EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ Legend in these parts is that Jimmy Hoffa is buried somewhere on the grounds of Giants Stadium.
After Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the New York Jets, the Tennessee Titans may have very well buried their 2009 season in the same location.
The loss dropped Tennessee to 0-3, their worst start since the 2006 team started 0-5, and the Titans now stand in last place in the AFC South. The Titans have now lost five straight (including last year's playoff game) and seven of 10 since last year’s 10-0 start.
“Last year is last year, and maybe that might be the problem. Maybe too many people are looking back at last year. … This year’s team needs to get its [expletive] together, because we’re 0-3,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “What do they say? It’s a marathon and not a sprint, but we’re a couple of minutes behind. We’re behind in the marathon race right now and the rest of the season we’re gonna be running ours uphill.”
Bulluck is right. At 0-3, the Titans’ playoff hopes are at best on life support – only three of 96 teams since 1990 have recovered from losing their first three games to eventually make the playoffs.
The Titans were their own worst enemy on Sunday, as rookie Ryan Mouton fumbled both a punt and a kickoff, with both leading to Jets touchdowns. Quarterback Kerry Collins was also picked off twice and his final 13 passes fell incomplete, thanks in part to key drops by Tennessee receivers.
Perhaps it was the problems on returns that were the most damaging to the Titans on Sunday, as Mouton muffed his first kickoff return after being hit by Jets’ Jason
“The irony about today is that our message all week was to protect the football. … I guess I have to take responsibility for this one. When you turn the ball over twice on special teams, it hard to win ballgames, especially against a team like this,” said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who elected not to keep an experienced return man on the roster, letting go of Mark Jones in final cuts.
The Jets grabbed an early 14-0 lead, taking the opening kickoff and marching 73 yards in 10 plays against the Titans defense that appeared a bit shell shocked at the outset.
Mark Sanchez capped the drive with a 14-yard scramble just sticking the ball across the plane of the end zone after spinning off a Michael Griffin tackle and just before Vincent Fuller knocked the ball away.
On the ensuing kickoff, Mouton fumbled, and Jason Trusnik recovered, setting up another Jets score, this one on Sanchez’s pass of play action from 2-yards out to ex-Titan tight end Ben Hartsock.
“I didn’t secure the ball, and he gave me a good shot and I got separated from the ball,” Mouton said. “I just got to keep it high and tight.”
The Titans rallied from the 14-0 hole to get back into the game in the second quarter, as the defense finally righted itself, getting a sack and forced fumble from Tony Brown against Sanchez that Jevon Kearse recovered at the Titans’ 45. From there, the Titans punched it in to cut the lead to 14-7 on LenDale White’s 5-yard touchdown.
It appeared as though White was going to be stopped around the 3-yard line, but the running back kept his balance and made his way into the end zone to get Tennessee on the board with 9:24 to play in the half.
“Every time I’m in the red zone, I feel like I can score with the ball,” White said.
Near the end of the half, Tennessee closed to within 14-10 on Rob Bironas’ 38-yard field goal.
The Titans took their only lead on the opening series of the third
quarter, going 60 yards in seven plays to go up 17-14. Collins found Nate Washington from 9-yard away, and the receiver made a nice catch on a well-thrown ball over a defender for the score.
Amazingly, it was to be Collins’ last completion of the day, as he misfired on several passes, thanks to the Jets’ pressure defense, and his receivers dropped several catchable passes that could have kept drives alive.
Even with that, the Titans could have held on to the lead, if only they could have held on to the football. The Tennessee defense was in the midst of a stretch where, after the two quick touchdowns, it held the Jets without a first down on six straight possessions.
After that sixth stop, things came completely unraveled for the Titans with another special teams mistake.
Mouton fumbled a Steve Weatherford punt at his own 23, and Larry Izzo’s recovery put the Jets in prime position to retake the lead.
“I’ve got to get back and get my shoulder squared and catch that ball. That right there, we go up 17-14, and I lose the ball. That was a big momentum changer. The got the ball and went down and scored. I have to do a better job protecting the ball,” Mouton said.
New York took advantage of the gift when Sanchez had a 6-yard TD toss to Jerricho Cotchery.
The Jets stretched their lead to a touchdown in the fourth quarter, when Sanchez tested rookie cornerback Jason McCourty, who was in after Cortland Finnegan injured his hamstring.
The rookie quarterback hooked up with Cotchery for a 46-yard gain to the Titans’ 14, setting up a 30-yard Jay Feely field goal at the 11:36 mark of the fourth quarter.
Even then, the Titans had their chances, but the offense continued to misfire, with four drops from receivers in the final period.
Tennessee’s next-to-last drive ended on an interception by David Harris, at the Jets’ 29, and a final chance for the Titans never got going with three incompletes and a second-down sack, plus a false start penalty on Michael Roos.
The closest the Titans came in the final going was a ball that fell through the hands of a sliding Kenny Britt just short of the first-down marker on third-and-23.
“It was just off my hands. I wish I could have had that play back, because I could have made that play,” Britt said.
Collins took responsibility for the Titans’ shortcomings on Sunday as well.
“It was unfortunate that there was a turnover by us. Our job is to overcome those things. We didn’t do that, and as much as anybody, the blame falls on me,” Collins said.
At 0-3, the Titans now will try to dust themselves off and get ready for AFC South foe Jacksonville, which cracked the win column Sunday with a 31-24 victory at Houston.
Receiver Nate Washington said it starts with staying focused and together.
“There’s only one place to go – up. We have to stay together, stay high spirited,” Washington said. “This is probably as bottom of the barrel as this team is going to get. We’re not going to give a guarantee or anything like that … but there’s things that need correcting and we’re going to come out and take pride in that.”
Bulluck offered a harsher and more blunt assessment of the situation.
“We know this team is capable of doing some great things, but if we’re just going to sit around and daydream for the whole season and say, ‘Oh, we can do this or we can do that,’ [Expletive], we’re really wasting our time,” he said.