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Late one day in August, Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass and saw a familiar sight: four receivers streaking downfield, with two about to break back toward the line of scrimmage. The deep-go/deep-comeback route combination is a play that Hasselbeck has called countless times while running the West Coast offense, and when he planted his back foot to throw he had no doubt his pass to one of the U-turning wideouts would yield a completion. He placed the ball over the receiver's inside shoulder, expecting him to break to the middle of the field. Alas, he broke toward the sideline. The ball sailed past him and skidded onto the turf.
In Seattle that pass would probably have been caught. But in Tennessee it's just another reminder of all that Hasselbeck must learn before he can go back to playing quarterback on muscle memory. He likens the challenge to inputting on a scrambled keyboard: "I'm a good typist, but if someone took the keys and moved them around, it would be hard not to panic."
For his entire 12-year career Hasselbeck has known no other offense but the West Coast. It was tough enough to learn during his first couple of seasons in Green Bay. And it was even tougher to master, though he eventually did that too over the next 10 years in Seattle, where he made three trips to the Pro Bowl and one to the Super Bowl. He had hoped to retire as a Seahawk and never have to learn another system.
When Seattle made it clear that it would not re-sign him, the 35-year-old Hasselbeck considered moving to the 49ers, in large part because of their West Coast tradition. Enticed by the Titans' strong offensive line, however, he signed a three-year, $20-million contract with Tennessee, which hasn't won a playoff game since 2004. Coach Jeff Fisher had a knack for spurring thrilling finishes that bought him job security. (In 2006, after beginning 2-7, he rallied Tennessee to a 6--1 run to close the year; in '09 the Titans finished 8--2 after an 0--6 start.) But when the team began last season 5--2 then dropped the next six games, there was no saving Fisher, who after 16 years at the helm was dismissed with most of his staff.
One of the few holdovers, offensive line coach Mike Munchak, was promoted to the top job in February. The 51-year-old Munchak—who has spent more than half of his life with the franchise, most notably as a Hall of Fame guard for the Houston Oilers—is a back-to-the-future hire: old enough to remember how long it took the team to evolve from run 'n' shoot to bleed-the-clock, yet open-minded enough to experiment and innovate. He has called on a slew of ex-Oilers for help, chief among them offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, a former receivers coach for the franchise who more recently built a reputation as a quarterback whisperer with the Jaguars and the Giants. Munchak made getting Palmer a top-notch passer his first roster priority. "We all knew back when I took this job that quarterback was the huge hole in this offense," Munchak says. "It was a mess. And now I'd say we're as stable as you can be."
Hasselbeck's timing, accuracy and play-action legerdemain should make him a natural fit for the run-based, New York Giants--like system the Titans have installed. The transition, though, has been bumpy. Along with acclimating himself to the offense's nomenclature and nuances, Hasselbeck has lacked playmakers. Do-it-all back Chris Johnson is holding out for more money. Big-play wideout Kenny Britt, who had two brushes with the law during the lockout, has been limited by a hamstring injury in camp.
The setbacks have made it unexpectedly difficult for Hasselbeck to put some distance between himself and Jake Locker, the No. 8 pick in the draft, out of Washington. Locker faces many of the same language barriers with his new offense, but unlike Hasselbeck, the 23-year-old has fleet feet and the ability to throw accurately on the run. One thing both QBs do have going for them is a top-flight offensive line: From 1997 to 2010 the Titans have allowed the second fewest sacks (28.3 sacks per season). And this year will mark just the third time during that period that Tennessee will begin the season with the same starting five. That group includes All-Pro left tackle Michael Roos and eighth-year pro Eugene Amano, who made a seamless transition to center from left guard in '10.
Line play alone could get the Titans back in the playoff hunt. "There are certain things that I can't do as a player," Hasselbeck says, "but I'm good when I have protection. Whenever we had success in Seattle, it was because of our offensive line. All of us, myself included, were just products of their dominance."
WITH 2010 STATS