A kick returner since childhood, when he played football in the streets of Detroit, Mason arrived at Michigan State in 1993 only to find a talented group of receivers ahead of him. Only after other Spartans wideouts were beset by injuries was Mason able to showcase his receiving skills. He led Michigan State in receptions as a senior, and the Titans selected him in the fourth round of the 1997 draft. His Tennessee teammates have been impressed with how smoothly he has made the transition from role player to major contributor. As Del Greco lined up for his game-winning field goal on Sunday, Thigpen, Pickens and Sanders were among those who embraced Mason on the sideline. Mason never so much as cracked a smile.
"I was enjoying myself, but sometimes you have to stop smiling and get the job done," he says. "I want the coaches to see that I'm good enough to be a starter. I know we brought Yancey and Carl here for a purpose, but I plan on making the most of my chances."
Says guard Bruce Matthews, "We've had some games when we've struggled early on offense, and it seems that he has been the guy who has made things happen. You can see his confidence growing. Whether it's a return or a reception, you feel like he's going to make something happen."
That's exactly what Mason did against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 30. The Titans trailed 7-3 and hadn't done much on offense when he returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter. They led 20-7 by halftime and hung on for a 27-21 win. For the season Mason ranks second in the league in kick-off returns and seventh in punt returns. One of his biggest fans is George, who goes so far as to call Mason the team's most valuable player this season. However, it's difficult to imagine any Tennessee player wrestling that honor from George.
Last week George woke up every morning at 6:30 to undergo treatment for sprains to his right knee and ankle and a swollen right toe. Though hampered by those injuries against the Steelers, he still displayed the rugged running style that drives the Titans' offense, pounding out 98 yards on 34 carries. He was at his best on a third-quarter drive, running seven times for 36 yards and frequently carrying defenders along the way. He made a key block on Mason's pivotal fourth-down reception, picking up blitzing cornerback Deshea Townsend. On the next play he ripped off an 11-yard run up the middle. However, like McNair, George isn't happy with how his team is playing.
"We don't feel like we're the best team, not at all," George says. "I know I'm not satisfied with how we're doing things, especially offensively. We're finding ways to win, but it's time that we put together a complete game and stop shooting ourselves in the foot."
While the offense sorts out its problems, coach Jeff Fisher has the luxury of relying on a unit that entered the Pittsburgh game ranked fifth in the league in total defense and points allowed. When the Steelers took over with 4:38 to go, hoping to seal the victory, the Titans shut them down. Pittsburgh went three-and-out while taking only 56 seconds off the clock.
Still, Fisher believes even the defense has room for improvement. Last week he criticized star end Jevon Kearse, saying that Kearse was "back to being a one-dimensional pass rusher, going up the field with speed" and that he wasn't "winning his share of one-on-one [matchups]." Fisher added that Kearse could benefit from watching how fellow end Kenny Holmes prepares for games. Holmes, a 1997 first-round draft pick out of Miami, leads the Titans with five sacks and five forced fumbles.
Kearse, who has only three sacks this year after leading the AFC with an NFL rookie-record 14� in 1999, saw a lot of double teams early this season, but for the past month or so opponents have primarily used a single blocker on him. Fisher's comments shocked Kearse, but they got results. Kearse spent two days last week working on his speed and power-rush moves before practice. "I let [the criticism] get to me," he said after making only one tackle against the Steelers. "It's not that I wasn't getting to the quarterback or beating my man. I just wasn't coming up with that sack, and [ Fisher] wanted me to work for that extra inch. I need to push myself more, and I'm going to keep what he said in mind."
"I wasn't making an ultimatum," Fisher said. "It was just fact. We need more production out of everybody. Jevon worked hard all week and was a factor today, but we were disappointed in his offside penalty [in the fourth quarter]. He was trying to time the snap count to put pressure on the tackles."