On Wednesday, the first official chapter in Tennessee Titans history came to a close.
When long-time punter Craig Hentrich announced his retirement after 17 years in the NFL and the past 12 with the Titans, it officially meant that the last continuous link to the franchise’s only Super Bowl in 1999 was gone.
Yes, Jevon Kearse is still on the roster currently, but he returned for an encore after leaving as a free agent for Philadelphia in 2004. Besides, free agency begins in two weeks, and Kearse will be out the door for a second time as a Titan, given his mid-season benching and being mostly a non-factor after that.
As the Titans officially close the book on that chapter in team history, the team is at a crossroads in a number of areas.
Not only are Hentrich and Kearse gone, it appears too that long-time linebacker Keith Bulluck, stalwart defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and other familiar faces like Kevin Mawae and Nick Harper won’t return either.
The Titans have had little to no dealings with any of their agents about a potential return, which likely signifies the end for all of them in Tennessee.
Back to Hentrich, the veteran punter’s value to the Titans went way beyond sheer numbers, and even those were strong. He had 1,150 career punts and averaged 42.9 yards per kick for his career.
But Hentrich was more than that. He was a football player. And before you say, “Well, duh,” consider that punters and kickers aren’t always accorded that honor. Usually, they’re regarded as isolated or even weird in the eyes of many of their offensive and defensive teammates, who sometimes see kickers as needed and important, but not necessarily athletes in the same regard as a linebacker or wide receiver might be considered.
But Hentrich wasn’t your normal punter or kicker. His longevity in the transient world of kicking specialists is evidence of that.
Throughout his tenure with the Titans, Hentrich was viewed by both teammates and management as a gifted athlete, who happened to play a very specialized role on the team.
Hentrich earned his keep by doing more than just punting the ball and trotting to the sideline until the next fourth down. He was valuable as a holder, working with Titans kickers ranging from Al Del Greco to Joe Nedney to Gary Anderson and finally to Rob Bironas.
He even was able to handle place kicks himself when needed, serving as the kickoff specialist and long field goal kicker during a portion of his career.
His athleticism also gave special teams coach Alan Lowry the options to always have trick plays in the game plan each week. Hentrich was adept enough as a passer to fill the Titans emergency quarterback role and good enough as a runner to execute whatever shenanigans might be called to pick up a first down off a fake punt.
Then, of course, there was Hentrich’s famed “knuckleball” punt, which he basically created by experimenting and kicking the ball off a different spot on his foot. Hentrich kept the secret under lock and key for several years, but an indication that his time as a Titan might be coming to a close came when, after a torn calf muscle landed him on injured reserve, Hentrich took the time to teach the knuckleball kick to his replacement, Brett Kern. That gesture showed what a class act Hentrich was during his time as a Titan.
Not only was Hentrich a class act, but in regards to being the last link to the early success that established the franchise here in Nashville, he was also the final act.