Last year, the Tennessee Titans were the surprise of the NFL, starting the year 10-0 and finishing 2008 a league-best 13-3. Visions of Super Bowls were dancing in the heads of Titans fans everywhere.
But those visions turned to nightmares when the Baltimore Ravens shocked the Titans 13-10 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, leaving a very sour taste to what had till then been a sweet ride for the Titans.
Three turnovers in the red zone — a Kerry Collins interception and fumbles from LenDale White and the last painful one by Alge Crumpler — helped lead to the Titans' demise that day in eerily similar fashion to the way those same Ravens had “stolen” a playoff win eight years earlier in Nashville.
But the playoff loss isn't something to be dwelt on by the players and staff as they head into the regular season. They say it is simply time to move on and try and again put themselves in position to advance in the postseason.
“I don't think we're dwelling on it or anything. If some guys want to use that as a reference point and motivation, that's fine, but I don't think we're focused on it as a team,” center Kevin Mawae said.
If there is a silver lining, the 2009 Titans are not vastly different than the team that ended last year on paper.
The most notable absence, of course, is Albert Haynesworth, the lynchpin of the defensive line, who took his act to Washington in a record-setting $100 million deal.
Also, with Jim Schwartz becoming the new head coach in Detroit, Chuck Cecil settles in as the new defensive coordinator.
Offensively, the Titans believe they have added more weapons to an offense that featured rookie Chris Johnson's 1,228 yards rushing a year ago. When Johnson exited the playoff game with a sprained ankle late in the first half, the offense suffered from his absence.
To that end, the Titans then set about to upgrade with more weapons.
They signed free agent receiver Nate Washington away from Pittsburgh, and rookie H-back Jared Cook looks like a potential impact player as well. In time, first-rounder Kenny Britt could contribute to the offense as well. It has the 36-year-old Collins excited about where the team stands.
“I feel rejuvenated, bottom line. I feel really good, but at the same time, I'm coming into my 15th year, so I don't have forever,” Collins said. “I'm trying to do everything I can to do everything possible to get ready to have a good year. … I think we've upgraded at a lot of positions, and I think wide receiver is one of them.”
Still, the Titans know that getting back to (or rather, past) the point where last year's season ended and beyond won't be easy. But it can be done.
In recent years, No. 1 seeds such as Denver in 1996, Pittsburgh in 2004 and Indianapolis in 2005 fell in the playoffs, only to win the championship the following season.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck hopes the loss serves as a lesson learned and more of a moving-forward point, not a moment frozen in time as a reminder of what might have been.
“When you're in that position where you go 13-3 and you get home field, and the regular season, you pretty much walk through it, you might think it's going to be the same, but it's definitely not,” Bulluck said. “Because playoff football is a totally different beast, and it's unfortunate that we had to learn that lesson last year the way we did. I'm sure if we're in that same situation last year, things will definitely be different.”
Bulluck believes it can be a good learning experience, especially for the younger Titans.
“We had guys who had never been in that position. I guess when you're in that position, you just expect to win,” Bulluck said. “There's nothing about this league that is guaranteed, even if you have the best record in football.”
As for Crumpler, he handled the postseason miscue with class, addressed it during OTAs and said he is ready to put the play and last year in the past with a focus on 2009.
“I addressed it when it was time to address it, and it's not something I want to go back to,” Crumpler said. “We just need to enjoy this whole process. We know we have a good team, and we know what we're capable of. We've just got to enjoy this journey and this ride, and make sure we end it on a positive note.”
The key to that, according to Crumpler, is being healthy and hot at the right time.
“It's really about getting hot at the right time. That's basically what it is,” Crumpler said. “You want all your guys healthy and hitting their mark at the right time in the right point of the season. I really felt like we were at that point. We just had unfortunate mishaps. I know we were good enough to take it further. We just didn't.”
That's where things begin anew for the Titans, and they believe the window of opportunity for a championship is still very much open, despite the loss of Haynesworth.
If he is worried about losing Haynesworth, then defensive line coach Jim Washburn certainly isn't showing it, as he is excited about a deep unit that could have some tough decisions to make when camp cuts come.
“I'm just going to coach the guys we've got and we're going to be fine,” Washburn said during OTAs. “If Jason [Jones], Jacob [Ford] and Will [Hayes] step up we won't miss anybody. We'll roll on.”
Not only that, the Titans are deep on the interior, and while they might not have Haynesworth's dominant presence in the middle, they should have enough quantity to help make the loss more palatable. The return of a healthy Kyle Vanden Bosch should be a benefit to the defense, one that returns every starter but Haynesworth, as well.
“I feel like we've added a lot more team speed offensively, when you factor in Nate and Jared, and defensively when you factor in the mentality that KVB and Keith set is still there and the guys replacing Albert are very hungry and it's very evident in the practices we've already had,” Crumpler said.