Some might want to bill Sunday’s game between the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons as the Goodell, the Bad and the Ugly.
After all, no teams felt Commissioner Roger Goodell’s wrath more severely this past offseason than the Titans, who lost Adam “Pacman” Jones to a season-long suspension in April, and the Falcons, who will be without quarterback Michael Vick indefinitely for what prosecutors say is his role in a Virginia dogfighting scandal.
Despite the obvious storylines about who won’t be available to these two teams Sunday at LP Field, the game is still about who will be there and how these teams have coped with losing star players to disciplinary action.
Tight end Ben Troupe perhaps put it best, in referring to Jones’ situation as it relates to the Titans currently.
“Pacman, even though he is still part of the team and we wish him the best, the show is still going to go on,” Troupe said. “As players, we can’t say we win or lose games because Pacman isn’t here. We understand the situation. It’s a part of the league, and we just find a way to deal with it.”
The Titans have dealt with the loss of Jones quite nicely through three games, as Nick Harper and Cortland Finnegan, while not as flashy as Jones, have been more than adequate at cornerback. And rookies Chris Davis and Michael Griffin have both had moments of success as return men.
“Any better and we would be 3-0. At this point in the season, we haven’t missed a beat,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “We had, I guess you’d say, the privilege of knowing that we were going to be without Pac, so we had to make adjustments from there. I think the coaching staff and everyone has done a great job of that. It’s worked out for us.”
In short, the Titans have banded together in Jones’ absence, and the locker room chemistry is undeniable. In an indirect way, the loss of Jones probably had something to do with that.
“It probably does without really noticing it, just subconsciously, just for the simple fact that everybody is getting the same questions about whatever situation is going on. I think in a way, it kind of does bring guys together,” Bulluck said.
The 1-3 Falcons had a much more dire situation facing them, as they found out about week or so before training camp that Vick would not be reporting with his teammates. It hurts too, that Vick was the face of the franchise and the key cog in their offense. In other words, imagine the Titans not having Vince Young or the Colts not having Peyton Manning for an entire season.
“It’s the quarterback, the No. 1 spot,” Bulluck said. “It’s a little harder, but I think they’re playing fairly good football for everything they’ve been through, losing their quarterback a week before camp and having to get someone [Joey Harrington] in there and learn a whole new system who was probably expected to just be a backup.”
First-year Falcons coach Bobby Petrino has done his best in dealing with the Vick matter inside the locker room. After it happened, some of Vick’s Falcons teammates even referred to him in the past tense as an ex-teammate.
“We tried to not make it hard,” Petrino said. “We just tried to understand what our job was, and not sit around in rooms or in corners and talk about the situations. We just wanted to focus on football and on getting better individually and getting better on both sides of the ball.”
How teams deal with distractions, major or minor, is critical, said Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
“We had one issue that was no longer a distraction,” Fisher said. “Clubs handle it differently. Players are resilient and they move on. While things are going on, everybody else is either in an offseason program or in training camp and participating in the normal regular season routine.
“Distractions are only how you handle them. Distractions themselves in pro sports and in the National Football League can cost you games unless you handle them properly, and there are all different types of distractions.”
Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said the best way to not let outside distractions overtake a team is to concentrate the focus on things in-house.
“Last season, there were a lot of outside distractions probably leading up into the season this year,” Vanden Bosch said. “When that happens, you kind of have to separate yourself a little bit and focus on what’s happening in this building and what the team is trying to do. I think our team did a good job of that with all the distractions; everybody stayed focused on the task at hand.”
That is now the challenge facing the Falcons, who pick up the pieces with a new coach, new quarterback and new system as the former face of the franchise heads to prison.
“It’s a tough for a team to adjust, but they’re doing a good job,” Vanden Bosch said. “One of the things, if you’re having problems, victories heal everything. Last week they got a win, and if they can get some momentum going, they can put a lot of their problems behind them.”
Added Troupe, “The media will probably never let it go away, but as a player you can deal with it.”
INJURIES: Linebacker David Thornton, who left Wednesday’s practice early with a back problem, did not practice Thursday, but should return today, Fisher said.
Punter Craig Hentrich did not punt on Thursday and is still in a wait-and-see situation.
Running back LenDale White, guard Benji Olson and defensive tackle Randy Starks all returned to practice Thursday.