NASHVILLE -- As the Tennessee Titans headed for their bye week, a sentiment softly worked its way around their practice facility. Keith Bulluck said it at a defensive meeting. Albert Haynesworth said it at his locker.
"We're 5-0," said Haynesworth, the Titans defensive tackle. "But we still have a chance to go 5-11."
The Titans weren't being fatalistic. They were being appreciative. They had built a foundation, but the work was just getting started.
The sentiment was pure Jeff Fisher, the franchise's head coach since 1995 (he wore an interim tag the last six games of 1994), someone who has seen every scenario the NFL has to offer: hot starts, cold streaks, player injuries, player suspensions, midseason personnel changes.
Believe that the Titans aren't throwing a party for being the NFL's only undefeated team.
"[Jeff] doesn't have a team meeting where he screams at guys for a half hour, and we don't have streamers and a disco ball when we're 5-0," said Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. "The players realize it's not what you do in the first half of the season, it's what you do down the stretch. One reason they have that perspective is because we've started poorly before. In 2002, we were 1-4. We finished that season in the AFC Championship, playing into the fourth quarter with the Raiders. They've seen that a bad start didn't kill us, but a good start doesn't necessarily ensure anything."
The Titans have kept their heads this season despite seeing their starting quarterback, Vince Young, go AWOL after being booed at home in the opener and watching him be replaced by the veteran Kerry Collins. Instead of panicking, the Titans offense adjusted.
"We've always had a problem or an issue fighting against nine [defensive players] in a box or eight in a box," said Titans center Kevin Mawae. "Now that we have a quarterback who's throwing the ball down field and receivers stepping up, teams have to play us a little more honest now. We can pick and choose when we want to take those shots."
While the offense has held steady, it is the defense that has defined the Titans with a ball-hawking secondary, physical linebackers and maybe the best front four in the NFL.
Though Haynesworth is the centerpiece, the Titans have expertly filled around him with three recent free-agent pickups: end Kyle Vanden Bosch (2005), tackle Tony Brown (2006) and end Jevon Kearse (2008).
Said Schwartz: "Tony Brown is playing at a really high level also. Kyle basically washed out in Arizona, was injured a bunch, and has turned that into two Pro Bowl appearances. Jevon sort of washed out in Philly, came back here and got rejuvenated. We have a lot of guys with perspective."
Fisher says it's about finding players and maximizing their unique skills. "Adjusting to what we have," he said, "and trying to improve the type of player that you have."
The process has yielded a perfect start despite imperfect circumstances. The Titans are taking their cue from a steady head coach, quietly taking their reps along the banks of the Cumberland River, putting a season together brick by brick.
"Some places you go 5-0 and maybe the locker room would look like you just won the Super Bowl," Schwartz said. "But there is a lot of matter of fact to our guys, and a lot of that comes from Jeff. Whether we're winning or losing, he's the same. He doesn't change schemes or the practice schedule. He's a model of consistency. That's why he's been around for so long."