Chris Johnson became only the sixth player to rush for over 2,000 yards back in 2009. The then second-year player was the talk of the national media as he finished the season with 11 consecutive 100-yard games, before going to the Pro Bowl, being named first team all-pro and winning the offensive player-of-the-year award. In a league that was quickly moving towards the pass, Johnson started out his career with over 3,997 total yards and 26 total touchdowns during his first two seasons.
Johnson was the closest thing the league had seen to Ladanian Tomlinson back when he won the league MVP in 2006.
Yet, as Johnson was enjoying the spotlight, the Titans themselves were enduring the turmoil of a dark season that would only muster eight wins and see them finish without a playoff place. Eight wins for a team that had won 13 the previous year and 23 over the two previous seasons would not have felt good for Jeff Fisher’s side. It was that season that was the beginning of the end for Fisher.
Issues with Vince Young and possibly just exhaustion from being in the same role, in the same place, for so long saw Fisher leave after the 2010 season. A season when the decline of the Titans continued, dropping wins in the regular season again to 6-10.
Fisher was replaced by long-time assistant, and member of the Titans’ coaching staff, Mike Munchak.
Munchak didn’t need to win fans over. He had already done that during his previous life as a hall-of-fame offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers. Even though the team had moved to Tennessee since his playing days, there is no doubt that the fanbase understood his past contributions to their franchise. Coming off of Fisher’s staff also gave him some clout, because despite the struggles of his final years, Fisher and his staff had proven themselves over the long-term in Tennessee.
The new head coach had just watched on as the old head coach’s reign came to a close primarily because of the quarterback position. Likely because of that, he felt compelled to find his signal-caller during his first off-season.
Had Munchak taken over the Titans one year previous, he would likely have been lamenting the fact that then Washington quarterback Jake Locker hadn’t entered the draft. Locker was a darling of the media who was considered a top prospect by most and the top prospect by many. Fortunately, Locker stayed in college and did come out the same year as Munchak took over in Tennessee, but he was no longer considered the top quarterback prospect.
A year of regression in college combined with Cam Newton’s ascension in Auburn saw Locker fall off from the first overall pick. Whether it’s perceived as a positive or a negative, Locker tumbled all the way from being a favourite in the 2010 draft to the eighth overall pick in 2011. A pick owned by Mike Munchak’s Tennessee Titans.
Bucking the trend of most recent quarterbacks, Locker wouldn’t be pushed into the starting role from Week 1 like fellow prospects Cam Newton and Andy Dalton were. Instead, veteran Matt Hasselbeck was brought in to steady the offense and help mentor the then 23-year-old.
From the moment they drafted Locker, the Titans understood that they were rebuilding. By not starting Locker from day one they were establishing a philosophy of patience. While Locker learned from Hasselbeck and developed in the background, the coaching staff needed to try and put Hasselbeck in the best position to succeed.
They did that by creating a quick passing attack that would take advantage of his intelligence and accuracy, while masking the limitations of his tired arm. Even though they were rebuilding, the notion of tanking wasn’t an option. The Titans still needed to develop the young players that littered through the roster and couldn’t afford to establish a culture that accepted losing as the norm.
Change takes time and Bud Adams’ commitment to Jeff Fisher proved that he was willing to be patient with his head coaches.
Therefore, when Locker became the starter in 2012, they were still running much of the same offense that had been run with Hasselbeck at the helm. Considering Locker and Hasselbeck have very different skill-sets, Locker being more athletic with a bigger arm and accuracy question-marks, that wasn’t going to work. Not to completely excuse him for his individual play and production, but Locker wasn’t put in the best position to succeed when he became the starter.
While Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III had offenses that were crafted around their strengths with complete precision, Locker was being forced into an offense that didn’t make much sense for him. The results, as you could expect, were polar opposite. The Redskins and 49ers made the playoffs, with the latter running all the way to the Super Bowl, whereas the Titans finished with a 6-10 record after winning nine games with Hasselbeck during the previous season.
