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The five players the Titans can least afford to lose

July 28, 2010 2 comments

Among your tried-and-true football clichés perhaps none is truer than this old standby: Injuries are part of the game.

Indeed, they are. A really lousy part of the game. They’re lousy for the injured player, his teammates, his coaches and the fans. They can turn winning teams into average teams, average teams into losing teams, losing teams into, well, losing-by-even-more teams.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Rob+Bironas&iid=7453389″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/7453389/tennessee-titans-kicker/tennessee-titans-kicker.jpg?size=500&imageId=7453389″ width=”234″ height=”368″ /]With that in mind, and certainly not wishing ill on anyone, here are the five players the Titans can least afford to lose as the start of training camp looms on Saturday, listed in order from 5-1. Some of my choices may surprise you. Feel free to share your own lists if you disagree.

5. K Rob Bironas. Kickers are a dime a dozen you say? Not ones as deadly accurate as Bironas. In the past three seasons he has made 91 of 104 field-goal attempts. That’s 87.5 percent. Only three active kickers have done better over that same time period. Bironas is a security blanket for an offense that seems to sputter in the red zone with alarming frequency.

4. LB Will Witherspoon. A free-agent acquisition with eight years in the league under his belt, he brings at least some stability to a group that’s a complete mess right now. MLB Stephen Tulloch, a starter last season, didn’t show up at any of the team’s offseason workouts, ostensibly because he’s upset with his contract. He has signed his tender offer, but what if he holds out? Second-year pro Gerald McRath is suspended for the first four games because of violating the league’s policy regarding performance-enhancing drugs. David Thornton, another starter last season, hasn’t been able to participate fully yet because of his recovery from shoulder surgery. Even with Witherspoon this unit needs to be shored up when the regular season starts.

3. LT Michael Roos. A lot of teams would be seriously hurt without their left tackle. The Titans aren’t particularly deep at the tackle spots, either. I suspect David Stewart would move from right tackle if something were to happen to Roos, but then you’ve got a problem on the right side. And Stewart is really good where he is. Of the players listed behind the starters on the Titans’ depth chart as training camp opens two have never played in an NFL game and two more have appeared exactly once. Yikes. You have to believe this will be addressed by combing the waiver wire during the preseason.

2. RB Chris Johnson. Why isn’t Johnson No. 1? For a couple of reasons. First off, he won’t be duplicating last season. Not one of the other five running backs to gain 2,000 yards ever did it again. And frankly I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the Titans to give Johnson the number of carries (358) it took him for him to reach 2,000 yards last season. He’s still explosive. He’ll still be one of the most productive backs in the league. He’s still a guy opposing defenses have to account for on every play. He just doesn’t have to have 408 touches for this team to be OK offensively. Plus, the Titans have a very good offensive line. Their running game would have ranked in the top 10 in the league even without C.J. Of course, with him it’ll push for No. 1 (the Titans ranked second in the NFL in rushing in 2009).

1. CB Cortland Finnegan. When he’s right he’s one of the five best corners in the league. His play dipped a bit last season after a stellar 2008 in which he made the Pro Bowl, but he still posted five interceptions. That’s five in each of the past two seasons, which no Titan has done since Darryll Lewis in 1996-97. Finnegan knows he wasn’t up to his own standard last season, but he remains supremely confident and the coaches feel the same way about him. They’ve talked about moving him all over the field to match up with the opposition’s best receiver. Finnegan even spent some time this offseason with Jets CB Darrelle Revis, which can’t hurt. He’s far and away the Titans’ best cover man. They can ill afford to lose him because the options to start on the other side are second-year pros Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton and rookie Alterraun Verner.

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Johnson being let off the hook at Vanderbilt

July 15, 2010 13 comments

The media and Vanderbilt fans inadvertently have made the Commodores’ football program even more irrelevant by giving Bobby Johnson a pass for retiring three weeks before the start of fall camp.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Bobby+Johnson+vanderbilt&iid=7011644″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/7011644/vanderbilt-florida/vanderbilt-florida.jpg?size=500&imageId=7011644″ width=”234″ height=”293″ /]Do you know what they’d do at Florida or Alabama if a football coach quit in July? They wouldn’t be singing his praises on the way out the door, that’s for sure. They’d want to hang him, maybe or maybe not in effigy.

