With one week remaining in October, they were 5-2 and alone in first place of their division.
By the time the NFL playoffs commenced last weekend, though, Titans players were at home watching a dozen other teams take part.
It was hardly the first time the franchise missed out on the postseason during its Tennessee tenure. Often, though, that was the case in years when the roster was decimated by salary cap restrictions or, as in 2006 and 2009, when a terrible start to the season doused any real optimism almost from the outset.
This season was different. The last time the Titans won five of their first seven but failed to make the playoffs was 1996, their last year as the Houston Oilers.
“We set ourselves up but didn’t finish. We won one game out of the last nine games, if you give us half of those games — four or five games — it would have been a better outlook,” safety Michael Griffin said. “But what happened, happened.”
So what exactly happened?
Chris Johnson did not rush for anywhere near 2,000 yards again but still finished seventh overall with 1,364 yards, and was one of only eight players with 11 or more rushing touchdowns. Injuries took away the team’s best receiver (Kenny Britt), two top defensive linemen (Dave Ball, Tony Brown) and a starting offensive lineman (Eugene Amano) for extended periods, but every team deals with injuries. Randy Moss certainly did not have the effect many anticipated when he was claimed off waivers.
All those things contributed to Tennessee’s 6-10 record — its worst in five seasons — but they weren’t primary causes.
Revolving quarterbacks: It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. After all, the Titans were prepared for an injury at quarterback — and it showed.
When Vince Young got hurt early in a Monday night game at Jacksonville, Kerry Collins came on and directed the majority of a 30-3 victory. Six days later, Collins started and threw for 276 yards and three touchdowns as Tennessee rallied for a victory over Philadelphia.
Then things got silly. Young started at San Diego but got hurt and couldn’t finish. Collins started at Miami but got hurt and couldn’t finish. Young started at Washington but again got hurt and couldn’t finish, and that meant rookie Rusty Smith had to. Smith started at Houston, and then Collins was back under center the next week against Jacksonville.
The Titans went a stretch of seven games in which the same quarterback never started two in a row. Four times the one who started did not finish. They went 2-5 during that stretch and lost all the positive momentum they’d built during the first seven weeks of the season.
Time wasn’t on their side: One of the defining characteristics of the Titans under Fisher is the ability to control the clock. In 12 of the previous 15 seasons, the team has averaged better than 31 minutes per game in time of possession.
One of the more remarkable developments in 2010 was the fact that Tennessee came up on the short end of that statistic in 13 of 16 games — and was often well short. In back-to-back losses to Houston and Jacksonville in late in November, the Titans had the ball for fewer than 21 of the game’s 60 minutes.
When all was said and done, Tennessee’s average time of possession was 26:02 — worst in the league.
Penalty problems: The flags flew early and often.
Tennessee was penalized at least eight times in each of the first four games, and five times over the course of the 16-game season, the team was penalized 10 or more times.
By the end of the season, the Titans were called for 128 penalties that cost them 1,040 yards, fourth- and third-most in the NFL, respectively.
The defensive linemen were repeat offenders as they occasionally lost sight of the balance between aggressiveness and poise.
“It’s the nature of the way we play defense, it’s all about getting the edge and getting a jump and beating the snap count,” Fisher said. “There’s a trade-off for a few penalties if you’re getting sacks, but when the penalty numbers get high, as they did in consecutive games, there’s no excuse for it.”
Any one of those situations alone would be difficult to overcome. Combine the three over the second half of the season and you transform what looked like a playoff contender into a team that floundered at the finish.
“Anytime you don’t end up in the playoffs, no matter what happened, it’s an opportunity that’s been missed,” linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “You can’t say that because of where you started or where you finished. Week-in and week-out, things happen good and bad.”
And more losses than victories.
“I think we couldn’t overcome some of the injury situations; then we lost a game in overtime [to Washington] because of penalties and so on and so forth,” Fisher said. “I don’t ever refer to a team as one that underachieved. This is a team that, I think, lost more games than I thought it should have.”