Entering this off-season, the Titans were trapped between two identities. Matt Hasselbeck left for Indianapolis, but the offense around him was still built to cater for him. Jake Locker was now the definite starter, but very little had changed for him since he took over that role. Judging by the moves they made this off-season, the Titans understood that completely and were prepared to be aggressive in creating an offense that better fit with the identity of their quarterback.
Being a former hall-of-fame offensive lineman, Munchak was never going to be a pass-centric head coach. Even his quarterback Locker is as strong a runner, if not stronger, than he is a passer. Instead of investing in pass-blockers and pass-catchers, Munchak brought in dynamic offensive pieces that would help return Chris Johnson to the top of the league’s rushing charts.
Andy Levitre led the way, as he signed a big deal to leave the Buffalo Bills in free agency. Levitre is arguably the best young guard in the NFL. He has the flexibility to move between the tackles or run down the field on screen plays, but still possesses the bulk to move defensive lineman and the balance to contain pass-rushers. Levitre will immediately plug in at left guard next to stud left tackle Michael Roos.
Both Michael Roos and David Stewart are excellent offensive tackles, but slowly, the NFL is starting to put less emphasis on tackles and more back on the center. Robert Turner, a guard who excelled playing center for the St. Louis Rams last year, followed Levitre to Tennessee and immediately looked set to be a starting right guard. However, once top guard prospect Chance Warmack was taken in the first round of the draft, it appeared more likely that Turner would compete with Fernando Velasco for the starting center position.
With Warmack, Levitre and Turner/Velasco, the Titans will have an interior to their offensive line that can highlight the strengths of Johnson. Warmack is a huge mauler who will open holes consistently. He is the perfect complement to Levitre without having any real limitations in other aspects of the position.
Those improvements to personnel on the offensive line will help, but in order to create that identity that Locker needs to excel, the Titans will need to alter their scheme dramatically. Having added Kendall Wright in the 2012 draft, the Titans made a blockbuster trade to acquire another wide receiver, Justin Hunter, in this year’s draft.
Despite all of their other investments during the off-season, Hunter was the most obvious sign that the team was moving to a new scheme. A scheme that could heavily feature an option-offense.
It’s pure speculation, but speculation based on their off-season moves. Locker is the perfect option quarterback. In a role like Kaepernick’s in San Francisco, he would be at his most productive, while the investment in the offensive line signals their intent to dominate in the trenches. An understated aspect of Chris Johnson’s 2,000 yard season was the impact of Vince Young holding back weak-side defenders with his running-threat, so why wouldn’t the Titans look to incorporate the same concepts with Locker?
What of Justin Hunter? Well, Hunter is a phenomenal deep threat prospect. He wouldn’t best suited to running short, intermediate timing routes and it wouldn’t make sense to ask Locker to throw them. Instead, the Titans should be looking to run a vertical passing offense, a passing offense that perfectly complements an option-rushing attack.
Outside of Kendall Wright, the Titans have a trio of bigger receivers who can go deep. Kenny Britt, Hunter and Nate Washington are all big bodied receivers who have the speed to outrun defensive backs while still being able to block them in the running-game. Instead of retaining an underused receiving threat like Jared Cook at the tight-end position, instead employing the excellent blocking ability of Craig Stevans and Delanie Walker, the Titans should be focusing their whole passing attack on their receivers this year, with Britt and Wright doing most of the possession work as Washington and Hunter focus on being deep threats.
With a strong play-action offense creating space down the field, big plays would be a regular option for Locker. That is a better offensive fit for the young quarterback and would give everyone on the field a clear identity to work through.
If your offensive scheme and personnel are on different pages, neither will ever fully prosper. If Munchak doesn’t craft the right offense around Locker this season, the continued ambiguity engulfing the direction of this Titans’ team will remain. Adams’ loyalty to Fisher in the past may help Munchak keep his job in the long-term, so this isn’t a make-or-break season in that sense, but for this formation of the roster and coaching staff it could be a make-or-break season in deciding if they will have success over the coming years.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf