Not since the days of the run-and-shoot Oilers of the early 90's has the Titans/Oilers organization entered a season with as much offensive firepower and intrigue as the one the 2012 outfit potentially possesses. After finishing third overall or better offensively in four consecutive seasons between 1990-1993, the organization has finished no better than eighth (’01 and ’03) and has just three top 10 finishes in the past 18 years.
Following Kevin Gilbride’s aerial acrobatics, the franchise was known for being conservative under former head coach Jeff Fisher. But under the trio of GM Ruston Webster, head coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, the club has shown an increased commitment to becoming more dynamic on offense, drafting QB Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick a year ago, before using its first-round selection on the electric Kendall Wright this past April.
It is fair to say the No. 1 question looming in regard to which direction a talented offense will go in ’12 is under center, where team observers are waiting to see if the youngster (Locker) is ready to unseat the veteran (Hasselbeck). But two other major questions surrounding the Titans’ two most important offensive skill-position players must also be answered before we find out just how dangerous this unit will be.
After tallying one of the most prolific three-year outputs for any back in league history to begin his career — including his record-breaking, 2,006-yard campaign in ’09 — Johnson held out last offseason in search of a deal that would pay him like one of the league’s top players, not running backs. The Titans paid Johnson and he played like a guy who just got paid; not like the one who was running like his hair was on fire for his first three seasons. Everyone had a theory as to why Johnson wasn’t himself, but the one that carried the most weight was that he simply wasn’t in shape after the long holdout until the second half of the season, when he strung together some good games against mostly bad defenses.
Fast-forward six months and word out of Nashville is that Johnson is having his best offseason as a pro. C.J. typically stays away from the club during the spring and summer months, instead preferring to work out at his home in Orlando. But the Titans wisely put language into his contract that would dock his pay if he stayed away from the team this offseason and the result is a man who appears to be on a mission. One team source said Johnson, who has added bulk this offseason after consistently shying away from contact in ’11, is running harder than he was prior to his spectacular ’09 season. Johnson, not known for his leadership qualities early in his career, is also setting an example for the younger players.
Of course, bouquets seem to land at the feet of every NFL player in May, June and July — we will soon find out whether C.J. can return to leaving defenders in the dust and climbing the ranks of the NFL’s elite backs again.
Kenny Britt was on the cusp of elite status among NFL wideouts before his knee gave out on him in Week Three last season. Britt was posting video game-like production along with Wes Welker, Steve Smith and Calvin Johnson in the season’s early stages, but wound up on injured reserve after having his knee reconstructed. Britt was reportedly doing well in his rehab before needing a scope on the same knee in mid-May. He is optimistic he will be ready in time for the Titans' Week One contest against the Patriots.
Much has been said and written about Britt’s maturation this offseason. For a young man with nearly as many legal run-ins as TDs in his brief NFL career, this is certainly encouraging. But one source told PFW to hold the phone on Britt suddenly being a changed man. The source said he is a good kid, one that means well and simply makes bad decisions. But he wasn’t willing to go as far as to say Britt has turned a corner. It is a good sign that he elected not to return to his hometown in New Jersey, where most of his legal troubles have occurred, but the source suggested Britt needs to take his rehab very seriously over the next several weeks if he hopes to make the kind of early impact he envisions.
There is a lot to like about what the Titans are building offensively. Whether or not he is ready to take the reins in Week One, Locker’s future looks bright. If he needs more time — as many successful QBs do — Hasselbeck is more than capable of getting the job done with the wealth of talent around him. Wright has game-breaking skills to make an early impact. Nate Washington blossomed into a leader last season. Very few teams protect their quarterback better than the Titans. But for the offense to be truly special, Johnson and Britt also must be special. C.J.’s impressive offseason must carry over when it matters, and Britt has to be taking his recovery seriously and remaining focused on reaching his true potential. Because much like the run-and-shoot Oilers, the Titans, when they’re at their very best, look like a unit that will force defenses to pick their poison and live with the results.