SOMETIMES PLAYERS listen to their coaches. Sometimes they just pretend to. On rare occasions, they are so inspired by what they've heard that they shave the sides of their heads and wear Mohawks. Or at least that's the effect that new Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow had on center Justin Hartwig. When Chow addressed his charges for the first time at training camp, he repeatedly stated, "Dare to be different." So Hartwig took the coach at his word, though what he did wasn't what Chow had in mind. When Hartwig proudly showed Chow his new 'do, the coach took one look and responded, "I said dare to be different, not dare to be stupid."
Chow was joking, of course, and his easygoing personality is one of the reasons Tennessee players have taken to him. A college coach for 32 years and most recently offensive coordinator for two-time defending national champion USC, Chow was picked by coach Jeff Fisher to replace Mike Heimerdinger (who took the coordinator job with the Jets), in part because Chow works well with young players. And, as running back Travis Henry puts it, "There are a lot of young cats around here." Only 12 players at the start of training camp had four or more years of NFL experience; 11 were second-year players and 36 were rookies. The Titans' youth movement comes by design: They are following the Ravens' model of blowing up the roster and dumping salary, then rebuilding through the draft. In the off-season Tennessee ushered out such veterans as wide receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle and defensive end Kevin Carter, all former Pro Bowl players--this a year after defensive end Jevon Kearse, running back Eddie George and defensive tackle Robaire Smith were allowed to leave.
Fisher thinks this is the perfect situation for Chow. "I was very impressed with what Norm has been able to do year after year after year with younger players," says Fisher. "And his system is such that he can run a sophisticated style of offense with young players, and that's where we wanted to go." Chow's immediate goals were to simplify the terminology, mix up the attack and protect 32-year-old quarterback Steve McNair, who had surgery last December to graft bone to his sternum. He missed half the season and briefly considered retirement. "We're placing a heavy premium on protecting the quarterback," says Fisher. "We have to do it better with Steve at his age." So the Titans will run a lot of play action, deliver the ball quickly and spread it around--"dispersing the defense," as Fisher puts it.
McNair endorses Chow's approach. "He likes to three-step and five-step and keep me on the move, and that's stuff I've been doing all my life," says McNair. "With me being healthy and the young guys coming in, I'm real energized."
McNair will be working with a new face at running back ( Henry) and a new starter at wideout ( Tyrone Calico). In the backfield Henry--whom Titans fans know from his time at the University of Tennessee and already serenade with his college nickname, Cheese--came from the Bills, where he had lost his job to Willis McGahee despite rushing for a total of 2,794 yards in 2002 and '03. He'll split time with Chris Brown, an explosive if injury-prone runner. On the wing McNair's primary target will be Drew Bennett, the converted UCLA quarterback who, after three nondescript seasons, suddenly morphed into Jerry Rice; in the final eight games of '04 he had 859 receiving yards, second most in the league over that time, behind the Panthers' Muhsin Muhammad (now with the Bears).
Chow loves Bennett's versatility, and teammates consider him a freak. "He catches anything, anywhere," says Henry. That isn't by accident; after practices Bennett catches 100 balls in 10 minutes from a Juggs machine, turning at different angles to simulate tough grabs. "I go over the shoulder, turn in, turn out," says Bennett, acting out the positions. "In a good practice you're only getting six or seven balls with the team, so you have to get your work in."
The young Titans will be getting a lot of work this season. Though some optimists believe the team will be in the fight for a wild card, it's more likely that Fisher and Chow will use this season to prepare for a big run next year. That means there could be some long, disappointing Sunday afternoons this fall--no matter how daring or different the Titans try to be. --C.B.
Adam (Pacman) Jones has the breakaway speed and lateral movement to be a game-changer at cornerback and as a punt returner. The first defensive player taken in the 2005 draft, Jones left West Virginia after his junior year having allowed only one touchdown catch in his two seasons as a starter--and he says that was because he lost the ball in the sun. If he can quickly familiarize himself with the Titans' schemes, he could instantly become one of the league's better cover corners.
ENEMY LINES: AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW