Tuesday June 15th, 2010

From the vantage point of mid-June, it's always tempting to connect the dots of a team's offseason and then plot that graph line to project the fate awaiting that franchise in the fall. Tempting, but not always accurate.

But you have to admit the dots are starting to pile up a bit in Tennessee these days, what with All-Pro running back Chris Johnson's ongoing contract unhappiness, Vince Young's judgment again on trial and the four-game NFL suspension that promising young Titans linebacker Gerald McRath incurred Monday, as a penance for violating the league's steroids policy.

That seems like a lot of potential trouble for a team that finished last season as one of the hottest clubs in the NFL, winning eight of 10 games to claw its way to 8-8 after that shockingly bad 0-6 start. But it's also easy to overreact to bad news as summer starts to unfold, sensing a pattern at times where none truly exists. There's still almost two months until the Titans have to put a team on the field for the first time, and it remains to be seen how many of Tennessee's recent headlines will translate into real problems come the regular season.

This much I know: You're not going to get the Titans' Jeff Fisher -- the dean of NFL head coaches when it comes to continuous service -- to wring his hands and overreact in June. Fisher didn't give me the ho-hum routine when I asked him Monday if he was concerned about the way things were trending in Tennessee, but he doesn't do the Chicken Little thing either. Fisher got this gig way back in 1994, and he's not prone to public mood swings or taking his club's temperature every other week during the offseason.

"You don't want to say this, but things come up, every year,'' Fisher told me, just hours after he announced McRath's four-game suspension and listened as Young, his starting quarterback, apologized to his teammates and the organization for being involved in an early Sunday-morning altercation in a Dallas-area strip club. "Things always come up, and you deal with them. And that's what we're doing. We're dealing with them. We've had a few little issues, and they're all very different from one another.

"But I don't see any of these issues as being finite. I think they are temporary in nature. They might be little road bumps we have to deal with, but by the time we get to camp, hopefully the only issue we have is that Gerald will be out for the first four games. Once we get to camp, we can assume CJ's situation will have worked itself out, because those situations usually do, and with Vince, he has owned up to his mistake and knows he made a bad decision. He's not necessarily that kind of guy, and hopefully he'll learn from this. So even though we have had different issues of late, I'm not concerned about a trend here. All of this we will be able to put behind us.''

Though Johnson staying away from the team's offseason workouts in protest of his contract and Young's setback on the maturity front -- he was charged with a misdemeanor assault for his role in the strip-club incident and might be subject to league discipline -- have generated the biggest headlines in Tennessee, the Titans' real headache might be dealing with the first-month loss of McRath. The 2009 fourth-round pick out of Southern Mississippi started five games at outside linebacker as a rookie, and the Titans were excited about the prospect of him replacing veteran free agent Keith Bulluck in the lineup.

McRath's looming suspension seems likely to ensure the return of veteran linebacker David Thornton for the final year of his contract with Tennessee, although Thornton is recovering from offseason surgeries to his shoulder and hip and must prove himself healthy enough to get on the field in the preseason as McRath's short-term replacement. The trick for Tennessee will be to continue getting McRath playing time in the preseason and not stunt his development as a starter, while getting someone else ready to fill his spot in the lineup in September.

"In Gerald's case, it's a temporary setback,'' Fisher said. "We're going to have to be smart. He's only started five games and he needs the playing experience in the preseason. But we're going to be without him in the first month, and someone else has to play enough to be ready.''

Fisher said while the Titans have known about McRath's failed test and the appeal process for a while now, it hasn't been so long that every move Tennessee made at linebacker this offseason was done with McRath's potential absence in mind. But suffice to say the Titans are even happier about signing veteran outside linebacker Will Witherspoon to a three-year free-agent deal in early March, and McRath's suspension would seem to at least leave the door open the slightest crack for the return of Bulluck, should he prove he's capable of playing after blowing out an ACL in December just before entering free agency.

With starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch having signed his one-year, $2.5 million restricted free-agent tender Monday, and reserve linebackers Colin Allred, Jamie Winborn and Stanford Keglar still in the mix, Fisher doesn't seem as worried about the impact of McRath's month-long absence on the Titans defense as the Tennessee fan base. He believes there's enough depth on hand to ride out this particular personnel storm.

"We've got options,'' Fisher said. "I'm really pleased with Will Witherspoon and the great start he's off to, and obviously we're hopeful David Thornton is ready for training camp. [As for Bulluck], I don't think it changes anything for us. We've still got both issues to deal with, and they're different issues: He's unrestricted and he had a late-season ACL. The most important thing for Keith right now is to continue to rehab, and then he's going to be able to weigh his options. But as I have said, we'd like nothing more than for Keith Bulluck to finish his career in Tennessee.''

Fisher saved his most pointed comments Monday for Young, whose reputation took a hit with the video tape showing him mixing it up with a Dallas-area strip-club manager at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, after the manager reportedly angered Young by disrespecting his Texas Longhorns with an upside down "Hook 'em Horns'' sign. For Young, whose comeback from the meltdown that his 2008 season represented, it was a misstep Fisher feels could have easily been avoided.

"This is Vince's deal, this is his,'' Fisher said of the strip-club incident. "Vince is an NFL quarterback and he needs to be an NFL quarterback 100 percent of the time, and I think he's realized that now. He can't make bad decisions and put himself into situations where trouble finds him.

"What didn't come out about Vince in this case was that he was returning Saturday night from a charity event that [Titans offensive tackle Michael Roos] hosted, and he did a second charity event as well that night. So he was doing good things along the way, and he was headed for my charity softball game [on Sunday night]. But he made a bad decision on the way home and he's going to have to learn from this. He apologized to his teammates and to the organization, and he was here today working. I believe he'll be able to put this behind him.''

Johnson, of course, wasn't there working out Monday as Tennessee began its penultimate week of OTAs before taking its summer break prior to the July 31 opening of training camp. The 2,006-yard rusher from 2009 hasn't taken part in any workouts or the Titans' conditioning program this offseason, his way of making it known that he has wildly out-performed the five-year, $12 million deal he signed as a rookie in 2008.

Johnson has a great case: He led the league in rushing in just his second season, won the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year award, and set a league record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509. His rookie deal included $7 million guaranteed, but his $550,000 base salary in 2010 leaves him woefully short of the league's top rushers, let alone many of his Titans teammates. But the facts are these: With three years remaining on Johnson's contract, Tennessee has shown zero willingness to renegotiate a new long-term extension and establish a precedent that other players would no doubt seek to exploit. And that's not likely to change.

The result is the potential for a training camp-holdout by Johnson and a summer stalemate between the team and its most valuable player. But Fisher seems to believe all will work out in the end, and it probably stems from the fact that an NFL team holds almost all the leverage in cases like these. Camp holdouts don't often pay off for players, and Johnson himself refused to take a hard-line stance or predict a camp no-show in a phone interview Monday night with The Tennessean.

"I don't know. I'm just working out,'' said Johnson, when asked when he planned to report to the team. "I like my team. I'm not mad. I am not sure what is going to happen. I'm just working out right now, trying to get stronger and faster, and just focusing on my workouts.''

Johnson offered only "no comment'' when asked about the possibility of a camp holdout, and the suggestion that he might play hardball with Tennessee reportedly brought a chuckle and another "no comment.''

"I am just focusing on trying to stay in shape and being ready when I am back on the field,'' Johnson said. "My mind has been on one goal, to continue to be the best running back in the league. I've had a great offseason.''

I'm not sure the Titans, who even had their downtown stadium flooded in May, can really make the same claim. But nobody in the Tennessee organization seems particularly agonized about it as the quietest days of the NFL calendar approach. We can all still connect those dots the Titans have been accumulating this offseason, but reading them as either an arrow pointing up or down is always a matter open to some interpretation.

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