a two-back alignment, rather than running solo or getting backfield interference from an H-back. More often than not, though, Neal has been on the sideline as Tennessee goes with its Ace set (two tight ends, two wide receivers) rather than with Grunt (the fullback takes the place of either a tight end or a wide receiver) or Tank (the fullback and both tight ends are in). Of the 52 plays from scrimmage in which George was on the field against the Steelers, Neal was with him on only 14. The results? George gained 47 yards on 10 carries with Neal as his blocker, 32 on 11 without him.
George and Neal locker next to each other at both the Titans' Baptist Sports Park practice facility and Adelphia, and some of their recent conversations have been about Neal's near invisibility. They talk, too, about things that backs talk about, like what to do when George gets into the secondary. "Eddie always wants me to get my head on the sideline side of the corner-back and he'll go outside," says Neal.
Says George, "This is no slam on our tight ends, but Lorenzo is a running back, so he does things instinctively. In one game Lorenzo chip-blocked on a lineman he knew I was going to get past, then nicked a linebacker, then went out and got the safety. Three men on one play. You can't coach that." Privately, Neal is frustrated and angry but won't be drawn into public controversy. "All I know is that I'll do anything to help Eddie," he says.
George and Neal's keep-a-lid-on-any-controversy restraint typifies the good-soldier Titans. "Four years, four stadiums, three cities, two states, two names," says Reese, "and we heard almost no complaints. The way our players handled the adversity has made everyone in the organization proud."
George is foremost among those players. He sucks up the weekly pounding, takes his medicine and hasn't missed a game in four seasons. Probably the thing that most worries the Tennessee brass about George is that he works out too much. He checked himself into a Columbus, Ohio, hospital in June because he experienced dizziness and cramping while training in extreme humidity; he was given intravenous fluids and released. While other players take a breather during downtime at practices, George hops on a stationary bike or runs sprints, taking care not to disturb the hit-the-helmet passing game that might be going on between Hopkins and fellow offensive line veteran Bruce Matthews. He's legendary for having ripped off 60 dips—an agonizing reverse pull-up maneuver in which the player lowers and then raises himself while gripping parallel bars—during a training camp workout. Before he decided on Ohio State, George got the ultimate we-love-your-athleticism-son nod: Joe Paterno wanted him at Penn State as a linebacker.