If the Tennessee Titans have one short-term goal for 2007, it is avoiding a repeat of how 2006 began.
Last season, the Titans opened 0-5 and many were wondering whether or not the team would even win a game or how soon sweeping changes would be coming both on the coaching staff and in the front office.
After that lethargic start, the Titans, led by the spark of quarterback Vince Young, managed to salvage their season by winning eight of their final 11 to finish 8-8. Tennessee even came within a final week loss to New England of sneaking in the back door of the AFC playoffs.
And despite key losses like Adam “Pacman” Jones, Drew Bennett and Travis Henry among others, the Titans are hanging their optimism for 2007 partially on that.
Of course, the major pitfall they must avoid again is another slow start, something that has derailed the team almost from the time it arrived in Tennessee 10 years ago.
The Titans have only logged winning records in September in 1999, 2000 and 2003. Not coincidentally, they made the playoffs in each of those years. In seasons where the Titans did not have a winning record in September, they made the postseason just once — recovering from a 1-4 start in 2002 to reach the AFC Championship Game.
“We know it’s important to [start fast]. A fast start is extremely important,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “Last year with the 12 playoff teams, I think the poorest record that the 12 playoff teams had in the first four games was 2-2. There were four teams that were 3-1 in the first four that didn’t make it, but you at least give yourself a chance.”
Newcomer Ryan Fowler likened a slow start to a baseball pitcher falling behind in the count.
“It’s always harder to play from behind,” Fowler said. “Morale-wise and physically, it really takes a toll on you. It’s important for any team to go out and establish themselves early and try and get a good start on the season. It’s just like a pitcher getting down in the count. You kind of get desperate when you’re down.”
Carrying Fowler’s baseball analogy a step further, last year’s Titans not only fell behind in the count, they walked in runs with the bases loaded.
“It’s almost impossible to make the playoffs starting 0-5 or 0-4,” safety Chris Hope said. “We almost made the playoffs last year doing that, but it took so much extra work that coming into this season, one of our better goals is to start fast. And there’s nothing better than to play against two of your division rivals.”
The Titans open at Jacksonville Sunday then host Super Bowl champion Indianapolis the following week. The early tests will show the Titans exactly where they stand as far as trying to improve on an 8-8 mark to make the postseason.
“It’s an AFC South game, so it’s going to count double since it’s a division game. I think the guys are really up for the challenge,” linebacker David Thornton said. “It’s going to be exciting because it’s week one, regardless of who the team is.”
The challenge in the opener could be even greater as the Jaguars, coming off an 8-8 year themselves, have perennially been a strong starting team. Jacksonville has had just one losing September (2003) since 1997.
“We’ve only one two out of the last six contests against this group. They’re well-coached and they play very well at home, especially early in the year. They’ve got a great September record, so it will be a big challenge for us,” Fisher said.
A challenge that could set the tone for the Titans in 2007.