IN RECENT years the Titans have relied on veteran leadership. Players like linebacker Keith Bulluck, center Kevin Mawae and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch helped stoke the team in great seasons like 2008, when Tennessee went 13--3, and steadied the squad in uneven years such as '09, in which the Titans rallied from an 0--6 start to finish 8--8.
The question for 2010 is whether Tennessee has any leaders left to lean on after an off-season during which the team's locker-room generals either left voluntarily or were discharged. After 10 years in Nashville, Bulluck signed with the Giants. Mawae, who helped pave the way for the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack in '09, was cut. And Vanden Bosch hit a four-year, $26 million jackpot with Detroit after the Titans refused to engage in a free-agent bidding war.
"People make a lot of ado about the leadership, but I'm not concerned about it," coach Jeff Fisher says. "The guys that left were great, but the guys we have here are still great."
The best of them is running back Chris Johnson, who last season set a league record by racking up 2,509 yards from scrimmage, including 2,006 rushing. After a brief contract dispute over the summer (he wanted to be the NFL's highest-paid player but settled for a $1.25 million raise and will make $4.2 million this year), Johnson returned to the team and set his sights on reaching another league milestone, this one even more difficult than last year's. "I'm shooting for 2,500 [rushing yards]," he says, "but I'll be happy with anything over the record [of 2,105, set by Eric Dickerson]."
That was a bold statement, even more so considering that he'll have to do it behind a tweaked offensive line. With the release of Mawae, Eugene Amano slides over from guard to center and backup Leroy Harris steps into Amano's spot. But, as Fisher pointed out at the start of camp, "I'll remind you that last year at this time, when [Johnson] wanted to be the MVP and rush for over 2,000 yards, everybody kind of said, 'Oh yeah, really? We'll see what happens.' It happens."
Johnson will have a better chance of reaching 2,500 yards if Tennessee can develop a downfield passing game to prevent defenses from stacking against the run. Even though he led the Titans to an 8--2 record after returning to the starting lineup midway through 2009, quarterback Vince Young remains the object of much scrutiny. But, according to Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, Young was a hit in the off-season (as well as in a Dallas strip club in which he got into a minor scuffle in June), which they believe portends good things this fall for the fifth-year quarterback.
"I believe we have surrounded him with the best skill players to date that he's been on the field with," Fisher says. "That simply will help in his improvement. He has room to improve, but again I think with what he was able to accomplish this off-season, all the signs are there for him to have a great year."
One of those ascending skill players around Young is receiver Kenny Britt. After a breakout 2009 rookie season in which he led the team in receiving yards (701) and made a pinballing, game-winning catch against Arizona in Week 12 to keep Tennessee in the playoff hunt, Britt returned to Nashville for spring workouts out of shape. Hamstring and knee injuries reduced him to mostly an observer in practices. A bruised confidence contributed to dropped passes, allowing Nate Washington and Lavelle Hawkins to steal reps from Britt.
"When I'm not focused on the field, I'm gonna have some drops," says Britt. "I want to be the guy who makes his quarterback look good regardless. If he throws a bad pass, I want people saying I didn't get to it. It was my fault."
By the summer Britt was ready to challenge Washington and Justin Gage for a starting job. He rededicated himself to his fitness, with an emphasis on increasing his endurance. "A lot of times [last year] I needed an IV or a muscle relaxer just to keep going at 100 percent," he says. "What I want to do this year is start out the first game going all four quarters without stopping."