Tennessee Titans (2011 record: 9-7)
What went wrong?:
Unlike the previous four entries into the sleeper category, the Titans are the only team that didn’t regress from 2010 to 2011.
Instead, they improved by three wins in their first year with Titan/Oiler-for-Life Mike Munchak as head coach, and were the only team with a winning record to miss the playoffs.
They even had the same regular season record as the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.
Tennessee’s overall upswing under Munchak had to unfortunately coincide with the year that the Houston Texans finally assembled a playoff juggernaut.
New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ drastic turnaround of Houston’s D (26.7 PPG allowed in 2010, 17.4 in 2011) was coupled with a combined 2,166 rushing yards and 14 rushing TDs from Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
Even hampered by injuries, the Texans displayed enough all-around efficiency to go 10-6 (including seven straight wins at one point), capture the division in week fourteen with a sixth-round rookie quarterback in TJ Yates, and make it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Tennessee could still fight Cincinnati for the lower Wild Card spot, but they suffered an embarrassing setback in Week 15.
The previously 0-13 Indianapolis Colts stunned the Titans 27-13, scoring 24 of their points in the second half. Matt Hasselbeck threw two costly interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Jacob Lacey. Jake Locker came in during the fourth quarter to try and save the day, but his 108 yards, and a touchdown pass to Nate Washington wouldn’t be enough to keep the Colts on the schneid.
The loss sunk Tennessee to 7-7, while Cincinnati beat St. Louis to go to 8-6. In Week 17, Tennessee needed help in a variety of ways to edge out Cincinnati for the final spot. The Bengals lost to Baltimore, as was needed, but the Jets' loss to the Dolphins, and Denver’s defeat at the hands of Kansas City sent the Titans to the golf links earlier than they’d hoped.
Matt Hasselbeck, at age 36, performed admirably for a new team, after having spent the previous decade in Seattle. The brother-in-law of the only attractive woman on The View completed nearly 62 percent of his passes in sixteen starts for almost 3,600 yards. His touchdown-to-interception ratio may have been average (18 to 14), but it was still a fine performance. It helps that his offensive line only allowed him to get sacked nineteen times.
You can tell this is a Mike Munchak-coached team.
Ace running back Chris Johnson may have been ‘the man’ in 2009, rushing for 2,006 yards and setting the single-season record in all-purpose yards, but his holdout for a new contract in 2011 turned him into anything but ‘the man’. Johnson held out of practices and preseason before finally inking a four-year extension, with $30 million guaranteed, ten days before the Titans' season opener.
What followed is a diminished performance that could be explained away if Johnson tweaked his knee or ankle, but “CJ2K” started all sixteen games, making his 2011 drop-off more than a little frustrating.
The Titans were undefeated when Johnson ran for over 100 yards, which he did just four times in 2011. Six times, Johnson ran for less than forty yards; Tennessee was 2-4 in that stretch. Something to consider when Tennessee finished a game out of first place in their division, which was enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
Johnson may have run for 1,047 yards, but that equates to just over 65 yards a game. This was a man that put up 100-yard games in 2009 like it was expected of him, and he’s playing on a contract with $30 million guaranteed coming his way. After putting up 38 total touchdowns in his first three seasons, Johnson scored just four in 2011, all rushing.
A team with Chris Johnson had the second-worst rushing offense in the NFL. Kenny Britt’s injury was bad enough, but Johnson having that kind of slump did more damage than anything to Tennessee’s season.
What have they done to fix it?:
There weren’t many glaring holes in the Titans’ game, outside of Johnson’s slump and the lack of a big-play receiver in Britt, who missed thirteen games.
The defense showed respectable clutch, allowing only 21 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns all year. On the other hand, the Titans forced only 11 interceptions, and they’ve lost a commanding voice in cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who reunited with Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.
To bolster the secondary in Finnegan’s absence, the Titans tagged and signed long-term safety Michael Griffin, and re-signed Jordan Babineaux. Replacing Finnegan at corner has been trickier, but the Titans seem content to let third-year player Alterraun Verner fill the void. Verner is a rather physical corner who may lack Finnegan’s big mouth, but lets his sure-tackling and turnover creation speak for him. If that fails, fourth-round pick Coty Sensabaugh (cousin of Gerald) is heralded for his man-coverage abilities, and has room to develop.
With Jim Washburn no longer in Tennessee to work his Wide-Nine magic, as well as the loss of Jason Babin back to Philadelphia, Tennessee’s sack leader was a backup tackle named Karl Klug, who led the team with seven quarterback drops. To help stimulate a pass rush, the Titans signed Kamerion Wimbley, who has 22.5 sacks over the last three seasons.
In one of the more interesting draft moves, Tennessee used its second-rounder on linebacker Zach Brown, who ran the forty in 4.5 flat at the Combine. As weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon gets older, Brown’s speed for a 245-pounder will improve a questionable run-defense that was known for its bend-but-don’t-break output.
As good as Tennessee’s offensive line was in 2011, at least for sure on the pass protection side of things, one of Munchak’s first free-agent signings was possible future Hall of Famer Steve Hutchinson. ‘Hutch’ may be 34 years old, but the Titans are confident enough to bring him in on a three-year deal. Hutchinson’s run-blocking prowess served Shaun Alexander well in Seattle, and was a boon for Adrian Peterson throughout his Vikings tenure. If Chris Johnson needs a jump-start, he’s got one with a proven seven-time All-Pro.
To complement Britt at receiver, especially if his ACL/MCL injuries linger, Kendall Wright out of Baylor was selected in round one. Wright was Robert Griffin III’s most prime target during his Heisman run, putting up 1,663 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior year. Like a smaller version of Britt, Wright is masterful at creating separation from the defender. If both stay healthy, Hasselbeck (or Locker, if the time is right) can pad his stat line with home run bombs on both sidelines. After all, for thirteen games last season, Hasselbeck and Locker had neither.
Combine Johnson’s 2009 with the Titans’ 2011 otherwise, and they go 12-4 or 13-3. Even put Johnson’s solid 2008 or 2010 numbers into the 2011 mix, and they likely win that all-important tenth game at some point. But the weakest part of the team’s game stemmed from a superstar that did almost nothing right, and it proved costly in the grand scheme.
Bounce-back years are possible, and even former coach Jeff Fisher is predicting a return to form for the prodigy out of East Carolina. Assuming he does, the Titans will look like a fairly complete team, with nothing glaring in terms of weaknesses.
Houston’s the biggest roadblock Tennessee has in terms of regaining a sure spot in the playoffs. Their defense will be mighty hard to break through, but if the real CJ2K is back, those shoulda-been-wins will become wins. In a league where every game matters, the Titans need those to challenge for the AFC South.
And they’re certainly capable of doing so.