A day after their season ended with a 17-6 playoff loss in San Diego, the Tennessee Titans pointed toward a future that has many questions to be answered, but nonetheless appears brighter than it has been in awhile.
The Titans finished the regular season 10-6 and qualified for their first playoff berth in four seasons by doing so. They did so with a resurgent defense that finished fifth overall in the NFL this season and with an offense that struggled to score touchdowns, relying too often on the foot of kicker Rob Bironas for field goals, instead of reaching the end zone.
It was part of what brought their demise against the Chargers, as the Titans went 0-for-3 in the red zone and finished last in the NFL in that category this season.
In terms of the off-season program, free agency and the draft, there will be several areas that must be addressed.
First, the Titans will have to keep as many pieces of their defense together as possible, starting with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who will be a free agent in March unless a new contract deal is reached. The Titans might have to opt to place the franchise tag on Haynesworth to keep him in the fold for 2008 while negotiations are ongoing.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher did not address specifics regarding the Titans unrestricted free agents, but praised Haynesworth’s play this season as a key factor in the defensive success. When Haynesworth missed three games with a hamstring injury, the Titans lost all three and nearly missed the playoffs because of it.
“He’s certainly an impact player for us. He had a lot to do with the (6-2) start,” Fisher said. “As I’ve said numerous times, his unavailability probably contributed to that difficult stretch we experienced.”
Haynesworth said initial dialogue with his agent Chad Speck and the Titans had begun, and he wants to stay with the Titans, if possible.
”I hear really, really good things from him [Speck], and hopefully, we’ll get things worked out. We’re talking a little bit, so I think that’s a good sign,” Haynesworth said. “I’m going to still be here and working out with the team and stuff like that. I’m going to do my part and let the people I hire do their part.”
Haynesworth said he couldn’t imagine himself in another uniform, but conceded it could happen with the way free agency is, adding at the end, “but hopefully not.”
Other free agents on the defensive line include ends Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy and defensive tackle Randy Starks. The Titans probably need to re-sign either Odom or LaBoy if possible, and have the cap space ($40 million by some estimates) do perhaps retain both.
Work in progress
Elsewhere on the defense, Fisher would not address the situation of suspended cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who can now return to the facility to work out, but will have his case reviewed after the Pro Bowl for reinstatement.
“That falls along the lines of our discussions, as far as how we’re going to handle free agency. I’m not prepared to comment on it,” Fisher said. “We’ve got a lot of internal discussions that will be taking place regarding his status.”
Offensively, is where the Titans have plenty of work to do. Quarterback Vince Young, while improving his completion percentage, took major steps backward in terms of touchdown passes and interceptions.
Fisher said Young is still a work in progress.
“It’s just the overall play of the quarterback. It takes quarterbacks time. It’s hard to say it’s this or it’s that,” Fisher said. “He made a lot of great throws this year and his completion percentage was up. He pulled the ball down yesterday and ran with it. It’s just a process that you go through, to where you recognize things. The more comfortable he is in our offense, the easier it is for us to make adjustments on the fly.”
One primary issue is how to get Young more weapons, whether it is at running back, wide receiver or tight end.
Young’s top receiver this season, Justin Gage, is a free agent, as is running back Chris Brown, tight ends Ben Troupe and Ben Hartsock and guard Jacob Bell.
“We’re going to look at different things. We need people to score touchdowns,” Fisher said. “We like game-breaking-type players.”
Bye, bye Benji?
In addition, there is the chance that guard Benji Olson could retire. Fisher said getting playmakers is a key on offense.
“I don’t know. I’m not making any decision right now,” said Olson, who has been with the team since 1998, but missed Sunday’s playoff game. “I’m going to take some time and re-evaluate things right now. I’m going to take my time to see if my back can calm down. The football player inside me he still wants to keep going, but the body starts talking to you a little bit and sometimes you’ve got to start listening to it.”
Olson admitted it would be hard to leave a Titans team that now appears back on the upswing after four years of struggles.
Other veterans are excited about 2008 as well.
“We’ve got a ton of money we can spend. We definitely could be a serious contender if they go out and do what we’re hearing that they say they’re going to do,” Haynesworth said.
Added linebacker Keith Bulluck, “Next year the stakes are going to be higher. Everybody is gonna want to be here and get it started.”