Before embarking on a the reasons why the Titans’ 2008 offseason led to the 13-3 season, I’ll throw in a fantasy baseball nugget. My team has not been in the second division for three years. In fact, I haven’t been lower than third in the league in that time. I’m now in 8th after losing this week to an uncle who’s now in first place and usually resides in the basement, hence his team name “Last Place Law”. I made panic moves by picking up Asdrubal Cabrera (almost as poorly named as some of the women on Tough Love) and Russell Branyan (yes, he’s still alive) to shore up my weak bench.
It was educational to watch the Titans’ Monday Night performance because I got to hear the announcers. There wasn’t much believing in the Titans when they were 6-0. I don’t blame them. The team was led by a has-been backup QB in Kerry Collins, had no receivers at all, and was trying to figure out if Chris Johnson was for real or not. The Titans responded by throwing more than they ran, took advantage of a few timely penalties and didn’t turn the ball over.
How did the team make the leap from 10-6 to 13-3? I’m going to review this based on offseason action. Nothing that happens in the offseason means anything until the season starts. Going into 2008, the Titans had a strong defense, a suspect offense, and critically, a new offensive coordinator. Offseason reports focused on Vince Young’s development. What kind of crazy team drafts running backs in the first two rounds three years in a row when they clearly needed a top WR?
Big stories that didn’t matter:
Vince Young developing under the same OC who made Steve McNair into a star: After a humbling 2007, Young would work hard to re-capture his 2006 mojo. That was a given. Instead, he spent half of his offseason in Austin taking classes. When you have $10 million plus in the bank, don’t worry about school until your first career tanks.
Alge Crumpler signs: He immediately became the team’s number one receiver by default. No one gave much heed to Crumpler’s career high of 65 catches or the nagging injuries that led to his release by the Falcons.
The overdrafting of a combine workout warrior: When you look at a list of the top 40-yard-dashes, you don’t always see a list of NFL studs. Ian Johnson and Kory Sheets finished 2nd and 3rd in RB 40 time at the combine. Neither were drafted. Chris Johnson ran a 4.29, by far the fastest 40 time. With the juggernaut combo of LenDale White and Chris Henry, Johnson was somewhat of an afterthought. In both of my dynasty leagues, he was the 7th player taken.
Little stories that did matter:
Collins tears it up: Kerry Collins trained harder prior to the 2008 season than he had in years. He prepared like he was the starter, which enabled him to come into the season opener cold and complete a third-down pass that all but clinched the game. No one cared about Collins in the offseason because he was just the “wily old veteran” hanging out, wearing a baseball cap, and making a couple of (million) bucks in the process.
Salary-cap positioning: Much was made about how the Titans were not active in free agency last year. Instead of signing overpriced vets, they signed David Stewart, Michael Roos, and Cortland Finnegan to long-term deals. If they had waited another year to sign Finnegan, the price would have more than doubled. Signing your own veterans is a smarter financial move than the veteran because the guys already know the system, town, and franchise.
Second-year upswing: Michael Griffin was a much unballyhooed first-round selection by the Titans in 2007. He switched from cornerback to safety during his rookie year. With one position to play and an entire offseason to learn the playbook, Griffin was prepared to put together a Pro Bowl campaign.
Luck: The third-down penalty that started the game-winning drive at Baltimore was luck. Continuing the drive against a tough defense on the road was not. In the game-tying drive against the Colts, a third-down penalty helped continue the series. Collins kept the drive alive with some timely third-down magic. He was helped by an offensive line that gave up 12 sacks all year.
Let’s not forget the unsung heroes from 2008. Bo Scaife caught 58 passes, which made him Alge Crumpler for about a fifth of the price. Justin Gage only caught 34 passes. He averaged 19 yards per catch and absorbed a huge hit by Troy Polamalu in the December victory over the Steelers. Chris Hope came back from a devastating neck injury to put up a Pro Bowl campaign. Nick Harper accepted a slight demotion to CB2 and finished second on the team in tackles. Ahmard Hall made the most of his limited opportunities.
Jim Washburn, the crusty defensive line coach, worked his magic again. With Albert Haynesworth out against the Steelers, a defensive line full of backups dominated the Steelers. Apparently no one who matched up with Pittsburgh in the playoffs watched the film. Tony Brown stepped up. Jason Jones played well. Jacob Ford, who missed his rookie year with a torn Achilles, was second on the team with seven sacks. He’s one of the reasons why the team didn’t address DE in the draft.
It all came together perfectly. At least it did during the regular season. The loss at Houston and the season finale preseason-esque drubbing in Indy soured it slightly. 2009 begins with too many expectations for fans to be as exhilarated. Perhaps the Titans will survive the regular season and thrive in the playoffs like the Steelers did one season after a crushing home playoff loss. I have plenty of time to think about it.