Titans' O-line performance in 2011 a matter of perception

Monday, April 23, 2012 at 11:07pm

Production has a direct effect on perception.

Not so sure? Take the case of the Tennessee Titans offensive line.

In 2011, his first year behind that line, Matt Hasselbeck enjoyed one of his best seasons. The veteran quarterback was sacked 19 times, his fewest in a season in which he played 16 games, and threw for 3,571 yards, the third-highest total of his career.

He could not have been happier with those who blocked for him.

“For me, I think the offensive line is the strength of the team,” he said. “And for me especially, those guys did a great job last year.”

On the other hand, there was running back Chris Johnson, whose 1,047 rushing yards, 4.0 yards-per-carry average and four rushing touchdowns all were the lowest of his four-year career.

He clearly felt that change, some of which already has taken place, was necessary.

“It’s always good to get a new addition to help what was not good last year and hopefully try to get the running game going,” he said. “So it’s a good thing to see the coaches want to make it better.”

Into the midst of this uncertainty that is this mass of humanity steps Steve Hutchinson, an accomplished blocker of significant renown who has the ability to help make everyone happy.

The seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All Pro is a central figure for the Titans, who on Monday began their offseason conditioning program with a training run and a team meeting.

“It seems like every time I’ve either gotten drafted or went to Minnesota there was talk of how the running game wasn’t up to par or up to the standard that they’d hoped it would be,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t know if I’m the miracle answer to that but I’ve been around some pretty good runners and had success on the teams I’ve been on, running the ball. I do what I do.

“I like run blocking and I like running the ball so we’ll see what we can do.”

Hutchinson was a first-round draft pick (17th overall) by Seattle in 2001 and in 2005 running back Shaun Alexander ran for a league-best, 1,880 yards. The next season he signed with Minnesota and in 2008 Vikings running back Adrian Peterson led the league with 1,760 yards.

Alexander’s total was second best in the NFL over the past eight seasons. Peterson’s was fourth. At the top of that list was Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards (the fifth highest total in league history) in 2009.

“I’m looking forward to working with him a lot,” Hutchinson said. “Like I said, I’ve been with some special backs and I’ve watched him on film over the years. I can’t wait to work with him.”

Monday was the start of that relationship.

Unlike in recent seasons, Johnson has pledged he would take part in the annual offseason conditioning program, which under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement now starts roughly a month later than it did under the previous system.

“I always like to get better and better every year,” Johnson said. “I feel like I didn’t get better last year. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but I’m not trying to make excuses. It’s just working hard and trying to get better.”

As for the offensive line, it’s about trying different people.

Hutchinson has played left guard throughout his career, a spot that belonged the last two seasons to Leroy Harris. Jake Scott, the right guard for every game of the past four seasons, is a free agent and not likely to re-signed. Plus, the Titans pursued numerous free agent options at center — thus far unsuccessfully — this offseason despite the fact that incumbent starter Eugene Amano is still on the team.

“Adding a guy like Hutch, I think he just fits that group well,” Hasselbeck, who played with Hutchinson at Seattle, said. “I mean, his personality is very similar to the personalities we have already.

“All-in-all he’s a guy who has blocked for a lot of Pro Bowlers and knows what he’s doing. … He’s a good player.”

That does not seem open to interpretation.