Back In Stride
The Titans showed their championship form of last season,
running roughshod over the Giants
Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal and his wife, Denisha, had just been
seated for dinner at a Japanese restaurant one night last month
when they heard a comment that has become all too familiar to
them. As the chef prepared the food, a stranger seated at the
same grill as the Neals recognized Lorenzo and remarked, "We've
already made our hotel reservation for Tampa." Neal appreciated
the optimism, but then he thought, It's a little early to be
talking about the Super Bowl.
Expectations have been extremely high ever since Tennessee made
its surprising run to the NFL title game last January. Rightfully
so. Going into Sunday's game against the Giants, however,
Tennessee hadn't been living up to its hype. Injuries and a
stagnant offense had been largely to blame, and even in winning
two of their first three games, the Titans appeared more lucky
than good. They needed late heroics to pull out three-point wins
over the Chiefs (in overtime) and the Steelers.
"People expect us to kill teams and put up big numbers," says
running back Eddie George. "But you have to keep things in
perspective. You're going to get tested once in a while."
Tennessee fans saw things that were more to their liking on
Sunday, as the Titans jumped to a 21-0 lead over New York and
eased to a 28-14 win. Tennessee controlled the ball for more than
42 minutes and held the league's top-ranked rushing attack to 24
yards. Steve McNair threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns,
George ran for 125 yards, and the Titans converted 70% of their
Tennessee entered the game ranked 25th in rushing and had
committed six turnovers in its previous two outings while forcing
only one. The club, which prides itself on ball control, also
started slowly last year, averaging just 74 yards on the ground
in its first three games. By the end of the season, though, that
average was up to 113.2.
Against the Giants, the Titans put together touchdown drives
covering 80, 98, 80 and 80 yards. "We do well when we mix things
up," said tight end Frank Wycheck, "and that's what we did
against these guys." The second scoring drive consisted of 10
running plays and nine passes; Tennessee converted six third-down
plays and bled 9:53 off the clock. What's more, the Titans
intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble, while turning
the ball over just once.
McNair controlled the flow of the game, calling numerous audibles
and playing with a confidence that appears to be growing each
week. "Steve's numbers were one thing," said Titans coach Jeff
Fisher, "but you have no way of ever knowing what else he did for
"We're not doing anything elaborate," Fisher insisted, and the
Giants knew as much. "The sad thing is, we knew what they were
going to do" said New York cornerback Jason Sehorn, "but we
couldn't stop it."
Pricey Pickups Not Panning Out
After practice last Friday, Panthers coach George Seifert praised
his team's decision to overhaul the defensive line in the
off-season. Carolina doled out contracts totaling $41.9 million
to entice end Reggie White out of retirement, to pick up
free-agent tackle Eric Swann and, most important, to lure
free-agent end Chuck Smith from the Falcons to replace the
retired Kevin Greene as its sack specialist. "Those guys each
brought something to this team we needed," said Seifert. "Without
question, they've improved our defense."
But in the Panthers' 16-13 overtime loss to the Cowboys, which
dropped Carolina to 1-3, the improvement was not evident. Dallas
quarterback Troy Aikman was rarely pressured and sacked only two
times, while Emmitt Smith ran for 132 yards and a touchdown.
After four games the paltry production of the newly acquired
trio--combined with that of tackle Sean Gilbert, who continues to
play poorly after signing a seven-year $46.5 million free-agent
contract in April 1998--adds up to this: 21 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks
and incalculable dejection. "We were terrible," a disgusted Swann
said after the loss on Sunday. "We should've beaten them, but we
couldn't stop the run."
Through Sunday the Panthers ranked 28th in the league against the
run and 20th in total defense; in going 8-8 last year, they were
rated 24th and 26th, respectively. After allowing the Cowboys,
who had the league's 18th-ranked rushing offense coming in, to
rack up 173 yards on 38 carries, Carolina is giving up 4.4 yards
per rush, up from 4.2 a year ago.
Chuck Smith, who is suffering from a sore right knee after having
preseason arthroscopic surgery, has played in only two of the
first four games. He's working with team trainers to strengthen
the muscles around the joint and could miss another four weeks.
Fitness concerns have reduced the playing time that was expected
from the 38-year old White and the 30-year-old Swann.
Carolina's shortcomings were starkly evident during the Cowboys'
effortless game-winning overtime drive. With the Panthers' tiring
first unit unable to muster any sort of pass rush, Aikman calmly
completed all three of his passes for 46 yards, while Emmitt
Smith pounded the left side for 14 yards on three carries.
