Sun photo by Lloyd Fox
When Derrick Mason makes his unheralded playoff return to LP Field on Saturday, you will see something strangely familiar in Tennessee that has been missing for years- a precise route running, sure handed, team leading receiver- a role that’s been his for most of his career. While Titans fans have become accustomed to seeing Mason and his 85 stitched on the back of a purple jersey over the last four seasons, they have yet to see a receiver in Titans blue fill the void Mason left as a cap casualty following the 2004 season.
The Titans followed up 2003’s 12-4 season, featuring a playoff appearance and a Steve McNair MVP Award, with an injury marred 5-11 campaign. The Titans didn’t look particularly close to contending, and were over the salary cap. What followed was logical and expected, yet still a bit disheartening. On February 21, 2005 the Titans released CB Samari Rolle, DE Kevin Carter, T Fred Miller and Mason; all established fan favorites, all too expensive to keep. The Tennessee Titans were without a doubt a team in transition (Wycheck and George left the Titans in 2004, McNair, infamously, in 2006), and were in full rebuilding mode after a period of time in which they made four playoff appearances in five years.
Fast forward to 2008, and it’s pretty obvious that the rebuilding process was a huge success in a surprisingly short amount of time. Even with quarterback issues and some injuries to a few key players on the defensive line, the Titans managed the NFL’s best record, solidifying Tennessee as one of the league’s elite again- only three years after the big purge. Let’s take a very quick look at how they did it.
Replacement for Samari Rolle? Check.
Pro Bowler Cortland Finnegan is one of the best young corners in the league, leading one of the most effective (and young) units in the NFL.
Replacement for Kevin Carter? Check.
Kyle Vanden Bosch has averaged ten sacks a season (per 16 games) with the Titans, and plays on the same line that has seen the brilliant emergence of Albert Haynesworth and the surprising resurgence of Jevon Kearse.
Replacement for Fred Miller? Check.
David Stewart and Michael Roos are two of the best young offensive tackles in the league (they’re two of the best regardless of age, really), anchoring a line that led the league in QB protection, and was 6th in rushing production.
Replacement for Derrick Mason?
Not so quick.
Derrick Mason has pretty quietly put up elite numbers over the course of his career. Only four receivers have more receiving yardage this millennium (since the 2000 season):
Torry Holt: 11,872- 1,329 per season
Terrell Owens: 10,815- 1,202 per season
Randy Moss: 10, 475- 1,164 per season
Marvin Harrison: 10,439- 1,160 per season
Derrick Mason: 9,453- 1,050 per season
I know what your thinking. Who cares, he probably did most of that in Tennessee. Well yes and no.
Derrick Mason left Tennessee as the leading receiver in Titans history (the Tennessee years) with 6,114 yards. He’s also first place in Titans/Oilers history in All Purpose Yards with 11,202, which is good for a 4,247 yard cushion over number two (Billy Johnson). Mason’s best years in Tennessee coincided, not surprisingly, with the best statistical years that Steve McNair had; seasons that also saw Drew Bennett and, to a lesser degree Justin McCareins, emerge as dangerous wideouts. Taking that into account, early in 2005 Mason was expensive and apparently expendable.
Now for the more surprising part. In Mason’s four years in Baltimore he’s already ascended to number two in receptions and yards in Ravens history, being the first Raven to ever pull in 100 balls in a season. While moving up the ranks in Ravens receiving history isn’t quite the feat of matching a Jerry Rice or Tim Brown, racking up over 1,000 yards during a season in which Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright were the only people throwing you the ball is the NFL equivalent of a Washington National starter winning 20 games (or an Oriole, for that matter). Mason has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in three of four seasons in Baltimore (ironically the only year under 1,000 yards was the 2006 season, when Steve McNair started every game), serving as the safety net for young, unproven QBs like Boller, Wright, Troy Smith and Joe Flacco. Mason’s steadiness this year has been a huge help for the ever developing Flacco, a luxury that was never afforded to Vince Young.
What VY, and Kerry Collins have had in Mason’s absence has overwhelmingly been a steadily rotating group of underachieving prospects. Tennessee has drafted eight wide receivers since Mason was released: Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones, Roydell Williams, Jonathan Orr, Paul Williams, Chris Davis, Joel Filani and Lavelle Hawkins.They’ve combined for 2,980 yards and 16 TDs. In the same time span, Mason has accrued 3,947 yards with 15 scores. Mason has also proven to be a great teammate (and human being) before and during that period, bringing young receivers under his wing and giving quarterbacks confidence- in both Nashville and Baltimore.
And somehow he continues to do this year in and year out, almost completely under the radar.
So on Saturday show some love for old number 85. He’s an all-time Titans great, who never chose to leave Nashville.
And pray he doesn’t remind you too much of what you’ve been missing.