Last year 26 NFL teams had at least one player top 800 yards in receiving. It’s not asking much. It’s only 50 yards per game for a guy who manages to play all 16. Thirty-eight players topped 800 yards in 2009, 23 of whom pushed past the 1,000 mark.
What’s the significance? None of the six teams last season without an 800-yard receiver made the playoffs. In fact, their combined record was 32-64, with the Titans’ 8-8 mark the best among them. That’s a .333 winning percentage.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Drew+Bennett&iid=4215241″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/4215241/houston-texans-tennessee/houston-texans-tennessee.jpg?size=500&imageId=4215241″ width=”234″ height=”379″ /]All but two teams have had at least one player surpass 800 yards since 2007. The two that haven’t? The Titans and the Miami Dolphins.
No team has had a drought longer than the Titans. Chris Chambers posted 1,118 receiving yards for Miami in 2005. No Tennessee player has topped 800 yards since 2004, when both Drew Bennett (1,247, pictured) and Derrick Mason (1,168) did it.
Last year’s Super Bowl combatants, the Saints and the Colts, each had two 800-plus yard receivers. The 2008 Super Bowl combatants, Pittsburgh and Arizona, each had two. In 2007 the Giants, who had just one, beat the Patriots, who had two. New England was a prohibitive favorite.
The last team that won the Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard receiver was Pittsburgh in 2005. Hines Ward had 975 yards in the regular season.
The NFL has become a pass-happy league. Meanwhile, the Titans don’t have a player on their roster who ever has had an 800-yard season as a pro (click on the video in this hyperlink).
To make matters worse, the Titans’ starting receivers, Nate Washington and Justin Gage, already are dinged up and we haven’t even reached the regular season.
The injuries aren’t good ones for receivers either. Gage has a bum thumb that he told me last week could be problematic all season.
“I already came to the conclusion this was the kind of injury that was gonna linger as soon as it happened,” Gage said. “It’s just tough to get it better (because of the nature of his position).”
Washington’s injury is a sore wrist that has recurred throughout training camp and doesn’t bode well for a player who had problems with dropped balls last season.
No one likes a naysayer in the preseason when hope springs eternal. But if someone on the roster doesn’t become a big-time target in a hurry it’ll be time to give the Titans’ chances of making the playoffs a pass.
As with virtually every NFL team so far, there are reasons to be excited about what the Titans have done in the preseason and there are reasons for concern.
Here is a mid-preseason report:
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Jason+Babin&iid=9486850″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9486850/nfl-titans-training-camp/nfl-titans-training-camp.jpg?size=500&imageId=9486850″ width=”234″ height=”340″ /]Two-game MVP: DE Jason Babin. The free agent is on his fifth team in seven years, and that gives you the impression nobody has ever been completely happy with him. A first-round pick of the Texans in 2004, he played three seasons in Houston. He started all 16 games his rookie season and posted 63 total tackles and four sacks. He hasn’t started more than four games in a season since, though he did muster five sacks in 2006 with the Texans.
He has been nothing but happy here. With the Titans banged up on the defensive line he has made the most of his opportunities, posting four tackles and a sack and generally flying around. He’s getting off the ball, pressuring the passer and enjoying d-line coach Jim Washburn’s system that has the players along the line rotating frequently to stay fresh.
Best rookie: CB Alterraun Verner. I said during a June minicamp that Verner had a chance to start by midseason. Now Verner has worked his way into the mix possibly to start from day one. The UCLA product has six tackles and an interception through two preseason games, and by the media’s count has way more interceptions in camp practices than anyone else. He also has gotten a ton of reps in the last two weeks with Cortland Finnegan sidelined by injuries.
I’m not saying he will start from day one, but Jason McCourty is definitely feeling the heat.
Biggest surprise: TE Craig Stevens. Everyone knows he is a mauler of a blocker. FB Ahmard Hall told me Wednesday that not only is Stevens the team’s best blocking tight end but he might be its best blocker. But what everyone is taking notice of now is that he’s making plays catching the ball. He had a 30-yard reception against the Cardinals on Monday night.
Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger loves two tight-end sets. If Stevens remains a threat in the passing game while providing excellent blocking, he’s going to see the field quite a bit.
Steadiest performer: FB Ahmard Hall. He has four receptions for 57 yards so far. He’s blocking well, and he’s even tackling well. Hall plays on the punt team and had the biggest hit of the night in punt coverage on Monday against the Cardinals. A No. 1 fullback playing special teams? “I used to be a linebacker at Texas before I got moved to fullback,” Hall said. “If I get a chance to hit you, I’m gonna hit you. Whatever I can do to help this team and stick around in the league, I’m gonna do.”
