A running joke around the Tennessee Titans for much of this season has been that — if nothing else — they could count on their punter.
Monday night was something different. When it came to running, the Titans were no joke.
As for the punter, Brett Kern, well his performance was no laughing matter. Overlooked for so much of the good he did through the first 13 games he ended up squarely in the spotlight and the glare of a national television audience with two shanks, the second with less than a minute to go and the outcome still very much in doubt.
With 46 seconds to play the fifth-year veteran had to punt the ball out of his own end zone. The New York Jets had exhausted their timeouts and had struggled to move the ball much of the contest. So the farther away he and his right leg could force them the better.
He kicked it 19 yards — to the 25.
New York quarterback Mark Sanchez fumbled on the next snap, the Titans recovered and preserved a 14-10 victory before a sellout crowd at LP Field.
Still, that mis-kick created a whole lot of unnecessary drama for a team that rarely had made winning look easy this season. Remember the two touchdowns allowed in the final 18 seconds of regulation against Detroit? How about the go-ahead field goal that Pittsburgh missed late in Tennessee’s last prime-time appearance?
A similar thing happened in third quarter when Kern kicked it just 30 yards from his own five. The Jets managed to cover that distance in just four played and took a 10-7 lead.
“You thought at first glance on that last one that maybe someone got a hand on it,” coach Mike Munchak said. “They didn’t. I think he just hurried up his mechanics and mis-hit it. … That was a kick we needed [to] hit a bigger one than that. It put the defense in a tough spot. Luckily, we got the turnover [and] … we were able to escape that.”
Both of those efforts were a far cry from most of his 59 punts prior to this game. He averaged just shy of 49 yards on those and they were effective enough that the net was 42.2 yards. The former was ahead of franchise record pace and the latter was not far off. He had placed 23 inside the 20-yard line with just four touchbacks.
In all seriousness, there was talk of Kern as a candidate to play in the Pro Bowl.
This performance could not have helped his cause.
Running back Chris Johnson, on the other hand, had a memorable night both personally and professionally as he paid tribute to the victims of last week’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., with their names written on the shoes he used to score the longest rushing touchdown in franchise history (94 yards) and to add to his NFL record for career touchdown runs of 80 yards or more (six).
The only other Titans’ touchdown was a 13-yard run by quarterback Jake Locker.
With two weeks remaining, some of the lessons of this forgettable season have started to come into focus.
For instance, if a football team is going to put its best foot forward, it better not belong to a punter. If he is your best player, you’re probably not going to win a whole lot of games. On the other hand, if your running back — or someone else in a more prominent position — does what he does better than anyone ever, you have a chance to overcome the occasional misstep by someone such as the punter.
In other words, you need your best performances from guys who have their hands on the ball regularly and not those who simply put their foot to it.
It all seems so obvious. Yet too many times in 2012 the Titans have reversed that equation, which is why they’re currently 5-9, a record that does not have anyone kicking up their heels.