But because Johnson was “classy” and “gentlemanly” during his tenure on West End – which he was and that’s great, but you also can read between the lines of those words when spoken about you by other SEC programs and come away with “lovable losers” – no one is calling him out.

Some insiders believe he waited this long to hang it up to ensure the future of his coaching staff. By pondering his future until the season opener was less than two months away Johnson left de facto athletic director David Williams no choice but to name an interim head coach from the staff (offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, Johnson’s hand-picked successor) and keep the rest of the coaching roster intact.

“People retire,” Johnson said at his Wednesday news conference. “Believe me, there’s not a great time for a college football coach to retire.”

Maybe not, but there are better times than July 14. Johnson told ESPN.com, though, that had he retired right after last season it might have hurt recruiting. Really, Coach? You went 12-52 in the SEC during your eight-year tenure. Would your walking away truly have crippled the incoming class? Regardless of whom composes the class the team probably at least could go 2-10 and winless in the SEC like you did last year.

Yes, winning at Vanderbilt is difficult. Everybody gets that. Johnson had a hard time letting go of the close losses, and to his credit there were plenty of them (26 of his 66 losses at Vanderbilt were by seven points or less). But the Commodores are never going to be more than scrappy losers if moral victories are acceptable.

To give Johnson a pass is akin to taking another “attaboy” pat on the head from Florida or Georgia for having played them close. Vanderbilt ought to be tired of “attaboys.”

Universally media and fans are saying how much better off the Commodores’ football program is thanks to the Johnson era. Everyone points to the winning season in 2008 and the bowl win over Boston College. Big deal. It was a 6-6 regular season that would have been just another losing season to add to Vandy’s long history of those if it hadn’t beaten the Eagles in what essentially was a home game at the Music City Bowl. Let’s not forget the follow-up to the bowl appearance was last year’s return to bottomocrity.

Johnson indeed has been likeable and refreshing. He also went 29-66 in eight seasons. In four of those eight VU won exactly two games. He won only six games in the SEC East in his eight seasons. If that’s someone’s definition of progress they didn’t get a degree from Vanderbilt.

This would have been a perfect season for Vanderbilt to start anew. You look around the SEC East and there appears to be a chance to make some headway. Tennessee is in utter turmoil, and Derek Dooley doesn’t exactly strike fear. Kentucky has a new coach, too. Steve Spurrier at South Carolina is 65, and Georgia has been sliding for the past two seasons under Mark Richt. Heck, even Florida, whom Johnson never beat, had some touch-and-go moments with Urban Meyer after last season.

If Caldwell doesn’t do better than Johnson did last year all the former coach will have done is pushed the Commodores’ hiring of a new coach back a year. And that won’t have done the program any favors, especially at a time like this.

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Music City puts best foot forward in World Cup bid

More than 5,000 Middle Tennessee residents braved the Sunday heat to attend an outdoor viewing party at LP Field for the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, won by the Spaniards 1-0.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=World+Cup&iid=9339278″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9339278/sports-news-july-2010/sports-news-july-2010.jpg?size=500&imageId=9339278″ width=”234″ height=”363″ /]The viewing party was sponsored by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the driving force behind the Music City’s bid to be part of the U.S.’s bid to serve as host for the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. The NCVB filmed the event, and NCVB President Butch Spyridon said Monday that highlights would be included in Nashville’s video to be sent to the U.S. Soccer Federation in August.

So those 5,000 people could be viewed as lunatics … or benefactors. I gave a passing thought to taking my stepsons to LP Field to watch the game, but I reconsidered because I’m not a big fan of temperatures that would allow me to bake a potato in my shirt pocket. But if those who endured the heat in some way help pave the way for Nashville to be one of the dozen-or-so host cities should a U.S. bid be successful they are owed a serious thank you. They will have aided Middle Tennessee in landing an event that has an estimated economic impact of $400 million to $600 million.

