Is there life after squandering a No. 1 seed? The Titans sure hope so.
The last time the Tennessee Titans were in such a position, 2000 to be exact, there certainly existed a hangover from the fallout of being upset by the Baltimore Ravens. Injuries played a part as well and in the ensuing season, the Titans came unraveled, finishing 7-9.
However, there are those in the Titans organization who have experienced the pain of blowing a top playoff seed only to come back the following season and win a Super Bowl.
In fact, it’s been done three times in the past 13 seasons: by the 1997 Denver Broncos, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. And representatives of all three of those teams are currently with the Titans.
Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was receivers’ coach for the Broncos in ’97, Chris Hope played on the Steelers in ‘05, and Nick Harper and Jake Scott were both members of the ‘06 Colts, and all of them remember the feeling of disappointment of losing at home as a top seed.
They also remember the jubilation that came with the following season’s redemption.
“I know we got upset by Jacksonville, and it was like the world ended,” Heimerdinger said, recalling the loss to the fifth-seeded Jaguars in the 1996 playoffs.
Harper said the Colts felt the same way when Hope’s Steelers ambushed them on the way to becoming the first sixth-seed to win a Super Bowl title.
“It was hard. The off-season was long. It was hard because you know you had what it took to go all the way, and you should have been the Super Bowl champion that year,” Harper said. “Anything that you do, that’s all people remember — that you were the No. 1 seed and you lost in the first round. That’s a feeling I thought I would never experience again, and here it is, I’m going through it again. It motivated everybody to not want to be in that position again.”
But now that Harper and the Titans are in that spot again, what is the key to erasing such a stigma?
“You come back and you start over from square one, just like you did the year before,” Scott said. “I think realizing that you lost a big opportunity kind of stings and gives you a little extra motivation, but that’s really not until you get later in the year and you’ve made the playoffs again.
“That provides that motivation then, but as far as off-season, that professional drive to want to be good, to get in the weight room every day and do your conditioning and your lifting to stay in shape and stay healthy.”
No matter what anyone might say otherwise, it is impossible to simply discard the disappointment of the previous year and pretend it never happened. Now, using it as motivation? That is the way most players are trying to channel things in striving for atonement the following season.
“I think we all know how good we were last year, and that we did let one slip away,” Scott said. “We let a really good opportunity slip away, and I hope the guys in this room are hungry enough that if we get to that point this year, that we won’t let it slip away again.”
It was a lesson Hope said the Steelers learned in ’04 that carried over throughout ’05.
“The year we went 15-1 was similar to the year we had here last year in Tennessee,” Hope said. “We had a lot of talent and a lot of young guys playing. You really didn’t really know what type of team you had. You knew you had some athletes, some guys who were going to be physical and you knew you were going to be fast.
“We ended up getting beat by a more experienced team in the playoffs in the Patriots. Our inexperience showed up. … And then the next season, similar to what we’re doing now, we had some questions and we still had a lot of improving to do, we came into training camp with the confidence of knowing we were a good team. … The confidence was there.”
It’s a good thing, too, says Harper, because even though the Titans didn’t win the Super Bowl, and fans might recall the year as a disappointment, opposing teams instead recall that Tennessee was 13-3 last season.
“Even though you didn’t win the Super Bowl, teams are still gunning for you. You won a lot of games last year and beat a lot of people,” Harper pointed out. “They still remember that and they’re going to be gunning for you. They definitely know that you are a contender.”
As for how the Titans will respond, Heimerdinger sees things from a different perspective as coach and knows that the grind of the regular season will determine much of that. But he likes the makeup of what he has seen thus far.
“I think they all know in the back of their mind what we’ve got to do, but it’s such a long season,” Heimerdinger said. “Even there, when we won the Super Bowl that first year, it was so long down the line, and we were a wild-card.
“It was up, down, up, down and then we got hot when we were supposed to. They didn’t look ahead. I just think that in the back of everybody’s mind, it was there.”