Last stand?

Monday, December 27, 2010 at 9:05pm

Sure, Stephen Tulloch is short — generously listed at 5-foot-11. But that hasn’t prevented him from finding a place among the top tacklers in the NFL this season, not to mention franchise history.

“The one thing is people always give him such a hard time, saying he’s too short, but I think he actually uses that to his advantage,” defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil said. “He has really good leverage when he’s tackling, and he’s got really strong hips. Those are the things you need when you tackle.”

At issue as this season winds down is whether Tulloch’s time with Tennessee is running short. The fifth-year linebacker stayed away from all offseason training activities and workouts last summer in an attempt to persuade the team to sign him to a long-term contract rather than force him to play 2010 on a one-year tender offer. 

It didn’t work. He relented and ultimately reported for the start of training camp. Ever since, he’s put up numbers that all but guarantee someone will sign him for next season if the Titans don’t. 

“I have to tackle,” Tulloch said. “I have to run around and make plays. That’s what keeps you in the league. That’s what keeps you going. I know that.”

According to NFL statistics, Tulloch was second overall following the Titans’ 31-17 victory over Houston with 145 tackles, already a career-high and 13 more than his team-leading total from a year earlier. Titans coaches keep their own defensive statistics based on review of game film. They also had Tulloch with nine in that contest, but that raised his season total to 154 by their count. That meant he was on pace to have more tackles this season than any Titans player in the last 20 years other than Keith Bulluck, who had 180 in 2002. 

Tulloch is virtually assured to lead the team in tackles for the second straight year, something no middle linebacker has done since Randall Godfrey in 2000 and 2001. 

“I don’t even count my tackles,” Tulloch said. “I just go out there, fly around and try to make as many as I can. See ball. Get ball. Just always be around the ball. That’s the way I play the game of football.”

That attitude provided a solid foundation. It was Tulloch’s development into a player who stays on the field in obvious passing situations, when coaches turn to additional defensive backs, which added to the numbers. In recent seasons, it was outside linebackers Bulluck and David Thornton who had that distinction. 

“[Tulloch] has done a great job in the nickel [defense],” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s staying on the field and he’s picking up a lot of extra tackles that way. … He studies and has a good feel for matching up on the routes and breaking on the football, and he does a good job down the field.”

It’s no coincidence that the last Titans middle linebacker who stayed on the field every down was Godfrey. His 169 tackles in 2000 were more than any other Tennessee player in the last 20 years other than Bulluck. 

“No offense to [Tulloch] whatsoever, but Randall was probably one of the heaviest hitting guys I’ve actually seen live in person,” Cecil said. “When he took on fullbacks and tight ends, he was a thick, heavy-hitting guy. [Tulloch] is different. He’s a little more nifty than Randall was.”

There’s likely to be a difference in the way their tenure with the Titans ends as well. Godfrey had a contract and agreed to a pay reduction in Feb. 2003. Weeks later, he was pulled from the practice field to ensure he did not get injured and a day after that was released. It was one of the ugliest business episodes since the franchise relocated from Houston.

Tulloch’s current deal is set to expire at the end of February, and unless the team is willing to pay, he’ll simply walk into free agency.

“It’s probably in my mind, but at the end of the day I let it be what it is,” he said. “I just keep working, and hopefully I’m here next season. If I’m not, it’s been a fun time here. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”   

Status of notable Titans free agents

Jason Babin, defensive end

Age: 30

Of note: He had at least half a sack in six of the first eight games, at which point he already had a career-high.

The situation: A one-time first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans who also spent time with Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia, he was a perfect fit for the Titans in terms of style of play and intensity. He has said he’s never been as happy as a professional as he’s been this season but might command a high price.

Chance he’ll return: 75 percent.

Kerry Collins, quarterback

Age: 37

Of note: He was the starter for 15 of the 16 games in 2008, which was the Titans’ best season in the last 10 years. 

