The question is barely out, and coach Jeff Fisher is already smiling knowingly. He has heard the query too many times to count: How can the Titans expect to get back to the playoffs after having to pare nearly $18 million off their salary cap and losing a pair of franchise cornerstones in running back Eddie George and defensive end Jevon Kearse (not to mention emerging wideout Justin McCareins and tight end Frank Wycheck, who retired)?
"With all due respect to those guys, especially Eddie, who's like my son, and Jevon, who's great," Fisher says, "we really like the guys we have here. If people think we're down, that's fine. Because we know we're not."
After a 12-4 season that ended with a 17-14 loss to the Patriots in the AFC divisional playoffs, Tennessee faced a daunting task. So rather than waiting another year to address their cap dilemma and overpaying to retain underproductive stars, the Titans let free agent Kearse (only 111/2 sacks over the last two seasons) sign a megadeal with the Eagles; reduced a glut at the No. 2 receiver spot by trading McCareins to the Jets for a second-round draft pick; and, with second-year man Chris Brown in the wings, released George after he and the team could not come to terms on a renegotiated contract. (George signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys.)
While Tennessee coaches and players speak the names of the departed in hushed tones, pardon them if they're not singing a sad song in Music City. It is the team's belief that quarterback Steve McNair, the league's co-MVP last season, is the only star this team needs to reach the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. "It was tough to see Eddie go, because he's, well ... he's Eddie George, you know?" Brown says. "I'm not replacing Eddie. That's not possible. But I'm excited to get as many touches as I can."
Faster and more athletic than George, the 23year-old Brown brings an explosiveness to the Titans' backfield that has been missing for years. Though Brown sat out the first five games of last season with a pulled right hamstring, he had, by year's end, surpassed the declining George. Fisher believes Brown hits the hole more quickly and catches the ball better than George did in 2003, when the then 30year-old veteran rushed for 1,031 yards but averaged only 3.3 yards a carry and scored five touchdowns. "With Chris we can do a lot more with our running game," Fisher says. "He hits the line so quickly, but he can also bounce outside. Plus, Steve will find him out of the backfield, and that's something we haven't done much of."
While the running game should be revitalized, McNair's arm will still drive the offense. His best wide receiver, Derrick Mason, is coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and Drew Bennett takes over the No. 2 role that he and McCareins shared a year ago. Bennett says he has gotten over the heartbreaking loss in New England last January, a defeat particularly painful for the fifth-year wideout who, after making two circus catches in the Titans' final drive, dropped a catchable McNair fourth-down heave that would have put Tennessee within field goal range. To clear his head, last February, Bennett joined a group of friends in Rio de Janeiro for a three-week vacation. "I needed that break, but I wasn't doing much while I was there," he says. "Two weeks in, I tried to do a beach run, and after 100 yards I almost died. So when I got back, I worked harder than I ever have. It's amazing what a good alarm clock one dropped pass can be." The Titans are hopeful that second-year wideout Tyrone Calico, a 4.3 burner with questionable route-running skills, can replace McCareins as a deep threat.
Defensively Tennessee will miss Kearse, its most dynamic playmaker when he was healthy (as well as tackle Robaire Smith, who left for the Texans in free agency), but the coaching staff is bullish on right end Carlos Hall (11 sacks as a fill-in over the last two seasons) and on the prospect of veteran Kevin Carter's move from left end to left tackle.
So if Brown lives up to expectations and the defensive line jells and, most important, if the injury-prone McNair stays relatively healthy, the Titans will contend with the Colts for the AFC South crown. That's a lot of ifs, but then there's a reason Fisher is smiling. --Josh Elliott
> When safety LAMONT THOMPSON walked into Jeff Fisher's office before last season, the coach quickly got to the point. "I told him that if he didn't make it here, he was finished [in the NFL]," recalls Fisher. Thompson earned playing time in the postseason as the nickel corner. This year he could displace Lance Schulters at free safety.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
They've got a very good system in place. Jeff Fisher is a great coach, and Mike Heimerdinger is an underrated offensive coordinator.... Steve McNair doesn't run as much as he used to, but he can make all the throws. If you had to pick your poison, I'd rather face [the Colts'] Peyton Manning than McNair.... Derrick Mason is as underrated a receiver as there is, and Tyrone Calico will be downright scary when he figures out how good he can be. He's big and fast and just needs to catch the ball more consistently.... The cornerbacks are the strength of the defense--they use Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson to press outside and work everything else off them--but they've taken some big hits on the line. They drafted some guys, and I don't think they have any idea how good any of them will be.... Albert Haynesworth is a talent, but will he go hard every play? He hasn't so far.... At linebacker Keith Bulluck is a very good player, but I'm not a Rocky Calmus fan. He's undersized and isn't strong enough.... I see them right there with the Colts; they should make it back to the playoffs.
"Tyrone Calico will be downright scary when he figures out how good he can be. He's big and fast."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 12-4
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Jeff Fisher; 11th season with Tennessee (88-62 in NFL)
12 at Miami
3 at San Diego
11 at Green Bay (M)
24 at Minnesota
7 Open date
21 at Jacksonville
28 at Houston
5 At Indianapolis
13 KANSAS CITY (M)
19 at Oakland
25 DENVER (S)
NFL rank: T-26 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .484 Games against playoff teams: 7