Juli Fisher could no longer tolerate the drab, cavernous office that her husband, Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, has occupied but never really settled into for the past three seasons. So in late August she redecorated. Gone are the stacks of cardboard boxes, replaced by lush potted plants that sit atop oak cabinets. The space that was vacant on one side of the room now features a black-leather couch and a circular glass coffee table. A metallic-blue electric guitar—a gift from one of Fisher's friends in the country-music industry—leans against a tower of shelves that are filled with pictures and mementos. The room is impressive, but there's one problem.
"We haven't won a game since my wife did all this," Fisher said while leaning back in his chair and surveying the room one day last week. "I told her I want my boxes back."
The Titans had better change something fast. A 26-7 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday dropped Tennessee to 0-3, its worst start since 1994, and sent a sobering message to any Titans player who thought the team's woes could be easily corrected. A popular choice to reach the Super Bowl, the Titans are as confused and vulnerable as they have been in Fisher's eight-year tenure.
The Ravens pounded the ball on the ground, dominated with a merciless defense and wore down Tennessee. That pattern should have been familiar to the Titans: It's exactly how they went about building a league-best 26-6 regular-season record over the previous two years. No more. "This is a different team from the one people are used to seeing," Tennessee strong safety Blaine Bishop said after the game, "and that won't change until we find a way to play better."
With quarterback Steve McNair and running back Ed George struggling with injuries, it's clear the Titans need more play-makers. "We can't expect to win 13 games because we've done it before," says Fisher. "There isn't some archive that we can just go into and pull out the formula for success. We have to relearn all that stuff."
Even the motivational ploys are backfiring. After practice last Friday, Fisher told his players to bring two-by-fours to Baltimore to "lay some wood on the Ravens" as payback for Baltimore's 24-10 upset of the Titans in last season's divisional playoffs. Ravens coach Brian Billick mentioned those comments during his pregame speech, and by game's end the Titans had caught the wrong end of a big stick. George, tight end Frank Wycheck and cornerback Samari Rolle left with injuries. "What is [ Fisher] going to say?" Ravens defensive end Mike McCrary said. "They're winless. I would say anything to get my team fired up, too."
Tennessee's problems begin with its offense. The Titans rank 27th in the league in total offense, and their only touchdown in the past two games came on a blocked punt return. They are last in third-down efficiency (16.7%); on Sunday they converted only two of 14 attempts. True, only four of George's 29 career 100-yard games have come before Oct. 1, but he is off to the slowest start of his six-year career, with 154 yards on 51 carries. Against Baltimore he carried 13 times for 26 yards. Off-season surgery on the big toe of his right foot may be hindering him.
So too might the absence of a true fullback. Until they claimed rookie Wes Ours on waivers on Sept. 26, the Titans didn't even have one on their roster. (Ours was inactive on Sunday.) They didn't re-sign Lorenzo Neal after last season and waived William Floyd at the end of training camp, leaving the lead blocking assignment to Wycheck and fellow tight end Erron Kinney in the H-back role. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger downplays the loss of Neal, saying he participated in only 25% of the snaps in 2000, but it's apparent the Titans could use another skilled blocker.
"You've got to have a prototype fullback who's going to bang," says Neal, who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. "They really don't have anyone to do that, so Ed's going to take more shots. Frank Wycheck is a great tight end, but banging with linemen and linebackers isn't his style."
The passing game hasn't been any better. McNair was misfiring even before he re-injured his surgically repaired right shoulder in a season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins, and he sat out the Titans' 13-6 defeat by the Jaguars in Jacksonville. His only completion to a wideout on Sunday came on a seven-yarder to Kevin Dyson late in the first quarter.