Asked to describe how difficult his job was last season, Eddie George falls silent and begins tracing with his finger the six-inch scar that snakes up one side of his right big toe, around the tip and back down the other side. "It was like..." he begins, pausing in search of an apt comparison that would explain his worst year as a pro. After rushing for a career-best 1,509 yards in 2000, George was a shell of that indomitable runner last year, when Tennessee slumped to 7-9. "It was like my right foot was a two-by-four," he says. "I had no idea how to run on it My mind would say, Cut, but my body wouldn't do it. I wondered if I'd ever get back to where I was."
During the course of the 2000 season George frayed a tendon in the toe. He underwent surgery the following February and missed training camp before last season. Then in Week 4 he suffered a high right-ankle sprain that further hampered his mobility and left him running essentially one-legged. George finished with 939 yards, marking the first time in his six-year career that he didn't rush for at least 1,200 yards in a season.
He had plenty of company in his misery. After back-to-back 13-3 seasons, which included a Super Bowl appearance in January 2000, the Titans missed the playoffs for the first time in three years and lost their aura of invincibility at the Coliseum. After winning 16 of its first 17 games there, Tennessee has dropped six of its last nine. "Since we lost to Baltimore [at home in the 2000 playoffs], there's been a hangover here," says the 28-year-old George. "We had a lackadaisical attitude last year. We lost our edge. But that's changed."
If so, then it'll be mostly because George returns to being the highly productive workhorse he was before last season. Determined to hit camp in his famously ultrafit condition, he spent the off-season working out in Northern California with personal trainer Raymond Farris (who also trains Barry Bonds and Jerry Rice), running hills with Rice and regaining confidence in the leg-churning, power-running style that had been his trademark before the toe injury. "I tried last season to convince myself that I didn't need training camp, and I was wrong," George says. "I was favoring the toe, and that threw off my stride. I had no balance. I'd watch myself on film and not recognize the guy."
Says coach Jeff Fisher, "It got to the point where he couldn't get out of his own way. His legs were running into each other. He would fall in open space, and even when we blocked him clear to the safety, he couldn't beat the last guy."
It is also no coincidence that George's drop in production came after Tennessee waived stalwart fullback Lorenzo Neal, who was George's lead blocker for two seasons. George's comfort level suffered without Neal, who also is a close friend. "I can show Eddie the statistics that prove rushing production is the same with or without a fullback," Fisher says, "but it matters to him."
To that end, the Titans signed free-agent fullback Greg Comella. "There's been so much talk about Eddie: 'Does he still want it?' 'Will he be the same?' That's why I came here," says Comella, who played his first four seasons with the Giants. "I love that pressure."
His blocking should be inspiring, and Comella also has above-average receiving skills. He gives quarterback Steve McNair, coming off the best season of his career, yet another option. Still, for Tennessee to return to the playoffs, its defense will have to rebound from a poor season. The Titans are hoping for impact contributions from safety Lance Schulters, who played for the 49ers last season, and rookie defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the team's first-round pick out of Tennessee.
To the delight of his teammates, George looked sharp in camp. "We needed him for a full preseason, to see what he needs from his line," tackle Fred Miller says. "No question, he's our leader." Indeed, George was frisky in camp, finishing carries with a sprint to the end zone (something he didn't do in practices last year), even barking at Cornelia when his new backfield mate cut in front of him during drills.
"Last year Eddie was lost. He was running into darkness," Fisher says. "But just watch. He'll be running to daylight."