The Titans’ strong (understatement) start to the 2008 season has brought up a number of questions:
How do I get playoff tickets?
When does the second week of the playoffs start?
Can you wear a t-shirt in February at Raymond James Stadium?
That’s all fine and good, but another question is: Who is the face of the Tennessee Titans?
Three months ago, this would be a very simple question to answer. Vince Young was, without a doubt, the face of the franchise, as well as one of the most promising and profitable young faces in the NFL as a whole. Faith in Young’s development (very reasonable) and his merchandise sales (we don’t get that money, so who cares) made him very exciting for a fan base looking for a replacement for the play making excitement and dependability of Steve McNair. As we all know, in that respect this season hasn’t played out quite like any of us would have wanted (let alone expected), and barring any unforeseeable injury that won’t change. I genuinely believe that Vince Young still has the potential to lead this team in the future, even though the water is now a bit murkier, but this conversation will deal with folks that are very active in the Titans current 9-0 record.
If you’ve been watching national sports coverage in the last week (ESPN, NFL Network, etc.), then you’ve seen Kerry Collins’ name surface as a potential MVP candidate. Two things should be understood: quarterbacks often get an unfair amount of the credit (and the blame) for a team’s success, and at this point in the season pro football’s “talking heads” start discussing awards about a month earlier than there is really any reason to. Ignoring those points for a second, though, think about this: in 2008 Kerry Collins is the quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, and in that capacity he is being talked about as a potential Most Valuable Player of the entire NFL. Raise your hand if you thought that would happen in a million years (Kerry’s immediate family doesn’t count). Yeah, I didn’t think so.
When Collins signed with the Titans in 2006 he was a security blanket between Billy Volek (whom many of us were excited to see start for a season, after a few seasons of great promise), and Vince Young (whom, …well we all saw the 2006 Rose Bowl). Basically, Volek had a huge aversion to the Collins signing and forced his way out of Tennessee (to the great dismay of Franklin Motors; Drew Bennett was a big loss in that respect as well). Collins started that season with little time with the team or the offense, and played terribly. Young came in and performed more than well, while Collins played the role of the guy who might have cost the Titans a playoff birth. A couple of years make a big difference…
Collins has played great in the starting role, and the Titans are 9-0 with him under center. Face of the franchise, though? Not quite. A huge question that has been, rightfully, unaddressed is the status of Tennessee’s QB situation after this season. While Collins has probably played well enough this season to come into next year as the starter (regardless of how this season plays out), he’s 36 years old and has a guy waiting behind him with a contract that will still be longer and more lucrative than anything Collins will get this off-season.
Tennessee made the playoffs last year, and perhaps the biggest dimension missing from that playoff team was the lack of a dominate #1 receiver. The Titans had their pick of any wideout in the draft, so with the 24th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft the Tennessee Titans picked…(drum roll please) Chris Johnson. What? That’s pretty much how most Titans fans felt. We drafted a very fast guy from East Carolina who we were pretty sure would still have been there with our second round pick. Johnson also happened to play a position that we had drafted for in the first two rounds of the previous two drafts. Those of us with doubts were wrong.
Johnson has been the biggest “big play” threat since Pacman Jones stopped returning kicks a few years back, and sometimes it feels like any touch could end up in the end zone. Twitch is with the top few in the running for rookie of the year (Matt Ryan probably has the inside track right now), and has probably exceeded the expectations of even the guys who knew what they were doing when they drafted him in the first round. Jones, though, shares the running duties with the guy who has the most rushing touchdowns in the league, and for the foreseeable future will split carries with LenDale. Franchise player? Maybe someday, but not yet.
Captain, Keith Bulluck has been the most consistent player on the Titans roster this decade, having started every game since 2002. The rangy linebacker can play well at any part of the field, getting pressure on the line or dropping back into coverage. Bulluck is also the only position player who really bridges this “new” Titans team with the Titans teams of the Super Bowl era. In some of the “darker” defensive years (2004-2006) Bulluck was the Titan D’s only real established and respectable player, and never let that obvious fact affect his performance or attitude.
Both Titans fans and close followers of the NFL have known about Bulluck since the beginning, and a few dominant prime-time performances have given him the nickname “Mr. Monday Night.” In terms, though, of being the guy you think of when you think of the Titans, we probably can’t call Bulluck “Mr. Titan.” While it could be said that Bulluck is the most influential player in the locker room and on the sideline, these days there are at least three teammates on his side of the ball that get as much, if not more mention than Bulluck (Haynesworth, Finnegan, Vanden Bosch). Through no fault of his own, Bulluck was the best guy at the wrong time in this regard.
If Albert Haynesworth hadn’t had the franchise tag placed on him during the off-season, he would without a doubt be the face of the franchise. Haynesworth is all but certain to be named to the All Pro Team for the second consecutive season, and is easily the front runner for the Defensive MVP this season. Big Al has played up to the potential we all knew he had, and his temperament has seemed to be exponentially improved from a few years back (I honestly usually don’t even remember the Cowboy’s incident).
The Titans made the right decision, business wise, in placing the tag on Haynesworth, because anything can happen over the course of the season. With that said, Haynesworth has proven beyond a doubt that he’s worth whatever the market says the top DT in the game should get paid, and my guess is that Tennessee opens up the wallet and pays whatever figure that may be this off-season. Haynesworth has stated on numerous occasions that Tennessee is his home, and this is where he wants to stay. When he gets locked up for a few seasons (in the good way), he’s your “face,” but until that contract is signed, it’s hard to say for sure.
It really doesn’t matter either way if there’s a obvious marquee player on any team (especially if that team is undefeated and handily winning games), but it’s nice to have players that you can root for and count on for a number of years. It’s a good sign that the Titans have a number of players that are close to being franchise players as we speak, and a number of other guys that could develop into that in the next few years.
If there is any specific face of the franchise that you could point to over the last couple years (the post-McNair era), it would have to be head coach Jeff Fisher. He’s obviously been the constant for the Titans their entire existence, and if there really is such thing as job security in any major professional sport, Fisher’s got it. In a lot of places a 5-11 season is a ticket out of town, but the Titans brass has been patient and smart enough to not panic during down years. While the Titans have some well known players (a handful of whom I expect to see in Hawaii in a few months) they don’t have any prima donnas, and that too taps into the culture that Fisher has built over the last decade. I think when most people think of the Titans, especially outside of Tennessee, people think of Jeff Fisher. Who knows, though? In the next year that could change to Chris Johnson, Cortland Finnegan, Albert Haynesworth, even Vince Young (again).
So there you go, Jeff Fisher is the face of the Titans, for now.
So folks, who’s your choice for the face of the Titans franchise?