We heard it over and over again during the first month of season. Coaches said it. Teammates said it.
One of Jake Locker’s greatest attributes is that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice.
It’s part of the reason coach Mike Munchak and his staff named the 2011 first-round pick the starting quarterback before the end of training camp. It also has a lot to do with the fact that those same men feel so good about the decision and the long-term future of the Tennessee Titans.
Then it happened. Twice.
Locker got hurt. He separated his left shoulder in the opener against New England and again early in Week 4 against Houston. With that, he was on the sidelines for five consecutive games.
Injuries are a part of the game and beyond the control of any individual. That is no secret. Virtually every NFL contest results in some player or players in the training room with a tear, a tweak, a twinge or whatever else you want to call it. The vast majority of the time it was through no fault of their own.
That being said, over the final six weeks of this season Locker cannot let it happen again.
Given the commitment to him as the center of this offense, he must start — and finish — all of the remaining contests. He must be a constant presence in the huddle, on the practice field, on the sidelines and in the meeting room. He has to be in front of the cameras and microphones and notepads each week, talking about what went right, what went wrong and how the whole team is going to get better.
No pun intended here, but he has to shoulder the burden of leadership for a franchise that has not completely recovered from the divide created during the Vince Young-Kerry Collins years.
By all accounts, Locker has the personality and the presence to do exactly that, but he has to be present.
One of the things that made Steve McNair such a force within the franchise a little more than a decade ago was the sense that he would be ready to go every time the ball was kicked off. When he was on the field he made plays with his arm his feet and his head — plays that often were the difference between victory and defeat.
His message — through actions much more so than words — was that you do whatever is needed, whenever it is needed, in order to win.
Locker is the same sort of off-the-chart athlete. He has the eye-popping speed and strong arm that give opposing defenses more than one reason to worry every time the ball is snapped. To set a similar standard for his teammates, though, he has to be on the field and teach by example.
The Titans might not (probably won’t, in fact) make the playoffs this season. They might not finish with a winning record, nor get a lot of Pro Bowl invitations or anything of the sort.
They do, however, have the chance to define themselves for the future — as Locker’s team, which is what they want to be. If that’s the only thing that comes out the current campaign, then 2012 won’t be a total loss.
Locker had one significant injury during college. A broken thumb caused him to miss the final five games of his sophomore season. After that, he did not miss another and finished his career as one of the most revered players in University of Washington history.
Did he take any particular measures to keep himself healthy? Likely not.
Still, he did it once. That sort of return from injury needs to happen twice.