He knows what it's like to have started from scratch before in the NFL -- been there, done that, twice actually -- so nothing about taking over an offense that was part of last season's 6-10 collapse in Tennessee is going to make Chris Palmer sweat. Shoot, six wins are the combined number of victories the 1999 expansion Browns and 2002 expansion Texans posted when Palmer was the head coach in Cleveland and the offensive coordinator in Houston.
"I'm impressed with the pieces here that I saw on film,'' said Palmer on Thursday night, after his first full day on the job in Nashville as the offensive coordinator on Mike Munchak's new Titans staff. "Obviously we need some more pieces. We're shy a few. But that's what the NFL is all about. It's not like starting an expansion team, I can tell you that firsthand.''
Palmer takes control of Tennessee's offense not yet knowing who his starting quarterback is going to be -- stay loose, Kerry Collins -- and uncertain if receiver Randy Moss is staying put with the Titans or running yet another out pattern to a new NFL address. What he does have, however, is Chris Johnson in his backfield, an emerging Kenny Britt to lead his receivers, and a solid offensive line. And most importantly, he knows the guy he's working for in Munchak, the first-time Titans head coach who was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman on the 1990-92 Houston Oilers teams with which Palmer made his NFL coaching debut.
"When I was flying down here from Cape Cod today, I was saying to myself, 'This is really full circle,' '' Palmer said."[Oilers head coach] Jack Pardee and [general manager] Mile Holovak brought me to Houston and this franchise to coach the receivers in 1990, when we were a run-and-shoot team at the time. To come back and be a part of this, and to see guys like Mike Munchak and [new Titans offensive line coach] Bruce Matthews, who were players for us back then, it's like a walk down memory lane. I keep saying to myself, if the players are as good as these two guys, we'll be in good shape.''
Palmer is back in the NFL after a one-year stint as head coach and general manager of the UFL's Hartford Colonials. It wasn't the most glamorous assignment the ex-Browns head coach has ever served, but he did help discover a boatload of young talent, with 18 different Colonials players being signed to NFL contracts (five on active rosters, and 13 agreeing to either practice squad deals or futures contracts).
Who knows, maybe those renewed scouting skills will help him and the Titans as they begin the search for Tennessee's next starting quarterback, now that the team's Vince Young era is over. Palmer hasn't had much time yet to study this year's quarterback draft class, but given the chance that the labor-challenged NFL won't really have much of a free agency or trading period this offseason, he's about to get very familiar with the prospects at the game's most pivotal position.
With the Titans picking No. 8 in the first round, and having already identified quarterback as their most obvious need, Tennessee is in prime position to spend as much time as possible at next week's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, kicking the tires on Blaine Gabbert, Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett and Jake Locker. The Titans taking a first-round quarterback would seem like one of the draft's safest locks.
"I've looked at some of them, but I haven't studied them yet,'' Palmer said. "To be honest, I just haven't gotten that far. Obviously we need a quarterback. But we also want to run the football and be a play-action team, because C.J. is a guy a lot of people would want to have on their team. We'll get good play out of our quarterback, whoever that guy is going to be. The difference between winning and losing is so slight in this league. I have to admit, I didn't even realize this team was 5-2 at one point last season before things turned on them.''
The Titans were 5-2, scoring points in bunches, and in first place in the AFC South once upon a time. Then Jeff Fisher's final Tennessee team started to disintegrate, losing eight of their final nine amid the Young vs. Fisher drama, the low-impact Moss acquisition, and the cancer diagnosis received by Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. Fisher's surprise departure from the franchise late last month merely capped the whirlwind chain of events that rocked the normally stable Tennessee organization.
But in Munchak, the Titans have themselves a rock-like presence to steady things and lead the way, Palmer said. When he was named the Browns head coach in 1999, Palmer tried to hire Munchak away from the Titans as his offensive line coach, and he knows the man's mettle.
"He'll be a no-nonsense coach, and football is very, very important to him,'' Palmer said. "He wants people around him who feel the same way. He played at Penn State for a great football coach, and he's obviously learned a lot from Coach Paterno. He wants players who will be driven, fundamentally sound, and you'll see a disciplined team that plays hard and fast.''
Plenty has changed in Tennessee in a very short period of time, and plenty more of the remaking of the Titans remains a work in progress. But even without a No. 1 quarterback, Palmer is convinced this isn't a team that's starting over.
"They have some pieces here,'' he said. "I'm excited about how it's all going to unfold, what we can do, and where we're going. I've been in jobs before where the challenges were much tougher. I promise you that.''
