Dave Ragone was hired for his mind. The fact that his left arm came along with him was a bonus.
Not far removed from a professional career as a quarterback — he was Offensive MVP of NFL Europe and spent three seasons as an NFL backup — the 31-year-old is now the Tennessee Titans wide receivers coach.
That means he is the one who throws to Justin Gage, Nate Washington and the rest during position drills early in practice. And throw he does.
“He’s got a Jugs machine tied to his arm,” second-year wideout Marc Mariani said. “He takes pride in that. He thinks he can out-throw us and break our facemask or whatever.”
Ragone’s consistent fastballs, often from close range, serve a purpose that goes beyond simple pride.
They test the reactions and improve the hands of the receivers — theoretically, at least.
Thus far there is little evidence to support the merit of his methods. His only prior coaching experience was last year, when he held the same position with the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League under Chris Palmer, Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator. The Titans are still more than a week away from their first preseason game and just a week into working under him.
“When I played, I only had one speed — I couldn’t really throw the change-up,” Ragone said.
That helps explain why he has wasted little time making his mark.
Among the more obvious differences between Titans’ practices under current coach Mike Munchak and his predecessor, Jeff Fisher, and the former staff, is with the wide receivers when they work as a group.
Seemingly every catch is accompanied by a whack from some sort of pad. Many throws are preceded by multiple cuts around a cone or a peak from behind a tackling dummy. Often, there’s little time to find the ball and react to it.
“More than anything else, I hope what we do in those drills translates [to game situations] and helps them when they’re actually running their routes,” Ragone said. “If they can’t see how it works and how it can help them, then it’s not going to be worth it to them.
“That’s more my goal … explaining why it makes sense.”
Adding to the work is the fact that the players have to make sense of the spin of the ball when he throws it. Ragone, a three-year starter in college at Louisville, is a left-hander.
“Just the way he throws the ball, he has a fast ball so he gets us prepared to catch the ball or when we don’t see it to catch it on instinct,” Gage said. “Too, just coming from a left-hander, that’s something you don’t see too often. Different rotation. Different way of looking at the ball. So it really gets your eye concentration and focus down.”
The Titans were 25th in the NFL last season in passing yards per game and 28th in yards per reception. It has been three seasons since a wide receiver led the team in catches.
Given that history, Ragone understands there is no quick fix.
“I know it’s not going to happen in one day, but over the course of one time if it can help one of the guys it’s beneficial,” he said. “Time will tell, obviously, in seeing how these guys develop under me.
“To me, it’s been a natural transition because I’m very familiar with the offense and what the receivers are expected to do. And as a quarterback my whole life, I grew up with the position every single day, so you know what to expect when you see something.”
Less than a week into training camp, his charges already know they can expect the ball to get to them in a hurry when Ragone’s the one throwing.
“He has a rocket on his shoulder,” Washington said. “Coach Rags, he’s a very intense guy. He expects the best out of us and that’s what we need right now.
“He’s going to keep pushing us in a positive direction and he’s never going to let us settle for less.”