No one knew exactly what to expect from the Tennessee Titans following the departure of coach Jeff Fisher and the release of quarterback Vince Young.
Coming off their bye, 11 games — nearly three-quarters of the season — remain, which means nothing is guaranteed in terms of success or failure. Enough has taken place, though, to draw some conclusions.
Some observations about this year’s team as players and coaches return for the remainder of the schedule:
• Jason McCourty, cornerback: McCourty played well early last season before a broken forearm sidelined him for a time and allowed Alterraun Verner to usurp much of his playing time. Not only is he a starter once again, but he is playing a complete game as evidenced by the fact that he has a team-high two interceptions and is tied for the team lead in tackles.
• Craig Stevens, tight end: He entered his third NFL season with the reputation as the “blocking” tight end. With his 58-yard reception that led to the game-winning touchdown against Denver and his touchdown reception a week later, he has shown he is capable of much more.
• Nate Washington, wide receiver: It is tough to tell whether Washington is significantly better than in previous seasons, although coach Mike Munchak said the veteran has applied himself more, or whether it has more to do with improved play at quarterback. Either way, he leads the team in receptions and is on pace for a career year.
THE PRESSURE’S ON
• Chris Johnson, running back: Few, if any, doubted that he deserved a significant raise and a long-term contract. Many, though, considered the fact that he held out of training camp and missed the entire preseason the wrong way to get what he had coming to him. Thus far, he has done little to validate his stance or to reward the team for its investment in him.
• Kenny Britt’s injury: The third-year wide receiver delivered early on the promise he showed in the middle of last season with back-to-back games of 100-plus receiving yards in the first two weeks. He made timely catches. He made big plays. He looked every bit the prototype of the modern receiver — big, fast, strong and productive.
• Ahmard Hall’s suspension: There’s no way to know for sure what part his absence through the first four games played in the struggles of the run game. It’s tough to imagine that it did not have some effect, though, given the familiarity between him Chris Johnson, not to mention the fact that he learned the offense during training camp.
• Week 1: If the Titans end up missing the playoffs by one game, it is tough to imagine they will have a loss that stings more than this one, given how close it ultimately was at the finish and the way Jacksonville has played since.
CIRCLE THE DATES
• Sunday vs. Houston, LP Field: The first of the season’s two meetings between the teams comes with first place in the AFC South and the upper hand in what has become a back-and-forth series at stake.
• Dec. 4 at Buffalo, Ralph Wilson Stadium: This one comes in the wake of three straight against the NFC South, and if the Bills maintain their early success and their dominance in turnover margin, it might serve as a good measuring stick for possible postseason success.
• Dec. 24 vs. Jacksonville, LP Field: Players and coaches had not even left the field in Jacksonville in the opener when they experienced pangs of regret over the way they played. In the next-to-last week of the season any division game is bound to be important, and the opportunity to avenge a disappointing result only adds to the appeal.
0 — losses at home in two games. Every time in the last 30 years the franchise won its first two home games (1988, 1991, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2008) it made the playoffs.
7.8 — yards per pass attempt. The Titans have not averaged more than seven for a season since 2003, Steve McNair’s final year with the franchise.
50 — rushing yards per game, Johnson’s average. That’s slightly more than half his average through the first five games (97 yards) last season.
• Akeem Ayers, linebacker: A starter basically from the moment he signed his contract, Ayers has made plays against the run. Coaches expect him to develop into a dangerous pass rusher as the season progresses.
• Karl Klug, defensive tackle: He has not yet cracked the starting lineup, but he can beat one-on-one blocks and — most importantly — has shown he has a knack to get the ball loose. He has forced a pair of fumbles.
• Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle: A key piece of the team’s attempt to get bigger on the defensive front,
he currently tops all Titans linemen in tackles.
THE PRICE OF SUCCESS
• Marc Mariani, return specialist: He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010, when he set the franchise record for return yards in a season and took back one kickoff and one punt for touchdowns. Opponents have taken advantage of the new kickoff rules to keep the ball out of his hands — he has attempted just five returns thus far.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS
• Offense — Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback: Almost without fail, a team that is better at quarterback is a better team. Hasselbeck is a clear improvement over both Young and Collins, and his performance has been even more important given the struggles of the run game.
• Defense — Cortland Finnegan, cornerback: No player better personifies coordinator Jerry Gray’s philosophy of allowing players to play to their strengths. He moves around the defense and creates matchup problems for opposing offenses. Plus his energy level sets the standard for everyone else on that unit.