Titans open season with new faces, lots of questions

Monday, September 5, 2011 at 10:05pm

There was doubt throughout the spring and summer about what would happen with the NFL’s 2011 season.

Labor strife, in the form of an owners’ imposed lockout, brought all business other than the draft to a halt. Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement included several court rulings and various others that were pending when the deal finally was struck.

By late July, it finally was back to business — but hardly business as usual. The free agency period was crammed into a couple days at the same time training camps opened. Deals for draft picks came together quickly under a restructured format for entry-level deals.

All that is history and the future is at hand as the start of the regular season arrives on schedule.

The Tennessee Titans open Sunday at Jacksonville with a new coach, new quarterbacks and a star player who engaged in his own personal work stoppage.

For those who have not yet sorted out all of it, or for those who would like a quick review, The City Paper looks at many critical components in this Titans season preview.

The new guy

Titans officials viewed Matt Hasselbeck as the answer to their issues at quarterback and, as such, moved quickly to sign him once free agency started.

For his part, the 13-year veteran, who was a starter for Seattle over the past 10 seasons, had plenty of questions.

“I think it’s exciting to kind of learn a new system — refreshing might be a word,” he said. “From a distance, you’ve seen teams that run this kind of an offense and passing games, and you wonder how other teams do it. The curtain’s pulled back and you get to see behind the scenes; you get to open up the playbook and read it yourself.

“So I think it’s interesting.”

Hasselbeck has been to the Pro Bowl three times (most recently in 2007) and has won at least one playoff game in each of his last four trips to the postseason. He has passed for better than 3,000 yards seven times in his career.

Hasselbeck’s best seasons came behind the Seahawks’ top offensive lines, those that were anchored by left tackle Walter Jones. The veteran quarterback has made no secret of the fact that the stability and production of the Titans’ blockers in recent years added to the appeal when he made his decision.

Having now spent training camp and the preseason behind that unit, his confidence is as high as ever.

“To see how the Titans have always done pass protection … they’re one of the best in the league at [it],” he said. “You come here and you find out, ‘OK, that’s how they did it.’ You didn’t realize how much they put on the center, how much they put on the tackles, how much they put on the running backs and even the tight ends.

“I think it’s been kind of neat, just in terms of general knowledge about football, to see how they’ve done things and why they’ve been successful.”

Other newcomers of note:

Akeem Ayers, linebacker: Tennessee’s second-round draft pick in April had a starting job the moment he walked into the building at 6-foot-3, 254 pounds. Ayers is big and physical, and if he holds up through his first 16-game season he will have the opportunity to make a lot of plays.

Shaun Smith, defensive tackle: Also a critical part of the franchise’s attempt to have the defensive front get bigger, the 325-pound Smith won’t record huge numbers. But his job will be to occupy multiple blockers so that guys like Ayers do.

Daniel Graham, tight end: A 10-year veteran who was a part of two Super Bowl champion teams at New England, Graham provides depth and versatility at a spot with one great blocker (Craig Stevens) and one emerging receiver (Jared Cook).

The holdout

Some might have questioned whether Chris Johnson knew what he was doing when he elected to hold out with two years remaining on his contract.

It seems likely, though, that when he faces Jacksonville he will not know exactly what to do in every situation.

Don’t take our word for it. Offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, one of the ultimate voices of NFL experience, knows first-hand what it’s like to join a team without the benefit of an offseason training camp and even some games.

The last time there was a labor dispute in the NFL (1987), Matthews sued the league in an attempt to earn free agency, which did not exist then. His contract was up, so he figured he ought to have the right to pursue any opportunity he wanted.

“The [collective bargaining agreement] had expired, so it followed to reason — for me, at least — that I should be a free agent,” Matthews said. “It took a judge about 10 minutes to say otherwise. So that next morning I reported.”

Of course, that was in November 1987. Matthews missed seven games — three with replacement players and four more after the players’ strike ended — but stepped in immediately as the starting right guard.

“It was a new offense, and I did go into the first game a little unsure about some of the assignments,” Matthews said.

The thinking (wishful thinking, maybe?) among the Titans is that a running back relies on instinct more than players at other positions, so the missed time won’t hurt Johnson that much. Yet with a new coordinator, a new position coach and a new quarterback handing him the ball, there are bound to be some differences.

Regardless, if his experience is anything like Matthews’, Johnson will be happy to figure out whatever he needs to as he goes along.

“It isn’t fun at all [to miss training camp and games],” Matthews said. “… It just dragged. It was bad.”

Novice coaches

All Chet Parlavecchio has to do is ask and — almost instantly — he can view on his office computer film footage of any NFL player or team tailored exactly to his needs.

In a way, it is similar to what he experienced at his previous job, when he served as head coach at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey. But without a wait.

“I used to have to ask the janitor, Alex, ‘Are you done mopping yet so I can show these kids the film?’ ” he said. “Film study there was setting up a film projector in the cafeteria.”

When first-year Titans coach Mike Munchak assembled his staff, he put a premium on experience. He did not make it a necessity, though.

Parlavecchio, the special teams assistant, Tracy Rocker (defensive line) and Dave Ragone (wide receivers) are in the minority in that none had coached in the NFL previously.

A former college teammate of Munchak, Parlavecchio spent all but one of the past 25 years as a high school coach in New Jersey. Rocker was a college football assistant for the last 17 years, and Ragone broke into coaching a year ago with the United Football League.

While some of the surroundings and accessories might be different, the essence of the job does not change.

“I look at it as they’re still human beings, they’re still young men,” Rocker said. “… Everybody wants to get better.”

Parlavecchio said he and Munchak talked for years about their desire to work together. The lockout delayed his opportunity to work with NFL players but ultimately, he believes, eased his transition.

“I got used to the clerical aspects of coaching — the computer and so on, the technical aspects, the statistical breakdowns and those things,” Parlavecchio said. “So I had extra time. Plus, we bonded real well. We had a chance to spend time with one another and I think that was wonderful.”