Assuming that to err is, in fact, human then the Tennessee Titans’ 34-13 season-opening loss Sunday was a study in humanity.
The number of errors was not overwhelming, but against a team like the New England Patriots, who played in last season’s Super Bowl, and a quarterback the caliber of Tom Brady the impact of every misstep was magnified.
“You cannot make mistakes and you cannot blow opportunities,” coach Mike Munchak said. “If you’re down there you have to score points and you can’t have a turnover that gives them a touchdown, things like that that will come back to haunt you in a game.
“They’re going to make their share of plays, which we knew, we just couldn’t help them. Unfortunately, along the way we helped them.”
Front and center in this exploration of human frailty, of course, was Titans quarterback Jake Locker.
In his first career start he completed more than two-thirds of his pass attempts and was Tennessee’s leading rusher. In mind and body, though, he was decidedly fallible as evidenced by the fact that he committed the game’s only two turnovers — one fumble and one interception — and spent final 14-plus minutes on the sideline with an injury.
Locker’s left (non-throwing) shoulder was at least bruised and possibly worse when he tackled Patriots safety Patrick Chung after a 49-yard return of a recovered fumble.
“Those [turnovers] were big,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “We had a couple other ones we could have had [but] we didn’t hang on to the ball or whatever.”
Locker, the 2011 first-round draft pick, quickly owned up to the giveaways, the second of which New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower returned six yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 Patriots’ lead in the second quarter. He called the interception “a bad decision” and said of the fumble, "that’s not a hit where the ball should be able to come out.”
He was completely unapologetic, however, about having put himself at risk with the decision to make the tackle, which he did effectively and emphatically against the 5-foot-11, 210-pound veteran Chung. Munchak said the better choice would have been for Locker not to make that play.
“Nobody told me that — I thought it was football,” Locker said. “… I know that I play on offense but I’m not going to let a guy run into the end zone.”
Yet, there’s the rub. Locker should not have been faced with the choice in the first place.
Officials allowed play to continue after Locker’s pass down the middle was ruled a 23-yard completion to Nate Washington and a fumble. The play was overturned when video review determined that Washington never had control of the ball, which meant it should have been blown dead long before Chung got in front of Locker, one of three notable players — Washington and linebacker Colin McCarthy were the others — who were knocked out by injury.
It was not the only time the Titans was disappointed with the efforts of the officiating crew, replacements forced into regular-season duty by the NFL’s continued lockout of regular officials, which has been in place since the start of training camp.
Each team ultimately was assessed three penalties each. The last call against the Titans negated a 21-yard Locker run on third-and-10 from the 10 and forced them into third-and-15. They failed to convert the second time, punted from their own end zone and New England scored a touchdown six plays later.
Tennessee’s only two trips to the red zone ended with Rob Bironas field goals, the first after wide receiver Damian Williams thought he was interfered with on a pass to the end zone and the second after tight end Jared Cook thought he was held as he tried to get open beyond the goal line.
“[The Patriots] didn’t make many mistakes,” Munchak said. “They didn’t turn the ball over. They didn’t do some of the things we did, have crucial penalties that hurt them like we did.”
New England, on the other hand, was perfect both times it drove beyond the 20.
Rob Gronkowski’s 2-yard touchdown catch made it 21-3 with two minutes to play in the first half, and Stevan Ridley’s 1-yard run pushed the margin back to 18 points (28-10) with just over a minute to play in the third quarter.
“You can’t turn the ball over and you have to get touchdowns,” Washington said. “Of course, against a team like [New England] you have to make sure you are putting up points. … This is not what we worked for all training camp. We were looking for a little better performance than we gave [Sunday].”