1 Tennessee Titans Injuries ruined 2001 for Eddie George, but he's back in form and ready to dominate again

September 01, 2002

Asked to describe how difficult his job was last season, Eddie
George falls silent and begins tracing with his finger the
six-inch scar that snakes up one side of his right big toe,
around the tip and back down the other side. "It was like..." he
begins, pausing in search of an apt comparison that would
explain his worst year as a pro. After rushing for a career-best
1,509 yards in 2000, George was a shell of that indomitable
runner last year, when Tennessee slumped to 7-9. "It was like my
right foot was a two-by-four," he says. "I had no idea how to
run on it. My mind would say, Cut, but my body wouldn't do it. I
wondered if I'd ever get back to where I was."

During the course of the 2000 season George frayed a tendon in
the toe. He underwent surgery the following February and missed
training camp before last season. Then in Week 4 he suffered a
high right-ankle sprain that further hampered his mobility and
left him running essentially one-legged. George finished with 939
yards, marking the first time in his six-year career that he
didn't rush for at least 1,200 yards in a season.

He had plenty of company in his misery. After back-to-back 13-3
seasons, which included a Super Bowl appearance in January 2000,
the Titans missed the playoffs for the first time in three years
and lost their aura of invincibility at the Coliseum. After
winning 16 of its first 17 games there, Tennessee has dropped
six of its last nine. "Since we lost to Baltimore [at home in
the 2000 playoffs], there's been a hangover here," says the
28-year-old George. "We had a lackadaisical attitude last year.
We lost our edge. But that's changed."

If so, then it'll be mostly because George returns to being the
highly productive workhorse he was before last season. Determined
to hit camp in his famously ultrafit condition, he spent the
off-season working out in Northern California with personal
trainer Raymond Farris (who also trains Barry Bonds and Jerry
Rice), running hills with Rice and regaining confidence in the
leg-churning, power-running style that had been his trademark
before the toe injury. "I tried last season to convince myself
that I didn't need training camp, and I was wrong," George says.
"I was favoring the toe, and that threw off my stride. I had no
balance. I'd watch myself on film and not recognize the guy."

Says coach Jeff Fisher, "It got to the point where he couldn't
get out of his own way. His legs were running into each other. He
would fall in open space, and even when we blocked him clear to
the safety, he couldn't beat the last guy."

It is also no coincidence that George's drop in production came
after Tennessee waived stalwart fullback Lorenzo Neal, who was
George's lead blocker for two seasons. George's comfort level
suffered without Neal, who also is a close friend. "I can show
Eddie the statistics that prove rushing production is the same
with or without a fullback," Fisher says, "but it matters to
him."

To that end, the Titans signed free-agent fullback Greg Comella.
"There's been so much talk about Eddie: 'Does he still want it?'
'Will he be the same?' That's why I came here," says Comella, who
played his first four seasons with the Giants. "I love that
pressure."

His blocking should be inspiring, and Comella also has
above-average receiving skills. He gives quarterback Steve
McNair, coming off the best season of his career, yet another
option. Still, for Tennessee to return to the playoffs, its
defense will have to rebound from a poor season. The Titans are
hoping for impact contributions from safety Lance Schulters, who
played for the 49ers last season, and rookie defensive tackle
Albert Haynesworth, the team's first-round pick out of Tennessee.

To the delight of his teammates, George looked sharp in camp. "We
needed him for a full preseason, to see what he needs from his
line," tackle Fred Miller says. "No question, he's our leader."
Indeed, George was frisky in camp, finishing carries with a
sprint to the end zone (something he didn't do in practices last
year), even barking at Comella when his new backfield mate cut
in front of him during drills.

"Last year Eddie was lost. He was running into darkness," Fisher
says. "But just watch. He'll be running to daylight." --J.E.

COLOR PHOTO: JOE ROBBINS [Regional Cover Inset] WHY THE TITANS WILL RULE THE SOUTH STEVE McNAIR AFC SOUTH COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES After his first sub-1,000-yard season, George welcomes a new lead blocker. COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS SCHULTERS

NEW TWIST

The secondary is getting help from an unexpected source. New
starting linebacker Keith Bulluck, a backup his first two
seasons, will stay on the field with middle linebacker Randall
Godfrey in nickel-and-dime packages. Says an AFC personnel man,
"Having Bulluck is like having another strong safety. He's that
good against the pass."

ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Titans

"The Titans are my pick to win this division. They were banged up
last year, especially in the secondary. If they're healthy,
coach Jeff Fisher will get their swagger back. Last year teams
weren't afraid to play them, because they knew Tennessee
wouldn't get into a grind-it-out battle.... The big question on
the defensive line: Is Kevin Carter done? In his one big year
[1999, with St. Louis] the Rams were always up by 14 points,
which helped inflate his sack total. He's been on cruise control
since.... Jevon Kearse can disrupt an offense, but he's a
liability against the run. They'd better hope that Albert
Haynesworth can be a run stopper like Josh Evans [now with the
Jets].... The linebackers are sound, but the health of Randall
Godfrey [he had minor surgery on his left knee] is a concern....
Lance Schulters will be huge for them. He fits into their
scheme, he's smart, and he'll be the leader they lost when
Blaine Bishop moved to Philadelphia. Who's their other safety?
Tank Williams? Samari Rolle is fine when healthy, but they need
a second corner.... The offense hinges on Eddie George--he sets
up the play-action pass, which makes Steve McNair more
dangerous. George's struggles last year probably helped McNair.
He became a leader, and he had to win games with his arm.... The
wideouts are a bunch of capable No. 2s.... The Titans won't win
13 games, but their balance should push them past the Colts."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 8 PHILADELPHIA
15 at Dallas
22 CLEVELAND
29 at Oakland

Oct. 6 WASHINGTON
13 JACKSONVILLE
20 Open date
27 at Cincinnati

Nov. 3 at Indianapolis
10 HOUSTON
17 PITTSBURGH
24 at Baltimore

Dec. 1 at N.Y. Giants
8 INDIANAPOLIS
16 NEW ENGLAND (Mon.)
22 at Jacksonville
29 at Houston

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: T16
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .500
Games against playoff teams: 5

PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics

COACH: Jeff Fisher; ninth season with Tennessee (65-53 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 7-9 (third in AFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 12/T8/8; defense 5/31/25

OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*

QB Steve McNair 16
431 att. 264 comp. 61.3% 3,350 yds. 21 TDs 12 int. 90.2 rtg.

RB Eddie George 41
315 att. 939 yds. 3.0 avg. 37 rec. 279 yds. 7.5 avg. 5 TDs

RB Robert Holcombe [N] 198
13 att. 42 yds. 3.2 avg. 1 rec. 14 yds. 14.0 avg. 1 TD

FB Greg Comella [N] 273
4 att. 15 yds. 3.8 avg. 39 rec. 253 yds. 6.5 avg. 1 TD

RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

[PVR*]

WR Derrick Mason 39 73 rec. 1,128 yds. 9 TDs
WR Kevin Dyson 154 54 rec. 825 yds. 7 TDs
WR Drew Bennett 225 24 rec. 329 yds. 1 TD
TE Frank Wycheck 128 60 rec. 672 yds. 4 TDs
K Joe Nedney 275 34/35 XPs 20/28 FGs 94 pts.
PR Derrick Mason 39 20 ret. 6.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Eddie Berlin 412 13 ret. 19.5 avg. 0 TDs

LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 305 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Zach Piller 6'5" 315 lbs. 14 games 9 starts
C Gennaro DiNapoli 6'3" 287 lbs. 5 games 2 starts
RG Benji Olson 6'4" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Fred Miller 6'7" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

DEFENSE

LE Kevin Carter 28 tackles 2 sacks
LT John Thornton 0 tackles 0 sacks
RT Henry Ford 16 tackles 1 sack
RE Jevon Kearse 25 tackles 10 sacks
OLB Keith Bulluck 30 tackles 1 sack
MLB Randall Godfrey 61 tackles 1 sack
OLB Peter Sirmon 6 tackles 0 sacks
CB Andre Dyson 54 tackles 3 int.
SS Tank Williams (R) [N] 68 tackles 5 int.
FS Lance Schulters [N] 52 tackles 3 int.
CB Samari Rolle 51 tackles 3 int.
P Craig Hentrich 85 punts 42.0 avg.

[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)

"Schulters will be huge for them. He'll be the leader they lost
when Blaine Bishop moved to Philadelphia."

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)