"It's way too early to think [the signings] were disappointing,"
says Panthers defensive coordinator John Marshall, "and it's
certainly no time to panic."
That may be so, but the loss to Dallas came on the heels of
another disappointing home defeat, to Atlanta, and looking at the
Panthers, slumped and silent in front of their lockers on Sunday,
this much was clear: Carolina's season--to say nothing of its
defensive line--isn't getting any younger. --Josh Elliott
Niners' Charlie Garner
A Featured Back At Last
A reputation can be hard to shake. Consider the case of 49ers
running back Charlie Garner: Last year he rushed for a
career-high 1,229 yards, and this season, in a win over the
Cowboys on Sept. 24, he ran for a franchise-record 201 yards to
jump to the top of the NFL rushing charts. Yet he still feels
that he isn't getting the respect he deserves.
"The skeptics are still out there," says Garner, who is second in
the league in rushing, with 500 yards, after gaining 77 yards in
a 27-20 win over the Cardinals on Sunday. "The first question I
got after the Dallas game was, 'Are the Cowboys any good on
The major knock against Garner during an injury-riddled five
years with the Eagles, from 1994 through '98, was that he lacked
the durability to be a full-time starter. Niners offensive
coordinator Marty Mornhinweg thinks that's a bum rap. "Charlie's
toughness," he says, "is probably the most overlooked part of his
At 5'9" and 187 pounds, Garner runs like a man possessed,
spinning, juking and bouncing off defenders. Since signing as a
free agent with San Francisco in July 1999, he hasn't missed a
game and has been a bright spot on a rebuilding team. "If we stay
with our blocks, we know he's going to make someone miss in the
secondary," says center Jeremy Newberry. "Until we played Dallas,
he had only had 12 to 14 carries a game this season because we'd
trailed so much. [Garner ran 36 times against the Cowboys.] All
he needs is the chance to make something happen."
In Philadelphia, which drafted him in the second round out of
Tennessee, Garner averaged 4.6 yards per attempt, but he was
never the featured back. He made 17 starts for the Eagles and
never had more than 116 carries in a season. When the 49ers
signed Garner they envisioned using him in much the same role,
rotating him with Lawrence Phillips as a replacement for injured
star Garrison Hearst, who had fractured his left ankle in a 1998
playoff game. By season's end Phillips had been waived and Garner
had produced 1,764 total yards (third most in the NFL) in his
first full season as an every-down back. In addition to averaging
5.1 yards a carry, he had caught 56 passes for 535 yards.
The 49ers are now starting to think that Garner, who is averaging
5.1 yards per carry, might be their featured runner for some
time. Hearst has undergone two operations to repair a
degenerative bone in his left foot since fracturing his ankle and
is only now beginning to run. "I always hoped and prayed and
tried to be patient when I was in Philadelphia," Garner says. "I
never saw this coming. This is what all that waiting in
Philadelphia was for. I'm not going to let this opportunity go to
Second-year wideout Terrence Wilkins is emerging as a solid
complement to Colts All-Pro Marvin Harrison. After missing the
first two games with a concussion, Wilkins had a career-high
nine receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown in a win over
Jacksonville, then caught a go-ahead touchdown pass in a win
over the Bills on Sunday....
Kansas City guard Dave Szott, an 11-year veteran, is home in
Morristown, N.J., recovering from surgery on his right biceps
and fearful that his season and possibly his career are over.
The Chiefs are holding his roster spot, but he could end up on
injured reserve. Szott is in the final year of his contract and
has expressed a desire to play closer to home....
How bad are things going for the Jaguars, who lost at home to
the Steelers on Sunday? At 2-3 they are under .500 for the first
time since December 1996. They have an injury-riddled line that
gave up seven sacks to a Pittsburgh defense that had a total of
two in its first three games. And in the next three weeks
Jacksonville faces the Ravens, the Titans and the Redskins....
With Bruce Smith getting most of the attention from opposing
offensive lines, Redskins left end Marco Coleman is having a Pro
Bowl year. Following his three-sack outing in Washington's 20-17
overtime win over Tampa Bay, Coleman, a nine-year veteran who is
in his second season with Washington, has eight sacks, already 1
1/2 more than his previous season high. Coleman owes his success
in part to the fact that for the first time he is playing on the
left side--against right tackles, who typically aren't as
skilled pass protectors as left tackles.