I spent some time talking with Washington quarterback Jake Locker recently, and he doesn't duck the issue of his accuracy problems. Locker has struggled mightily at times while throwing in the pocket. Outside of the pocket, on the move, it's a different story. That dichotomy has made it difficult for NFL scouts to get a handle on his draft grade. Some still have him as a first-round talent, while others see the accuracy issue as his fatal flaw, and have him dropping into the second round.
Locker says his inaccurate throwing results from his faulty footwork, and believes it's fixable.
"When you watch the film, when the lower half of my body is in the right spot, the ball goes where I want it to,'' he said. "When it's not right, I have trouble. It's a matter of getting that footwork down and learning it and making it part of my game. But it is something I can work on and improve.''
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Thursday he's not ready to knock Locker's grade down to second-round status. He called Locker "an incredible athlete,'' and expects he'll turn in a 40 time in the range of 4.5 or better at next week's scouting combine. Mayock is intrigued with how the No. 25 Seahawks might evaluate Locker's game, given their need at quarterback.
"There is a guy right down the street [from Seattle] who has first-round ability, but hasn't always shown that,'' Mayock said in a conference call. "It would be interesting to see what their evaluation of Jake Locker is because that's a really talented kid who has first-round potential, but has struggled in the pocket. A lot of people are writing him off, and I'm not. I think we have to do a bunch of homework on him.''
The conventional wisdom is that Locker waited a year too long to enter the NFL, going back for his senior season at Washington when he likely would have been in competition to be last year's No. 1 overall pick. A poor senior season probably cost him millions, especially given that this year's draft may end up being the first under a new NFL rookie wage scale. But if Locker second guesses himself, he hides it well. I asked him what he will tell NFL talent evaluators when they ask him about his costly decision.
"My answer will be the honest truth, that I stayed in school because I had something I wanted to accomplish as a player and student,'' Locker said. "I got my degree in December, and we went to and won a bowl game in my senior year. I'm very proud of that and I'll hold onto it the rest of my life, and nobody can take that away from me. Life is not all about money. Money couldn't buy me the experience I got to experience last year, and that's what's important to me.''
It's pretty apparent from listening to Mayock -- whose recent track record suggests he has a better handle on first-round quarterbacks than any other draft analyst going these days -- that he's not the biggest fan of Arkansas's Ryan Mallett. The inconsistency factor troubles Mayock.
"I didn't say I have a first-round grade on him,'' Mayock said, when questioned about whether Mallett can overcome the concerns about him with a strong showing in Indianapolis. "I said that I've got four [quarterbacks] with first-round ability. To me there's a distinction there, and people just assume when I say that I think he's a first-round guy.
"Here's what Ryan Mallet is. Ryan Mallett has unbelievable, God-given ability to throw a football. And when he has clear pocket and clear vision, there is nobody in the game better.'' But Mayock went on to illustrate back-to-back plays this season against Georgia in which Mallett made the spectacular 35-yard throw look easy on the first snap, and then made a horrible decision and a bad pass on a simple 7-yard hitch on the next snap.
"That's the problem with this kid,'' Mayock said. "Every time I get excited, he does something from a decision-making or an accuracy perspective that bothers me. The common denominator is when he goes bad, it's because of pressure in the pocket. When he can't step up, when he can't see, when he doesn't have clear vision, I believe his production goes way down. Having said all of those things, I would be very concerned about taking him in the first round.''
With one week remaining in the two-week window to apply franchise tags, it's pretty clear that teams have learned exactly how to use their ultimate weapon when it comes to blocking a player's path to free agency. Even if, you know, the players union contends that franchise tags will be meaningless this year once the CBA expires in less than two weeks.
How can you quibble with any of the eight players who have been franchised so far: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, Patriots guard Logan Mankins, Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, Jets linebacker David Harris, Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson, Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali and Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Nobody's getting an undeserved top-five salary among that group, and all but Jackson played for playoff-qualifying teams in 2010. And if Jackson had been available for the Chargers' entire season, they might have made the postseason for a fifth consecutive year.
Players are understandably skeptical about team owners asking them to give back some of the revenue gains they captured in the 2006 CBA when franchise values continue to soar past the $1 billion mark. But one team executive I spoke with this week about the labor issue believes those figures only complicate the process of players understanding the key difference between rising franchise values on paper and what a club's dwindling operating profit margin is these days.
"There's got to be enough room for growth of profits that owners feels like they're getting a return on their investment,'' the club executive said. "Players will cite franchises that have been valued at $1.3 billion and rising, but the reality is, at that price evaluation, how many people can actually afford to buy an NFL franchise?
"Your club may be assigned that value, and it may actually limit your ability to sell the team if it would come to that. It's not a very liquid asset in that sense. That's not the real-life price you would garner, because you probably couldn't find a buyer. It's value on paper, but that's not the same thing as assuming you're making money commiserate with a company that's valued that high. It's an important distinction to make.''