Going Nowhere The Ravens gave the once-mighty Titans a dose of their own medicine, leaving Tennessee winless and searching for answers

October 14, 2001

Juli Fisher could no longer tolerate the drab, cavernous office
that her husband, Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, has
occupied but never really settled into for the past three
seasons. So in late August she redecorated. Gone are the stacks
of cardboard boxes, replaced by lush potted plants that sit atop
oak cabinets. The space that was vacant on one side of the room
now features a black-leather couch and a circular glass coffee
table. A metallic-blue electric guitar--a gift from one of
Fisher's friends in the country-music industry--leans against a
tower of shelves that are filled with pictures and mementos. The
room is impressive, but there's one problem.

"We haven't won a game since my wife did all this," Fisher said
while leaning back in his chair and surveying the room one day
last week. "I told her I want my boxes back."

The Titans had better change something fast. A 26-7 loss to the
Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday dropped Tennessee to 0-3, its worst
start since 1994, and sent a sobering message to any Titans
player who thought the team's woes could be easily corrected. A
popular choice to reach the Super Bowl, the Titans are as
confused and vulnerable as they have been in Fisher's eight-year
tenure.

The Ravens pounded the ball on the ground, dominated with a
merciless defense and wore down Tennessee. That pattern should
have been familiar to the Titans: It's exactly how they went
about building a league-best 26-6 regular-season record over the
previous two years. No more. "This is a different team from the
one people are used to seeing," Tennessee strong safety Blaine
Bishop said after the game, "and that won't change until we find
a way to play better."

With quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George
struggling with injuries, it's clear the Titans need more
playmakers. "We can't expect to win 13 games because we've done
it before," says Fisher. "There isn't some archive that we can
just go into and pull out the formula for success. We have to
relearn all that stuff."

Even the motivational ploys are backfiring. After practice last
Friday, Fisher told his players to bring two-by-fours to
Baltimore to "lay some wood on the Ravens" as payback for
Baltimore's 24-10 upset of the Titans in last season's divisional
playoffs. Ravens coach Brian Billick mentioned those comments
during his pregame speech, and by game's end the Titans had
caught the wrong end of a big stick. George, tight end Frank
Wycheck and cornerback Samari Rolle left with injuries. "What is
[Fisher] going to say?" Ravens defensive end Mike McCrary said.
"They're winless. I would say anything to get my team fired up,
too."

Tennessee's problems begin with its offense. The Titans rank 27th
in the league in total offense, and their only touchdown in the
past two games came on a blocked punt return. They are last in
third-down efficiency (16.7%); on Sunday they converted only two
of 14 attempts. True, only four of George's 29 career 100-yard
games have come before Oct. 1, but he is off to the slowest start
of his six-year career, with 154 yards on 51 carries. Against
Baltimore he carried 13 times for 26 yards. Off-season surgery on
the big toe of his right foot may be hindering him.

So too might the absence of a true fullback. Until they claimed
rookie Wes Ours on waivers on Sept. 26, the Titans didn't even
have one on their roster. (Ours was inactive on Sunday.) They
didn't re-sign Lorenzo Neal after last season and waived William
Floyd at the end of training camp, leaving the lead blocking
assignment to Wycheck and fellow tight end Erron Kinney in the
H-back role. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger downplays
the loss of Neal, saying he participated in only 25% of the snaps
in 2000, but it's apparent the Titans could use another skilled
blocker.

"You've got to have a prototype fullback who's going to bang,"
says Neal, who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. "They really
don't have anyone to do that, so Eddie's going to take more
shots. Frank Wycheck is a great tight end, but banging with
linemen and linebackers isn't his style."

The passing game hasn't been any better. McNair was misfiring
even before he re-injured his surgically repaired right shoulder
in a season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins, and he sat out
the Titans' 13-6 defeat by the Jaguars in Jacksonville. His only
completion to a wideout on Sunday came on a seven-yarder to Kevin
Dyson late in the first quarter.

Predictably, Heimerdinger is catching heat in his second year on
the job. He attended one of his son Brian's high school football
games recently, and after the team scored on a 96-yard touchdown,
a fan quipped that the Titans should steal the play. A fan of
talk radio, Heimerdinger hasn't flipped to an all-sports station
in weeks because he knows what he'll hear.

"We're not making enough plays," says Heimerdinger. "We've been
close to breaking some, but something happens, be it a guy
stumbling on a run, somebody missing a block or a pass being
dropped. Those mistakes will hurt any offense."

Says a front-office executive for another AFC team, "Their
offense is predicated on underneath throws, the running game and
play-action. If they don't get their running game going, they're
in trouble."

The Titans already are experimenting with changes along the line.
Bruce Matthews shifted from left guard to center, replacing Kevin
Long, who started 16 games last season. Zach Piller, a third-year
player, made his first NFL start, moving into Matthews's old
spot. Those moves didn't faze the Ravens, whose defense hasn't
allowed a 100-yard day by a runner in 41 games. How reluctant
were the Titans to run the ball? Facing third-and-one in the
third quarter, McNair threw incomplete to George in the flat. In
recent years Tennessee wouldn't have thought twice about blasting
George into the line.

If things weren't bad enough, Tennessee's typically stout defense
wasn't up to the task on Sunday either. Terry Allen (108 yards,
one touchdown) led a rushing attack that gained 207 yards, only
23 yards fewer than the Ravens had in their first three games
combined.

Life won't get any easier for the Titans; next up is a game in
Nashville with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The numbers are
daunting: Since 1990, only three teams that started 0-3 have made
the postseason. "The playoffs are the last thing on our minds,"
says left tackle Brad Hopkins. "Our major priority is salvaging
this season."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Stacked upMcNair and George found yards hard to come by against Baltimore's vaunted defense.

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)