Injuries and a demoralizing home loss in their season-opener have left the Tennessee Titans looking like anything but a Super Bowl contender, as they head into this Sunday's big game in Jacksonville.
In their loss to the Dolphins in week one, the Titans lost for the season starting free safety Bobby Myers and key cornerback Dainon Sidney to knee injuries, and have troubling concerns about their star players on offense, quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George.
McNair injured his right shoulder when he was driven to the ground by Dolphins defensive tackle Jermaine Haley after McNair had released a touchdown pass. He suffered no structural damage to his right shoulder, but McNair underwent offseason surgery to flush out a troubling staph infection in that shoulder and there are concerns he will have to battle its effects all season.
"My range of motion is not there; my strength is not there," McNair said last week.
Meanwhile, George got off to a slow start in week one, which is nothing new, but he underwent offseason toe surgery, carried the ball only 11 times in the preseason, and clearly appears to be less than 100 percent.
"I am not going to use that as a crutch. Every time I step onto the field, I expect to be 100 percent, regardless of how many games I have played. I am not going to use the fact that I didn't play much during the preseason as an out," George said.
So, what is the state of the Titans as they head into a game that will clearly go a long way toward deciding the AFC Central Division title this season, and what division teams will be playoff contenders? They are the Titans, the team Jaguars fans hate, but they are nothing like the Titans team that handed the Jaguars their only three defeats of the 1999 season.
The Titans team that claimed the '99 AFC title in Jacksonville on Jan. 23, 2000, was led by McNair, George and a swarming, big-play defense. In their 31-23 loss to the Dolphins, McNair was a meager 7-of-19 for 118 yards, George gained just 49 yards on 18 carries, and the defense was embarrassed by a Miami offense that is not considered to be explosive.
George has been one of the worst September runners in the league. He averaged just over 55 yards a game through the first four games of '99, and last year he was at 79 yards a game in September. Since '97, George had rushed for 100 yards just once in 13 September games.
"It is extremely frustrating and I am not happy that we have had some tough Septembers. You'd like to get off to a better start, but it is all on how you finish," George said.
McNair's backup is veteran Neil O'Donnell, who led the Titans to a rousing win in Jacksonville on Sept. 26, '99.
"Part of it is when you are a run-oriented team like we are, teams are going to put eight guys in the box and try to stop the run," guard Benji Olson said of the Titans' troubles running the ball against Miami. "What we are going to need to do early on, which we couldn't get going (against Miami), is be able to complete a couple of passes and get the ball downfield to keep them from blitzing us and trying to stop the run. Get a big play here and there and they will back off a little bit, and the running game will go from there."
Head coach Jeff Fisher returns to Alltel Stadium, where Jaguars fans won't be sympathetic to Fisher's woes. Fisher angered Jaguars fans following the Titans' AFC title game win, when Fisher referred to Alltel Stadium as one of the Titans' many home fields.
"Some of it was that Eddie was lined up too deep; he didn't press the hole at times. He made up his mind to cut back and he is looking for a home run rather than a four or five-yard gain, and some of it was (the offensive line)," Fisher said in assessing his team's opening-day failures with the running game. "Teams will be prepared the next couple of weeks to stop our running game. That just makes it a bigger challenge for us up front."
Injuries won't make it any easier, either.
Vic Ketchman is the Senior Editor of Jaguars Inside Report, the official team newspaper of the Jacksonville Jaguars. One-year subscriptions may be purchased by calling 1-888-846-5247.