“We felt like 5,000 was a credible, respectable number,” Spyridon told Sportsinthe615. “We understood that we were asking people to sit outside in 95-degree heat and watch TV. In reality what we were attempting was a little bit daunting.

“The enthusiasm (at the viewing party) probably shocked me more than the numbers. They were pretty engaged.”

That’s because the World Cup brings out the same kind of nationalistic fervor that Olympics do. It’s OK once every four years to show interest in soccer or bobsledding or the discus. I’m not saying I personally am going to make it an everyday habit, but the World Cup is kind of cool.

There, I said it. I’m coming out of the soccer closet. I even watched games that didn’t involve the U.S. team. Yes, it helped that the United States made it out of the group stage. But soccer at the highest level can be pretty amazing to watch. Now I wish players didn’t flop at every possible chance, and I wish there was more scoring. I realize that makes me sound like just another boneheaded, late-to-the-party, American soccer neophyte. Guilty. Are you telling me you really prefer nil-nil to 3-2? I didn’t think so.

Why has soccer worked in Nashville? How did it make it past the first cut to be among the final 18 cities being considered as part of the U.S. bid?

“I think one reason is because the facility (LP Field) works so well as a soccer venue,” Spyridon said. “And we’re a more diverse community than the usual suspect thinks we are. We tend to get pigeonholed in country-music terms, but we have a huge Kurdish population and a huge Hispanic population.

“When we made the initial pitch (to the U.S. Soccer Federation) it (the diversity of the Middle Tennessee community) was a pretty strong statement. U.S. Soccer is looking at us and they don’t think of us as diverse. We used it on our written bid and the mayor talked about it and that was eye-catching to them. I think it will play an even bigger role when FIFA (the international soccer governing body that awards the World Cup) takes a look at us.”

FIFA and USA Soccer will get a closer look at all 18 cities over Labor Day weekend. According to Spyridon, each city will send a small delegation to meet with both entities and present a 5-minute video espousing its virtues as a potential World Cup site.

Our video will showcase the facility and the enthusiasm for soccer in this area,” said Spyridon, who said he’d be accompanied by Mayor Karl Dean and hopefully by someone in the Titans’ organization.

Nashville is the smallest of the 18 cities remaining. You can go to goUSAbid.com/Nashville and sign a petition to support the Music City getting its kicks. Each city has a signature page.

“We’re ahead of Phoenix and barely behind San Diego,” Spyridon said. “Six weeks ago we were at 9,500. Everybody else was using May to get ready for the World Cup kickoff and we were bailing water. We lost six weeks and then had the CMA Music Festival right after that, but now we’ve made up a lot of ground.”

Spyridon said Nashville now has more than 17,000 signatures.

FIFA is scheduled to announce the host sites for World Cup 2018 and World Cup 2022 on Dec. 2. Spyridon said USA Soccer has no such timetable to pare the 18 cities involved in its bid, but his hope is that it will happen sooner rather than later.

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Backup Collins represents expensive insurance policy

July 12, 2010 1 comment

Titans backup quarterback Kerry Collins is slated to make $5.5 million this season.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=Kerry+Collins&iid=6510017″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/6510017/tennessee-titans/tennessee-titans.jpg?size=500&imageId=6510017″ width=”175″ height=”220″ /]Yes, it’s a lot of money to pay a guy to carry a clipboard. But Collins is an excellent insurance policy if you’re Jeff Fisher or Mike Heimerdinger. Vince Young is the starting quarterback, but perhaps his head coach and offensive coordinator aren’t 100-percent sold on him. He didn’t exactly engender anyone’s faith with his offseason citation for misdemeanor assault in a Dallas strip club in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.

Collins, 37, is a wily veteran. His arm may have failed him at times during last season’s 0-6 start, but he looked in OTAs as though his arm was as strong as it ever has been.