The situation: Outside of coach Jeff Fisher, no one’s future with Tennessee is more closely tied to what happens with Vince Young this offseason. If Young is back for the final year of his current deal, Collins will not be. If the team finally gives up on Young, it will need a veteran quarterback.

Chance he’ll return: 50 percent.

Bo Scaife, tight end 

Age: 29

Of note: He entered the season as the franchise’s second all-time leading receiver among tight ends. 

The situation: He was a college teammate of Vince Young’s but has been productive regardless of who has been under center. There are two younger tight ends on the roster, although Scaife is the most well-rounded of the bunch. 

Chance he’ll return: 20 percent.

Stephen Tulloch, linebacker

Age: 25

Of note: He has never missed a game in nearly five full NFL seasons and has been the Titans’ top tackler since the start of 2009.

The situation: Titans’ management made it clear this offseason that it was not willing to invest in him for the long term. 

Chance he’ll return: 20 percent.

Randy Moss, wide receiver 

Age: 33

Of note: He’s one of the best, most productive wide receivers in NFL history.

The situation: He failed to make an immediate impact while Kenny Britt was sidelined by an injury. Once Britt came back, he was reduced to a backup — and a little-used one at that.

Chance he’ll return: 0 percent.

5 Comments on this post:

By: serr8d on 12/28/10 at 9:24

The Titans' woeful record of re-signing free agents is the reason we're in the predicament we're in right now. We lost Haynesworth in 2008, Kyle Vanden Bosh and Keith Bulluck in 2009, effectively gutting the defense. Tulloch couldn't fill the leadership shoes left by Bulluck and Vanden Bosh.

If we could've retained one or two of these caliber players, we might have been much better off.

By: TITAN1 on 12/28/10 at 9:47

We all have our opinions but I disagree on Haynesworth and Bulluck. The money Washington gave him was just stupid. You pay him big guaranteed money and he does not play with the same intensity. Bulluck was a risk due to not knowing how his recovery was going to go. What little he signed for with New York he would not have accepted from anyone else because he got to go home. Now KVB, I wish we could have kept him but I don't think it would have made much difference. I just don't think most of the players executed very well.

Positive people always look at the glass half full and make the best of it and are happy most of the time. Negative people always find it half empty and complain and are miserable most of the time.

By: cookeville on 12/28/10 at 10:14

Wonder why Fisher and Vince weren't added to the list? What are their chances of returning? In fact, what are the chances of about half the lineup returning? The entire organization has become so dysfunctional that one wonders what we will look like next season-providing there is one, of course.

By: richgoose on 12/28/10 at 11:46

I could care less if every single player on this team were to quit.be traded,leave for a better deal or be released.

I think I had rather start over than try to make something out these guys.

By: serr8d on 12/29/10 at 7:54

I'm unimpressed with Jeff Fisher's record, especially the last two seasons (the Titans are the only NFL team to lose six straight in two consecutive seasons). Personally, I think he's burned out; gotten stale, gone complacent. 17 years working for Bud (Got Aricept?) Adams would do that to any Coach.

Fish didn't seem to have any 'fire in his belly' until Vince (#6 Wonderlic) Young confronted him in the locker room. That didn't last very long. OH, and Vince Young is not a leader of men, nor will he ever be; there's not enough in his cranium to 'reach out' and fill that role. He wants to work a 9 - 5 job and then forget about work. NTTAWWT, but NFL Starting Quarterback is not a job for someone with those desires.

I've been a Fisher supporter for well over a decade, but at this juncture, it might be time to bring in someone else. Bud Adams is 87 years old and to explode his team and start over isn't something he's wanting to do, for obvious reasons, but to allow Jeff Fisher to stay on board and not produce is also counterintuitive. I'd recommend to the Old Man to keep VY (since he's obviously in thrall to him) and try like hell to persuade Bill Cowher or someone of that caliber to come to Nashville. And, Bud, sign a free agent LEADER who'll help on defense. Oh, and take a quarterback in the 1st round of next year's draft. OH, and please, let Kerry Collins move along. He's showed me nothing at all, zero, nada.