Denouement

It was always going to end like this. Fans were blinded by recent success, relative as it was, into thinking that not only was a Wild Card trip a possibility, but a playoff run. We knew. We knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending to the 2009 season.

Last night’s game was hard to watch, not because the Titans “blew” their opportunity to advance the season, not because they were exposed on national TV, but because that’s who they have been all season. Last year’s team was Jeff Fisher’s dream. The defense was so good that the offense only had to be middle of the pack. The team was clutch, always scoring or preventing a score when needed. There was a little good fortune sprinkled in there. This year’s Steelers team is similar in that every bounce went their way last year, and this year just a couple of cracks led to a nearly complete breakdown.

We knew when the D line couldn’t get any rush on the Cowboys in the preseason game. We knew when that same D line couldn’t get any rush on the Steelers in the second half of the opener. We knew when receivers started dropping too many passes. They couldn’t catch anything when Kerry Collins started. When Vince Young got in the game, suddenly nothing was dropped. Did we honestly expect that the receivers learned how to catch consistently in the middle of a season?

It was a sloppy game, and turned into a worst-case nightmare. We knew that if the offense turned the ball over, the defense couldn’t create turnovers, make third-down stops, get pressure or not have stupid penalties, and Fisher made his trademark “bawk bawk” punt in a close game, the dreams of January football were gone.
Vince Young had his worst game of the year. On his first interception, Alge Crumpler was wide open when he pulled his arm back. As his arm went forward, a linebacker moved in front. I don’t know if he could have pulled that one back. He did the right thing on his fumble, sliding as he got near the first-down marker. It’s rare that a QB gets the ball stripped a split second before sliding. Bad luck there. On the last interception the team was losing big-time anyway. The ball was behind the receiver, and Vince does that. No one on the team seemed capable of making a catch for the rest of the game.

The Titans had a shot to keep it close, but I don’t know if they could have defeated the Chargers. It was a little like the Colts game. If the Titans played their best and the opposition made a few mistakes, it was possible. But the Titans didn’t play their best. It was the worst performance since the Patriot game, and darn it all of one of the best teams in the league isn’t going to pick you apart when you’re an 8-8 team and don’t play up to par.

I know one thing. Chris Johnson might be the 2,000-yard rusher on the worst team ever. He ran for 141 yards even though he was the team’s only consistent weapon. He seems to disappear at the line of scrimmage and shoot out. Antonio Cromartie looked scared on Johnson’s first run. He got turned around like a JV cornerback covering a starting college wideout. The Chargers didn’t let Johnson get into the end zone when he scored the garbage-time TD. It did look a little like they were admiring his work.

It’s a dream season for Johnson and a nightmare for everyone else. You can’t go 13-3, lose your best defensive player, replace him with a few replacement-level guys and think that it will happen again. I don’t think the Titans had a shot at re-signing Haynesworth. Had Jason Jones been healthy all year, the defensive line would have been better but not good enough. The secondary was a little overrated last year and desperately needs depth. Losing Thornton was one thing, but when Bulluck was out, the defense lost its leader.

My father-in-law insisted that Jeff Fisher needs to go. He’s been with the team so long that it’s possible a new leader is needed. I’m not ready to let go just yet. All the teams that hired the hot, young coach haven’t done so well. Unlike the Colts, who seamlessly moved on from the Tony Dungy era, the Titans don’t have a replacement on staff.

I didn’t like punting on fourth and two when the team had the ball, a little momentum, and trailed by 11. Notice how many defenses that once were feared have turned to jelly this year? Mike Tomlin went for an onside kick because his number one defense from last year couldn’t stop the Packers. Bill Belichick went for fourth and two from his own 30 because his defense, once the cornerstone of a dynasty, couldn’t stop the Colts. The Titans stopped the Chargers on the opening possession and that was all they had. Chris Johnson could get those two yards. Vince Young could get those two yards. There’s no way that Nate Washington would get those two yards. I’d take those odds.

Even though the game was over, I didn’t like Fisher sitting on his time outs with the Chargers holding the ball in the final two minutes. I get that the defense couldn’t stop Mike Tolbert, a backup fullback, from running when the team was not going to pass. I would have liked to see a little fight.

The season ended a lot like 2006, when a team on the verge of a miraculous playoff run ran into a wall of reality. The Chargers, like the Patriots team that crushed the Titans on that cold December afternoon, are bound for the AFC Championship game, at least.

I’ll finish with Vince. He better work a lot harder in this offseason than he did in the 2006-2007 offseason. No video game covers. Work with Heimerdinger. Let’s see what this offense is capable with Chris Johnson ready to become a star, Kenny Britt prepared to make a second-year leap, and Jared Cook not getting injured every other week. The line is great, even if Mawae is gone. Could Nate Washington learn not to drop every other pass? That would be nice.

I enjoyed most of the second half of this year. I don’t know if the championship window is closed. Teams that traditionally didn’t win a Super Bowl, the Wild Card road warriors, the sieve-like rush D of the 2006 Colts, and the sieve-like offensive line of the 2008 Steelers means that anyone can win if they get hot at the right time. There was a lot of promise that led to despair, hope, and finally denouement.

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