Boclair: The waiting game

Monday, July 23, 2012 at 12:14am

Three years.

In the grand scheme of things it’s really not that long. Few navigate their way through high school or college that quickly. The president of the United States does not complete a term in that time. Heck, there are canned goods that don’t even expire during that time span.

For the Tennessee Titans, though, it might as well be an eternity. No doubt that’s the way it feels.

It has been three years since the last time the Titans made the playoffs, which matches the longest postseason absence the franchise has endured since it changed its name and moved into LP Field. The last time it happened was 2004-06. Before that, the only extended drought was a five-year stretch from 1994-98, which included the relocation from Houston.

In other words, the next playoff appearance can’t come soon enough.

Can it happen this season, though?

Whatever other questions exist — who will be the starting quarterback, Kenny Britt’s health, Michael Griffin’s worth, whether or not Chris Johnson can still run the ball, or if defensive linemen can run down opposing quarterbacks — that is still the big one, as it is every year. With training camp set to open this week, there’s no doubt that every player and coach is asking himself what it takes to play beyond the regular season.

Of course it can happen. NFL teams turn around their fortunes in short order all the time. Look at what the San Francisco 49ers did last season as the latest example.

If the Titans are going to do it, the difference has to be on defense. At least that’s what history suggests.

There was no bigger difference between the 2006 Titans team, which went 8-8 but missed out on the playoffs for the third straight time, and the 2007 Titans, which made the playoffs, than the performance of the defense.

Tennessee was last in the league in yards allowed in 2006 but fifth in 2007. It slipped slightly — to seventh — the following year, which was another playoff season, but then suffered a precipitous drop to 28th in 2009 to start the current drought.

When the franchise missed out on the playoffs for the first time as the Titans in 2001, the defense ranked 25th overall. The next season, which ended with a loss in the AFC championship game, the defense once again was a Top 10 unit.

In contrast, the offense improved marginally (27th to 21st) in terms of total yards and scored fewer points from 2006 to 2007.

The good news is that the defense enters this season in the midst of some positive trends. Its league ranking improved from 2009 to 2010 and again from 2010 to last season, when it ranked 18th in yards allowed and among the Top 10 in points.

It is not that far, therefore, from where it ended last season to a spot among the league’s elite this fall.

Also, the need to alter things on that side of the ball was apparent and actually was addressed well before this point. Change has been a constant for some time now.

Of the 11 starters from the last playoff team, only one, Griffin, is still with the team. In the past two years, 11 of 16 draft picks were used for players on defense. The vast majority of changes to the coaching staff since last season were on defense and included the creation of a new position, defensive assistant/pass rush specialist, which went to Keith Millard.

This is, without a doubt, a different defense. Now it just has to be the difference-making unit needed to change the franchise’s postseason fortunes.