It was supposed to be the start of something new — the era of Jake Locker at quarterback — and the continuation of a resurgence that began a year earlier.
It nearly turned into the end of the line for coach Mike Munchak. Uneven play in every unit combined with an almost comical number of injuries, particularly on the offensive line, sent the Tennessee Titans to a 6-10 season and a fourth straight year as playoff spectators.
They never won more than two games in a row. They gave up more points (471) than any team in the league and more than any team in franchise history. One of their losses was to a team that finished 2-14 (Jacksonville) and one of their victories came only after they allowed 14 points in the final 18 seconds of regulation.
Outside of one singular Sunday in Miami (a 37-3 victory over a non-playoff team), things never went smoothly, looked easy or happened according to plan.
These were the 2012 Tennessee Titans.
Offensive MVP: Chris Johnson, running back. He overcame a terrible start to finish fifth in the AFC with 1,243 rushing yards and along the way rediscovered his big-play ability, as evidenced by his three touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer.
Legitimate questions remain about his down-to-down productivity, but when he gets going, it generally is good for everybody. The team was 4-3 when he rushed for 90-plus yards and five of his six rushing touchdowns came in victories.
Defensive MVP: Derrick Morgan, defensive end. He was not a dominant player, but then again, no one else on that unit was either. He was consistently productive, which was a welcome departure from his first two injury-riddled seasons.
He had a team-high (and career-high) six-and-a-half sacks and never went back-to-back games without at least one quarterback pressure. He also proved capable as an every down defender and finished second among the team’s defensive linemen in tackles.
Top newcomer: Zach Brown, linebacker. Many analysts were quick to criticize the Titans’ second-round selection of him, but his speed was considered a necessary element for the defense.
He was thrust into a starting role sooner than expected because of injuries to others but quickly made it clear that he would not be replaced. He finished among the team’s top three in sacks, interceptions, tackles for loss and fumble recoveries. He capped the year with two interception returns for touchdowns against Jacksonville.
Best performance: One thing that was true of the Titans for most of the season was that things went best when the defense made things easier on the offense, as was the case in the 37-3 victory at Miami (Nov. 11).
The defense forced four turnovers, one of which was an interception Colin McCarthy returned for a touchdown, and allowed just two third-down conversions. The offense went just 28 yards to score the game’s first touchdown and later kicked a pair of field goals after takeaways in Miami territory.
Worst performance: So many to choose from, but the lowest of the low had to be the 51-20 loss at home to the Chicago Bears (Nov. 1). Chicago scored touchdowns on a blocked punt and an interception return, and forced five total turnovers (four fumbles, one interception).
The situation was made worse by the fact that the Titans came into that one after two wins and an overtime loss in the previous three weeks. Confidence was high but quickly shattered, and never really
Turning point: Coaches and players worked hard to accentuate the positive through most of the first three months, but a 24-19 loss at Jacksonville (Nov. 25) cast an undeniable pall on things.
The following day offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was fired, and it was clear that this season was beyond repair. The Titans went 2-3 after that but never really got back on track.
Coach’s call: Three weeks into the preseason, Munchak made the decision to go with Jake Locker at quarterback and made it clear he did not plan to look back.
Had he been able to gaze into the future and know that the offensive line would finish the season without four of its five projected starters and that he would change offensive coordinators along the way, he might have opted to stick with veteran Matt Hasselbeck for another season. As it was, Locker’s growing pains did nothing to smooth out the bumps they encountered along the way.
Highlight reel: Nate Washington’s 71-yard touchdown catch against Detroit (Sept. 23) was memorable for more than just the fact that it broke a 27-27 tie with 3:11 to play in the fourth quarter.
Washington lined up in the slot and ran straight down the seam guarded man-to-man by a single defender. Locker’s pass was short, but Washington leaped, reached over and behind the defender and caught the ball. From there he basically strolled the rest of the way to the end zone.
Do over? If there is one moment the Titans would like to have back, it’s the final play of their 19-13 overtime loss to Indianapolis (Oct. 28). Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley came within a whisker of deflecting Andrew Luck’s swing pass to running back Vick Ballard, and middle linebacker Colin McCarthy was caught out of position when Ballard made the catch and ran it in for a touchdown (barely).
The Titans had won two straight before that game and never trailed in that one — until the final play.
3 — touchdowns on punt returns, the most in the NFL in 2012 and tied for the most in franchise history. Darius Reynaud took back two in Week 17 against Jacksonville and threw a lateral that led to Tommie Campbell’s in Week 3 against Detroit.
4 — interceptions by two different players, safety Michael Griffin and cornerback Jason McCourty. The last time the Titans had two with at least that many was 2008, which was also was the last time they made the playoffs.
64 — receptions by first-round draft pick Kendall Wright. He not only led the team but he finished tied with Jacksonville’s Justin Blackmon for the most by a rookie this season.
Next season: The Titans will host the New York Jets for the fifth time in eight seasons and second straight, although given the “thriller” those teams staged last month it’s not likely that game will be on Monday Night Football again.
If there’s one contest that is likely to send Titans’ fans on the road it is the one at St. Louis, where the franchise will face former coach Jeff Fisher for the first time.
One to watch: Akeem Ayers, linebacker. The second-year player wasn’t always perfect in 2012, but he often was hard to ignore. He finished as the team’s leading tackler, intercepted a pass, forced a fumble and displayed rapidly evolving skill as a pass rusher.
Coaches have asked a lot of him since the moment he arrived, and by the end of the season he looked to be more comfortable with all of it.
Ultimately, what happens next will determine how this season is remembered.
Either it will be the beginning of the end for Munchak’s time as head coach, which began with so much promise, or it will be the crucible that forged resolve and development among the many younger players currently on the roster. Either way, no one will remember it fondly, but if it’s the latter at least it can be written off as a necessary evil.