Thrifty Titans found best bargains during offseason
Posted: Tuesday, December 9, 2008 5:53 pm
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Linebacker Keith Bulluck and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth snuck up on Jeff Fisher and dumped a cooler of ice cold water over the Tennessee coach’s head to celebrate the Titans’ first AFC South title since 2002.
“I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” Fisher said Monday. “I was aware of what was going on. I guess I trusted the players that they wouldn’t utilize such a tactic considering the weather conditions. But I underestimated Keith and Albert.”
It’s about the only thing Fisher and the Titans haven’t anticipated accurately this season.
The Titans (12-1) own the NFL’s best record with their best start ever through 13 games.
So much for the notion they didn’t do enough to catch up to AFC South rival Houston, let alone division bully Indianapolis or Jacksonville — all teams predicted to finish ahead of the Titans before the season started.
They hold a two-game lead in the AFC race for home-field advantage over Pittsburgh (10-3) with three games left as they get ready to head to Houston (6-7).
“It’s better that we came out and did it ourselves instead of waiting for someone else to come out and lose and put ourselves in a situation where we are depending on someone else,” Bulluck said of clinching a playoff berth with three weeks left. “I think this is the best way, you come out and you handle your business like we did and get a win.”
The Titans learned the importance of being in control last season.
They had to win their final game to reach the postseason, then flew to San Diego where they lost 17-6. That prompted Fisher to set earning a home playoff game as their first goal for the 2008 season.
Team officials did their part.
With approximately $30 million, they spent their money on veteran tight end Alge Crumpler and receiver Justin McCareins, signed right guard Jake Scott away from Indianapolis and brought back end Jevon Kearse.
They tied up left tackle Michael Roos and right tackle David Stewart for six years each.
They erased a huge problem by trading cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones to Dallas in April and replaced him with Chris Carr, who ranks among the NFL leaders in both kick and punt returns — areas where Tennessee was among the NFL’s worst in 2007.
But their biggest splash came in the draft.
Tennessee picked speedy running back Chris Johnson out of East Carolina and he has energized an offense that had trouble finding the end zone in 2007.
He ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,094 yards rushing, joining Earl Campbell and Eddie George as the only rookies in team history to rush for over 1,000.
Tennessee even kept the franchising of Haynesworth from being a distraction after failing to reach a contract extension with him before the July deadline.
The Titans agreed to incentives that should allow Haynesworth to be a free agent after this season.
He signed a one-year tender and now has a career-high 81⁄2 sacks.
Both sides say they want him back with a new deal.
The defense has two new starters with Kearse at left end and Stephen Tulloch, a fourth-round pick in 2006, moving to middle linebacker.
On offense, they plugged in McCareins, Scott and Crumpler with Eugene Amano replacing Jacob Bell, who signed in St. Louis.
When Vince Young sprained his left knee in the opener, Fisher turned the offense over to veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, who led the Titans to a 10-0 start.
Kearse, who saw Tennessee as a player or two away from being a contender when he signed, savored clinching the team’s first AFC South title since 2002 with a 28-9 win over Cleveland on Sunday. Tennessee reached the AFC championship game that season before losing to Oakland.
The Titans didn’t spend much time celebrating this title, instead shoving caps and T-shirts into their bags.
“This is one goal we set at the beginning of the season,” Kearse said. “And now we need to accomplish all of them and not be satisfied with just one goal.”