Biggest disappointment: DE Derrick Morgan. The team’s first-round pick has been unable to participate in a full practice since the start of training camp with a calf injury. Penciled in as a starter, his development will be thrown back several games into the regular season at this point. It’s a good thing Jim Washburn’s system calls for so much rotation because other players have stepped up while the rookie has been absent.
Thing I’m tired of hearing: “This is the best group of skill players we’ve put around Vince Young.” Jeff Fisher has found myriad ways to fire off that sound bite throughout training camp. Here’s my retort: Aren’t they the same skill players who were around VY last season? Yes, they are. So I’m left to believe the coach is counting on marked improvement from Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Kenny Britt and LaVelle Hawkins, the top four receivers on the depth chart.
Forgive me, but I don’t think there’s a guy among that four who strikes fear in the heart of Nnamdi Asomugha, the Raiders’ stellar corner against whom the Titans will line up in Week One of the regular season.
Biggest reason for concern: Injuries. Jeff Fisher says the team is reasonably healthy, and maybe he’s just being cautious with certain players. But DT Tony Brown still hasn’t participated in camp after offseason knee surgery, and he’s a key cog. CB Cortland Finnegan’s groin injury has lingered and now has kept him out for two-plus weeks. I already mentioned Derrick Morgan, and DE William Hayes, another excellent prospect on the d-line, is out with a sprained MCL that could force him to miss time into the regular season.
It’s all the *@$*%# talk right now in the NFL, thanks to HBO’s Hard Knocks ’10: Training Camp with the New York Jets.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Rex+Ryan&iid=7643325″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/7643325/afc-championship-new-york/afc-championship-new-york.jpg?size=500&imageId=7643325″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]Jets coach Rex Ryan (left) has been dropping F-bombs as though he spent time as an assistant to Bobby Knight. He’s saltier than the Dead Sea. The only NFL player to drop more bombs is Terrell Owens, but those are with his hands, not his mouth.
“Everybody pretty much knew Rex Ryan was gonna try to take over that series and become the star anyway so that’s not surprising,” Titans fullback Ahmard Hall said.
So along comes that noted rabble-rouser former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy to stir the pot. Instigator Tony Dungy is as oxymoronic as jumbo shrimp or understated Chad Ochocinco.
Nonetheless, Dungy went on The Dan Patrick Show and said the following about Ryan’s colorful language: “I personally don’t want my players to be around that. I don’t want to be around that. It’s hard for me to be around that. If I were in charge, no, I wouldn’t hire someone like that.
“Now, I’ve been around ‘F’ bombs, so it’s not like it’s new. I just don’t think that has to be part of your every-minute, everyday vocabulary to get your point across.”
The Titans have a few coaches who can curse up a storm. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn (below right) could make a Hell’s Angel blush. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger can be as colorful as Picasso.
[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=Jim+washburn&iid=9486853″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9486853/nfl-titans-training-camp/nfl-titans-training-camp.jpg?size=500&imageId=9486853″ width=”234″ height=”243″ /]“Coach Washburn is pretty hyper out there,” Hall said. “Coach Heimerdinger is pretty hyper out there. But everybody has their own personality. Our running backs coach, Craig Johnson, he doesn’t curse.”
“ ’Dinger isn’t really that bad unless you get him worked up,” guard Jake Scott said. “Wash is just Wash.”
The NFL without cursing would be Letterman without Shaffer, clam chowder without potatoes, Chris Johnson without braids and a grill. No, it’s not the most essential ingredient, but it would be noticeably different without it.
Scott has a unique perspective. He was drafted by Dungy and the Colts in 2004 and spent his first four seasons under him.
“There really weren’t many (coaches) who swore there because he didn’t like it,” Scott said. “Most coaches … occasionally you’re gonna hear that stuff. It’s football.”
Typically there’s more swearing in the rap music heard in the locker room than ever comes out of any coach’s mouth.
“Guys who are bothered by it (swearing) keep it to themselves,” Hall said. “They tell me about it under wraps.
“Coach Sherm, Sherman Smith, a couple of years back (Smith was the Titans running backs coach from 1995-2008), he never cursed. He was the spiritual leader of the team. If guys said something around him he’d say, ‘Brother, please don’t say that in my presence,’ because that’s how he lived his life. There are guys in here who live on the straight and narrow who don’t like that kind of language spoken around them. Yet, they still understand this is a different atmosphere. So many different personalities, different backgrounds, people raised differently, so you have to accept certain things.”
Scott isn’t quite sure what to make of all the cursing or the fussing over it.
“Everybody in here is a grown man,” Scott said. “They’ve been around it before so they gotta get used to it. I guess that’s a little bit the nature of football. Whether it’s really that professional … I don’t know. We are professional football players and in most professional settings people don’t scream profanities at each other.
“It is what it is. They (Ryan and the Jets) win some games over there so he must be doing something right.”
*@$*%# right he is. Or so he’d tell you.
If Vince Young has had a go-to guy in his career with the Titans, it’s tight end Bo Scaife.
They were teammates at Texas, and Scaife seemingly is Young’s security blanket when he’s looking for someplace to throw the ball.
It’s nice to have a go-to guy, the player you know you can count on when all else fails.
The media has go-to guys, too. They are the players in the locker room whom you always can find, even after losses, and who deliver the best quotes. Every team has them. It might go a long way toward explaining why in some markets an offensive tackle or a nickelback seems to pop up in nearly everything that gets written.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Chris+Hope&iid=9484195″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9484195/nfl-titans-training-camp/nfl-titans-training-camp.jpg?size=500&imageId=9484195″ width=”234″ height=”270″ /]In an informal poll of seven writers who cover the team on a daily basis, here are the media’s favorite talkers among the Titans:
3. S Chris Hope. Maybe it’s the veteran perspective. Only one player on the roster, backup QB Kerry Collins, has more NFL experience than Hope’s eight seasons. Only three other Titans boast Super Bowl rings – Washington, G Jake Scott and DE Raheem Brock, who signed Thursday. Hope (left) is always accommodating and cordial, measured and interesting. Hope received one first-place vote.
2. LB Will Witherspoon. The free-agent linebacker not only is the runner-up, but he wins the award for best newcomer talker. It’s no coincidence that writers gravitate toward veterans. They should have a better perspective, more to say and not be shy about saying it. Witherspoon, in his ninth year in the league like Hope, is thoughtful and engaging, and he seems to pick up on what the interviewer is looking for very quickly.
Before we reveal the No. 1 choice, here are the other players who received votes, in alphabetical order: DT Tony Brown, S Vincent Fuller, WR LaVelle Hawkins, RB Chris Johnson, DT Sen’Derrick Marks, LB Gerald McRath, OT Michael Roos, LB Stephen Tulloch and WR Nate Washington.
And a two other quick awards:
Best unit of talkers: The linebackers. Witherspoon, McRath and Tulloch all received votes, and rookie Rennie Curran is solid as well.
Best rookie talker: Too tough to call. It’s a ridiculously gifted class when it comes to dealing with the media. If they become as good on the field as they are in front of digital recorders, the Titans will have struck gold.
And without further ado …
[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=Ahmard+Hall&iid=7333913″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/7333913/titans-hall-runs-against/titans-hall-runs-against.jpg?size=500&imageId=7333913″ width=”234″ height=”325″ /]1. FB Ahmard Hall. He’s the runaway winner. Hall was named on five of the seven ballots, including three first-place votes. Only one other player (Witherspoon) was named on more than two ballots. Who cares that he’s in an offense that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger estimates uses him only about 40 percent of the time? This is how good Hall is: He loves that he won this award.
“That’s awesome,” Hall said. “I pride myself on being able to communicate well with the media. I just answer questions from my heart. I give you what I really feel. I don’t sugarcoat things. I’m a straight shooter.”
There’s no trophy, Ahmard.
“That’s all right,” Hall said. “I’ll take that award.”
Every game has rules.
The rules often change to keep up with the times. The Titans had officials at practice last week to help them get used to rule changes the league has put in place for the upcoming season.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=chris+johnson+titans&iid=9353023″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9353023/18th-annual-espy-awards/18th-annual-espy-awards.jpg?size=500&imageId=9353023″ width=”234″ height=”310″ /]Here’s another place where the rules constantly are changing: the media. With the Internet spawning social media innovations such as Facebook, Twitter and Ustream, and bringing immediacy to every utterance of players, coaches and front-office types, getting a handle on the media is a moving target.
Players like to have followers. Titans running back Chris Johnson has 138,288 followers on Twitter. He loves Twitter. He thanked Twitter during his ESPY acceptance speech, and Twitter didn’t open a single hole for him on his way to 2,006 yards last season.
So the media is following players on Twitter. Who knows what they might say?
This is a primer for the Titans on how to handle the media and the social media, and understand what goes on behind the scenes with the folks who cover them. I spent more than 15 years in newspaper sports departments as a writer and an editor, including five as an assistant sports editor at The Tennessean. I spent another three-plus years with one of the top sports destinations on the web. I’ve freelanced for ESPN.com and newspapers all over the country, and I’m a rookie on the Titans beat this year for CBSSports.com. I know the nuances that go into putting out a story, what transpires between writers and editors, and what’s seen in the paper or online.
Herewith, some rules to follow for players and coaches:
- No one is out to get you, with the possible exceptions of Climer and Kuharsky (just kidding). You have a job; we have a job. From time to time we will have to be critical of your performance. If you throw an interception, miss a tackle, drop a pass, lose 59-0, etc., how are we supposed to make that look good?
- Take your medicine when something bad happens. We love guys who face the music. If you rough the kicker on a blocked field goal and he nails the shorter field goal to beat you as time expires, be at your locker on time and take every last question from every last reporter. You’ve been busting your butt on the field to earn respect; when you answer questions at the most difficult times you earn ours.
- Approach us privately if we’ve written something to which you take exception. Maybe that blown coverage wasn’t your fault, but if you call us out in front of the room you might make an enemy, and maybe not just with the offending writer. You guys often close ranks; we can to sometimes. The good writers will correct the injustice they’ve done to you one way or another.
- If you use Twitter, don’t forget that we’re following you. Tweets are in the public domain. If you Tweet about tripping into a nightstand at the hotel and breaking a toe, we’re going to write about it. We’re not doing our jobs if we don’t. “Everything that you tweet, picture or whatever you put up is gonna be scrutinized,” Titans rookie linebacker Rennie Curran said. “Even if you mean it in a certain way it’s gonna get interpreted a million different ways. You have to be careful even if it’s well intentioned. You have to hold back your emotions. Say it to someone you trust instead of somewhere where it can be seen by millions.”
- If you use Facebook, know who your friends are. If you “friended” one of us and write on your Facebook page that you’ve been promoted to the starting lineup, guess what? Fair game. We’ll write about it. “I’m not a guy who posts pictures every day on my FaceBook page,” Titans veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “I might be on there once a week. I’ll look at who new has asked for a friend request. If I don’t know at least 30 of your friends by this point I probably don’t know you and I don’t add you as a friend.”
- Writers typically don’t write the headlines, especially in the actual newspaper. If it’s the headline you’re upset about it, call the sports editor. Don’t harass the beat writer.
Often the rules catch us off guard. Even in an NFL game something might happen no one has seen, but chances are it’s covered in the rulebook. Now how the Titans are covered has been covered, too. Don’t say you didn’t know the rules.
With action-hero good looks, the humility of a Trappist monk and hands softer than the economy, Titans rookie wide receiver Marc Mariani is an easy guy to root for.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Wes+Welker&iid=9481211″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9481211/new-england-patriots/new-england-patriots.jpg?size=500&imageId=9481211″ width=”234″ height=”345″ /]
No one in Middle Tennessee had ever heard of him before the Titans drafted him in the seventh round in April. And frankly, why would they have heard of him? Mariani toiled for Montana, and he had to walk on there just to get noticed. Here in the South we like our football heroes to be ready-made. We already know them because we’ve seen their high school highlight reels on the recruiting sites and watched them play on Saturdays in the SEC or ACC or Big 12 or Pac-10.
When you’re an all-state football player in Montana and you still have to walk on at Montana you have redefined being off the radar. But here Mariani is at Baptist Sports Park, genuinely thrilled for the opportunity that has been presented to him and doggedly determined to make the most of it.
“I’ve been trying to work my butt off,” Mariani said after a recent practice. “There’s a room full of great players in the receiver room. I just try to work hard and get better every day.”
The kid seems poised. If he’s over his head it hasn’t shown to anyone.
“I might be a pretty good actor,” Mariani said. “This is a different environment then what I’m used to, but I’m just having a great time enjoying the opportunity and I wanna make it last as long as I can.”
If he keeps catching everything within the 615 area code like he has so far he definitely has a chance to stick on the roster. The comparisons to a certain New England Patriots wide receiver (pictured) are only natural. Like Wes Welker, Mariani plays in the slot and already has earned a camp reputation as an excellent route runner with deceptive speed and sure hands.
He and fellow rookie Alterraun Verner, a cornerback and the Titans’ fourth-round pick, have become fast friends in spite of or because of lining up against each other every day.
“It’s a friendly rivalry,” Verner said. “You see him do it to everybody. He’s making plays all over the field – one-on-one, seven-on-seven, team, in his sleep, everywhere. I brag about him all the time.
“I like the way he runs his routes. It’s making me better. You can’t guess with him because he’s so sharp and gets in and out of his breaks so well it keeps you honest. When you go against other people it’s almost easier because they don’t run the routes as precisely.”
Mariani even is wearing No. 83, Welker’s number, though he said it’s just a coincidence. What’s not a coincidence is Mariani said he has studied Welker among other receivers on whom he has watched film.
“He’s so quick and his second-level releases … he’s deceivingly fast I would say and he just makes plays,” Mariani said. “He’s a good dude to watch and learn from.”
Ultimately Mariani is flattered by the too-soon comparison.
“If I can have the success he’s had I won’t get sick of it at all.”