Winless Titans Turn to Young
NASHVILLE - During this 50th anniversary season of the AFL, fans have been reminded it was Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams who fielded that league's first two championship teams.
Adams spent lavishly on salaries for his then-Houston Oilers, called some of the shots on personnel and, as an AFL co-founder, eventually helped force a merger with the NFL.
But Adams, 86, has never held the Super Bowl's Lombardi Trophy. And with a mystifying 0-6 start this season - just one year after posting the NFL's best record - his team rarely has seemed so distanced from football's top rung.
Changing that could hinge on the move the Titans made Thursday, at Adams' behest. Taking a page from the oil industry that made Adams a billionaire, the Titans will attempt to drill their driest well.
That would be quarterback Vince Young, whom Adams handpicked as the No. 3 overall selection of the 2006 draft yet who has been largely dormant since a tumultuous opening to the 2008 season.
"I'm not going to be one of those coaches who has musical chairs at quarterback," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Thursday after giving Young the job over Kerry Collins for the rest of the season. "He's our quarterback."
Fisher downplayed Adams' insistence, calling the move an organizational decision, even though Adams made his feelings known last week in an interview with The (Nashville) Tennessean.
Young said "I don't know what was said upstairs" and that it didn't matter to him how the decision was made.
There are no obvious indications Young, 26, can turn the tide Sunday at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3). In two mop-up appearances this season, he is 0-for-5 passing with one interception.
But Tennessee is a team desperately in search of a spark after suffering a 59-0 humiliation at New England as a sendoff into a bye week. The Titans haven't scored a touchdown in eight quarters, have lost their last three games by a combined count of 127-26 and are yielding an NFL-worst 33 points and 310.7 passing yards a game.
Perhaps the most optimistic thing that can be said about the Titans' current state is that they and Young have thrived in a similar situation before.
In 2006 - and also at the urging of Adams - Young replaced Collins after a 0-3 start and helped get Tennessee to 8-8 while being named the NFL offensive rookie of the year.
Young went 18-11 as Tennessee's starting quarterback until losing the job in last season's opening game. A knee injury sidelined him, but he also hurt his standing by having a sideline snit because of being booed for throwing an interception.
On Tennessee's next possession, Young had to be ordered onto the field by Fisher. Although no one in the organization says publicly that bad feelings linger over that incident, the wait to give Young a look after a 0-6 start seems at odds with Fisher's repeated statement that Young "is our quarterback of the future."
Now, Fisher said, "I believe that his experience over time has made him able to deal with whatever happens."
Said Young of being told by Fisher he would start again: "For him to give me a shot again, it's big for me, because I've been waiting."
Adams' ongoing intrigue with Young's potential was evident after an Aug. 15 preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The owner edged into the crowd around Young's locker after he had a 9-for-14 passing night for 131 yards, and then Adams had one of his lengthiest postgame chats with sports reporters in recent years.
"I think he will become a great quarterback of the future," Adams said, adding he was sure the immaturity Young showed in 2008 wouldn't resurface.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck, a defensive captain and long one of the Titans' most influential locker room voices, contends the 2008 incident is forgotten.
"If that's what guys are worrying about, then they're definitely not focused," Bulluck said.
He added that Young "learned a lot in that time (as a backup) and I'm looking forward to seeing how he's grown as a player."
Said center and 16-year veteran Kevin Mawae: "I think we've moved on from it, probably Vince more than anybody. But again, we're all football players, and we're all called on to do a job on the field. He's not an exception."
Both veterans also offered tepid endorsements of Adams having the right to make a personnel call. "If a guy has an $800 million team, he does what he wants," Mawae said.
Bulluck echoed that thought, while adding, "But what I've seen from other teams when the owner tries to step in and says he wants certain moves made and certain things done, it doesn't always work out the way those teams have wanted it to."
Regardless of Young's readiness to guide the Titans offense, Tennessee faces an array of problems on the other side of the ball against Jacksonville.
The Jaguars put up a 30-3 lead against the Titans en route to a 37-17 victory on Oct. 4.
That game is one of five in which the Titans have allowed more than 300 passing yards, despite having three Pro Bowl defensive backs.
One of them, free safety Michael Griffin, is stunned to be on a 0-6 team for the first time, at any level in any sport. In his final three seasons at the University of Texas - where he and Young helped win the 2005 national title - Griffin suffered four defeats.
When he watches himself on film, Griffin said, he doesn't see the same player who had seven interceptions last season. He has yet to get one this year.
"It's not the same body language, it's not the same attitude," Griffin said. "I have no more excuses. I have to go out and play like I did last year, with a lot of confidence."
Bulluck is baffled by Tennessee's defensive meltdown, saying, "With this team, I'm definitely in shock, because of the work we put in in the offseason, the goals we had coming back, but you just got to play through it."
The linebacker, who'll make his 120th consecutive start Sunday, says defense is as big a problem as the quarterbacking.
"Everybody wants to do whatever they can to help this team win one game," Bulluck said. "My focus is on getting ready to have the defense play a complete game. We really haven't imposed our will on an offense."
The defensive failures also have led to second-guessing of the decision to promote Chuck Cecil from secondary coach to defensive coordinator after Jim Schwartz left to become head coach of the Detroit Lions.
Fisher has staunchly defended Cecil, saying, "You know, he's not playing out there. He's not the one missing the tackles. He's not the one not getting to the quarterback. He's not the one giving up the plays down the field or making the mental mistakes."
Fisher adds that the defensive system remained the same as the one that ranked second in the NFL in 2008 by allowing 14.6 points a game.
Hex of the Terrible Towel
The Titans' turmoil is a bewildering reversal for a team that has been applauded for continuity. Fisher is the NFL's longest-tenured head coach with the same team, going 128-108 in the regular season since taking over in midseason in 1994.
In a conference call this week, Fisher said he wasn't worried about his job security. "No, I never have been, and I think the moment . . . you let that happen, then you're not doing everything you possibly can. I wouldn't be doing what I was hired to do, so I'm not concerned about that."
At a Monday news conference, Fisher said the number of lineup changes this week could range from one to 22. He was equally glib when asked whether it's coincidence that his team has lost eight consecutive games, dating to last season, when some Titans supposedly invited bad luck by stomping on the Pittsburgh Steelers' "Terrible Towel."
Fisher said he wants the Steelers to know "we've enshrined one here in the building and I have one hanging in my driveway because we haven't won a game since we stomped on it."
That's in keeping with Fisher's freewheeling side, which includes parachuting onto the Titans practice field last season and introducing former Colts coach Tony Dungy at a charity event last week while wearing a Peyton Manning jersey.
Some fans were ruffled by the latter, because it came when his team was down and included Fisher telling his audience, "I just wanted to feel like a winner."
And if Fisher and his Titans want to receive fewer directives from their owner, they probably need to rediscover that winning feeling - and soon.