By George Led by the strong and swift Eddie George and a surprising and stifling defense, the Titans manhandled the Colts to buoy the Super Bowl hopes of their legion of new fans

January 24, 2000

Eddie George was 15 when his mother, Donna, changed the course
of his life. Alarmed by his poor grades and lack of discipline,
Donna stunned Eddie before what would have been his junior year
at suburban Philadelphia's Abington High by insisting he attend
Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. "We both cried when he left
for school," she recalled on Sunday, after Eddie had rushed for
162 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in leading the Tennessee
Titans to a 19-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC
divisional playoff game, "but if I'd left him at Abington,
there's no way he'd be here today, and there's no way he'd have
turned into the man he is."

The youngster who lived on the edge of mischief a decade ago has
matured into the NFL's new Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside. His 68-yard,
third-quarter touchdown run against the Colts gave the Titans a
lead they would not relinquish. Now Tennessee needs only a
victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday to secure the
franchise's first Super Bowl appearance. The Titans swept the
Jaguars this season, 20-19 on Sept. 26 and 41-14 on Dec. 26, and
the thought of a rematch has Rocky Top's new darlings giddy. "Can
you imagine the Jaguars' sitting at home, watching this game?"
Tennessee's backup quarterback, Neil O'Donnell, said, chuckling,
after Sunday's win. "They've got to be saying, 'Oh, no! Not
again!'"

Especially given the way the Titans manhandled Indianapolis.
Everybody in America knew coach Jeff Fisher would feed George the
ball 25 or 30 times and get frisky quarterback Steve McNair a few
forays outside the pocket. Everybody knew, but the Colts were
unable to stop George and McNair from combining for 197 yards on
33 carries. No one would have figured, however, that Fisher and
his risk-loving defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, would come
up with a game plan that featured nearly all man-to-man coverage
against the conference's scariest passing attack. Imagine
single-covering All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison and living to
tell about it.

It helped that Tennessee's brutish front seven kept hitting
playoff rookie Peyton Manning (19 completions in 43 attempts, no
touchdowns) in the mouth and that its magnetic cornerbacks,
Samari Rolle and Denard Walker, frustrated Harrison (five
catches, 65 yards, two drops). If McNair starts making plays in
the passing game, the Titans will be scary.

So much about this franchise has been a surprise. After playing
in Houston in 1996, in Memphis in 1997 and in Nashville, at
Vanderbilt Stadium, in 1998, the Titans moved into shiny
67,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum, also in Nashville, this fall still
not sure that the state's college-oriented sports fans cared
about them. What they've gotten has been University of
Tennessee-like support. About 2,000 fans jammed the Nashville
airport last Saturday afternoon, making the players and coaches
wriggle through the crowd to reach their Indianapolis-bound
charter. That night 750 well-wishers packed the lobby of the
Westin hotel in Indy, where the Titans were staying. An Elvis
impersonator wore the number 23 jersey of Tennessee safety Blaine
Bishop. A Fisher sighting provoked Beatles-style shrieking. "This
season has blown us away," George said last week. "Since I've
been in the league, Houston didn't care about us. Memphis hated
us. Last year in Nashville we struggled for support. I feel like
this is my first year of NFL football--real NFL football, like the
kind I watched on TV growing up."

What was amazing on Sunday was hearing Titans fans--maybe 10,000
of them--whooping it up in the RCA Dome, where Indy had lost only
once all season. They had much to cheer about. The defense penned
in AFC rushing champ Edgerrin James and held the Colts to three
first-half field goals. After Manning threw for 105 yards in the
second quarter, Williams thought the quarterback might be getting
too comfortable and switched the coverage at halftime, isolating
the 6-foot, 177-pound Rolle on the 6-foot, 180-pound Harrison.
"That's the fun part of coaching--the chess match," Williams said
later. "When I told Samari at halftime, his eyes lit up.
Eighty-five percent of their offense this year has been played
against zone. We played zone maybe five or six snaps all day."

Harrison, with three catches for 46 yards in the second half, was
a nonfactor. "We fear no receiver," said Rolle. "Harrison was
supposed to shred us. But you get in a receiver's face, and you
give him some contact, and he doesn't like that. That's how we
play."

Tennessee's biggest play of the game came on the third snap of
the second half. Let's set the stage. When Walter Payton died in
November, George went to Payton's former Chicago Bears teammate,
Fisher, to learn what had made Sweetness great, and Fisher told
him that Payton always wanted to play the perfect game and live
the perfect life. So George decided he wanted to play the perfect
game and live the perfect life. "I got to thinking, If I want to
be the best, I have a window I have to use. So use it," he said.

Use it he did when, trailing 9-6 and with the ball at their own
32, the Titans called a counter play--17 Counter Switch--for the
first time all afternoon. "We were just trying a bunch of
different things, seeing what worked," said Fisher after the
game.

"I get the handoff," George said, "then take one step downhill
[to the left]. Then I turn and run the other way. The first hole
I see, I take. I had a good hole."

Amazingly, no one caught George. Fullback Lorenzo Neal sealed off
defensive end Chad Bratzke, and by the time the 240-pound George
hit the Indianapolis 40, he had three defensive backs--corners
Jeff Burris and Tyrone Poole and safety Jason Belser--in his
rearview mirror. George looked up at the huge end-zone video
screen to see who was behind him and by how much. He stormed into
the end zone with Poole trying in vain to punch the ball loose.

After the game, as Donna waited for the media to finish with her
Eddie, she told everyone about what a man he'd become. When she
finally faced him, she demanded his touchdown ball. "It's got to
get painted," Eddie said, "and then you'll have it." As she
hugged her star of a son, in his custom-tailored suit, for a good
two minutes in the bowels of the RCA Dome, she started sobbing.
"Oh, Mama," Eddie said soothingly, rubbing her back. "Stop that.
Don't cry."

"You made it!" she said. "You made me so proud! And you scored a
touchdown!"

"Gotta do it again, Mama," he said.

Donna was right: Eddie has grown up to be quite a guy. He knows
that his work isn't finished.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS GAME-BREAKER George's 68-yard burst, the longest touchdown run of his pro career, put the Titans ahead to stay.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)