In a manner of speaking, the Tennessee Titans officially close the book on the 2012 season this week.
In the wake of Super Bowl XLVII, members of the scouting staff come to town for pre-combine meetings, which marks the start of final preparations for the draft. Upgrading the talent, through the draft and free agency, is a priority for a franchise that finished 6-10 and the responsibility to do so falls on second-year general manager Ruston Webster.
In a conversation with The City Paper late last week, Webster declined to comment on any specific personnel decisions, such as the status of running back Chris Johnson, who will be guaranteed $9 million of his $10 million 2013 salary if he is on the roster beyond the fifth day of the new league year. However, Webster addressed the overall state of things from the aging offensive line to the development of quarterback Jake Locker and the chances the Titans actually return to the postseason in the near future.
In the time since the season ended, what have you done personally to form or reaffirm your opinions on particular players and the overall roster?
During the season we watch and grade every game. Yeah, I’ll go back and look at our guys a little bit. But for the most part we put a grade on them every week, and I try to rely on those evaluations in making decisions, really. How did they play during the season? What did I think at that point in time? I think if you do that then you kind of find a formula that will take you to what you need to do. So we grade them every, week and I rely on those grades in making decisions.
Was there anything in particular that was disappointing or surprising about last season in terms of how it did not go as planned?
This isn’t meant as an excuse in any way, but all the injuries … from that standpoint, it didn’t work the way we wanted it to. Some of that are probably things that we could have avoided and others we couldn’t have. Overall, though, I think just from a consistency standpoint, I would like to have seen us play more consistent football from game to game, play to play, week-to-week, whatever. That’s an area I think that we have to get better as a team and become a more consistently good football team and a team that’s pretty close to the same every week.
After a 6-10 season do you have to resist the urge to make major changes or do you look at it as if that record suggests major changes are necessary?
I think you just have to be honest with yourself about what worked and what didn’t and then make the changes that you feel you need to make. Sometimes it’s several. Sometimes it’s one or two. But I think the one thing about it is when you were 6-10, obviously you weren’t good enough, and you have to find ways to improve, to continue to improve, to bring in competition, to add new players and also to help the players you have play better.
Mike Munchak has talked about how last year’s pursuit of quarterback Peyton Manning bogged down the free agency period. Do you anticipate being aggressive right from the start of free agency this year?
It’s just hard to say because you just don’t know until you get to that day, when you know who exactly is free, what’s worth doing, what you can do and what you can’t do. Right now, the list looks big. There’s a lot of free agents. But if teams re-sign them prior to free agency and players are franchised, then the list changes drastically. So you really don’t know until it comes down to the day free agency opens.
In situations like that of Chris Johnson, is it best to wait as long as possible before committing to a decision?
For me, I like to take as much time as I can to make the decision and discuss things with everybody. Get all the opinions. Then I kind of make the decision together as a team. So yeah, I like taking my time.
Linebacker Colin McCarthy had several injury issues in 2012. With any player, does the potential for injury factor into the process or do you have to assume guys will play all 16 games and then adjust as needed during the season?
I think you always have to factor that in. You have to factor in time missed and injuries and all those things, on any player, whether you’re bringing them in from the outside or they’re one of your own.
Quarterback Jake Locker remains a work in progress. Is it more important when you draft someone to be a “franchise quarterback” to be right than it is with high picks at other positions?
I think in general it’s more important to be right at that position. That position is the most important position on the football team. There’s not many ways to play around your quarterback — he has the ball on every play. Yes, you want to be right. No matter where you pick them or whether you sign them as free agents, being right on your quarterback is important to your long-term success.
How much did Locker’s shoulder injury affect him last season?
I think it’s a combination of things. I think Jake did a lot of really good things and I think Jake is a tough guy who is never going to tell you when he’s hurting or anything like that. He’ll play through whatever. He was obviously banged up there toward the end, and for most of the season, really. Then we had injuries around him, which made it even tougher. Our offensive line being in flux and some things like that, losing our tight end, I think that made it tougher on Jake.
Part of the rationale for drafting Locker was his experience in a pro-style offense. Now the NFL is moving toward expanded use of the pistol/read-option approach. Are you worried that you could wind up out of step?
I think the good thing about Jake is that he can do any of that stuff. He did both in college. He had both type of schemes in college. I think he has the skill set to do multiple things and he does have experience in a West Coast-style offense from college. What you hope — and what we think — is that all that stuff will work in his favor.
You have said the decision-making within the organization is made by consensus rather than a single voice. With the owner’s decision to fire CEO (and former general manager) Mike Reinfeldt recently, do you have any greater responsibility in terms of the decisions that are made?
I don’t know if it’s more or less. Mike’s not here, so that’s different, but [Munchak] and I make a lot of the decisions together. So I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I would think it’s about the same for me. I’m still making the decisions just like I was last year. I don’t see a whole lot of difference.
Last season was not your first in the NFL, but it was your first as an NFL general manager. How much of a difference will a year of experience make going forward?
You can spend a lot of time in the league but I don’t think until you sit in this chair and go through it that you truly understand it all. I’m not saying I understand it all, because I don’t. I’m still learning and probably will be until I’m finished in the league. I do think that I’m more comfortable with the way to do things and the way we want to do things this year than maybe I was at the beginning of last year.
Is this team closer to being a playoff team again than last year’s record might suggest to most?
I think that the way the league is set up it can swing quickly. We have to fill some spots that really right now we are hurting in a little bit. And we have to get better in certain areas. We have to get better and more consistent on the offensive line. That was a solid area for the Titans for many years, and last year it was not. We need to get it back to, “Hey, we’re going to have the same guys out there every week and they’re good players and they’re going to help us win games and control the line of scrimmage.” Defensively, we have to continue to get better in every area. We’ll see what happens, but we were 9-7 and on the verge of the playoffs two years ago. There’s a lot of teams in the middle of the pack where, depending on schedule, injuries, the way things go, you can go either way — you can be 9-7, 10-6 or you can be 6-10. I think we’re in that group right now and we need to continue to improve.
Is there something that typically facilitates a quick turnaround?
It’s probably different from every team. Sometimes it can be a player. Sometimes it can be a coach, a change in philosophy — offensively or defensively — that fits your personnel better. So it’s multiple things. Our guys will come back with something to prove and looking for a fresh start. I think we have as good a chance as anybody to make those steps and improve, but we have a ways to go.