Who knows how much longer he can keep going? I wrote this piece for ESPN’s Page 2 on Collins’ probable future after football. He’s an interesting, introspective guy at this point in his life. As big-time country songwriter Lee Thomas Miller told me, “Who better to write country songs than a guy who has been through as many victories and defeats as he has?”

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Either love fantasy football or buy a cat

July 8, 2010 3 comments

There are two kinds of men in America, those who love fantasy football and those with whom I prefer not to associate.

The ones who love it … watch shows such as Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad. Those who don’t … watch shows such as Glee and anything on ABC.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=joey+chestnut&iid=9289190″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9289190/joey-chestnut-wins-the/joey-chestnut-wins-the.jpg?size=500&imageId=9289190″ width=”234″ height=”342″ /]The ones who love it … think nothing of eating three dozen chicken wings at a time and revere Joey Chestnut (left). Those who don’t … eat poached fish and wouldn’t know Joey Chestnut from a water chestnut.

The ones who love it … own dogs. Those who don’t … own cats or fish tanks.

The ones who love it … don’t have wedding anniversaries in the fall because they never would have gotten married on a football weekend in the first place. Those who don’t … got married when their wives told them they would.

The ones who love it … anticipate the draft like an 8-year-old unleashed in the Sour Patch aisle. Those who don’t … anticipate a draft and put on a sweater. The ones who love it don’t own sweaters. They own one hoodie, maybe two, and they consider it formal wear.

The ones who love it … can tell you their teams’ coordinators. Those who don’t … color coordinate.

The ones who love it … gather at sports bars. Those who don’t … are at Starbucks.

The ones who love it … may obsess about it to the point of shutting out the rest of the world. Those who don’t … can remember that they put a pizza in the oven before it is charred beyond recognition. Then again, theirs probably is a pizza with sun-dried tomatoes or some other such vegetables, so who cares?

The ones who love it … will watch a meaningless game between horrible teams because it involves their No. 2 running back and he needs to score at least 11 points. Those who don’t … will read a book. The ones who love it consider a fantasy football magazine to be a book.

Those who don’t … can chat intelligbly about politics.  The ones who love it … can chat intelligbly about the Wildcat formation.

The ones who love it … like that the lineup in their league has a flex option. Those who don’t … see a flex option as something to do with medical insurance.

The ones who love it … can recite Randall Cunningham’s 1990 statistics and wax poetic about how it won them a championship. Those who don’t … can recite poetry.

So bring me your Sons of Anarchy-watching, Joey Chestnut-loving, dog-owning, married-in-May, Raiders-Chiefs-obsessed, statistically engulfed lunatics. You are my people. I’ll be the big guy in the sports bar wearing a hoodie and pounding a pile of wings fatter than Sam Bradford’s signing bonus.

Lord I can’t wait for my fantasy draft.

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Ringer at the ready if CJ never shows

Javon Ringer has been getting the first-team reps in the absence of Chris Johnson, and the Titans coaches like the way he has responded. That said, I’m not sure anyone in the organization, including Ringer, is ready for him to be the No. 1 guy this season, especially when you consider Johnson is the most explosive player in the league.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Javon+Ringer&iid=6011612″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/6011612/tampa-bay-buccaneers/tampa-bay-buccaneers.jpg?size=500&imageId=6011612″ width=”200″ height=”268″ /]But there are reasons to be excited about Ringer’s future, too. Titans fans will remember how surprisingly good he was last preseason. “There’s a reason we drafted him,” fullback Ahmard Hall said.

Check out this piece I did on Ringer for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. It ran in Friday, July 2 editions. You’ll really want to pay close attention to the quotes from Titans strength coach Steve Watterson. They’ll blow you away. Do the math on how much Ringer can squat.

The Titans have a likeable, coachable player in Ringer with the potential to become a good NFL running back. Even if Johnson returns on time, there’s a role for his backup. C.J. doesn’t need 358 carries again.

Ringer is a good receiver out of the backfield, and he’s making strides in his ability to pick up blitzes and make sure he takes care of his quarterback. As running backs coach Kennedy Pola said, “You need two guys at that position in this league. Those guys take a pounding.”

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