The Tennessee Titans took off this past weekend for their bye, and even though the off week didn’t exactly come in the middle of the year, it is still close enough to hand out mid-term grades for the 2002 season.
On the offensive side of the ball, there were more questions on the exam than answers, until last week’s victory over Jacksonville that ended a four-game slide and gave the Titans, now 2-4, a glimmer of playoff hope heading into their break.
Let’s break down how the offense fared in the first semester of the season.
Steve McNair, always a tough, gritty kind of player, has attempted all but four passes by the Titans quarterbacks this season. His only absence was a brief one after he was shaken up in a collision with an equipment trunk on the sideline in Dallas. McNair has had to shoulder much more of the load with the Tennessee running game struggling this season, and has had to do plenty of it with the Titans down by big deficits in the second half.
McNair has completed 141 of 216 passes for 1,471 yards and a passer rating of 81.4. He has thrown nine TD passes (and has a touchdown throw in 18 straight games) and had nine passes picked off, though three or four have come on tipped balls.
McNair hasn’t been able to save the Titans by himself, but he is proving more than capable of shouldering the bulk of the playmaking responsibilities. Grade: B.
Until last week’s victory over Jacksonville, Eddie George and the running game were being written off as finished. However, George responded with a 113-yard effort and had another 52-yard TD gallop called back by a penalty. That game might not have been vintage George and Titans, but it did show that there is still plenty of gas in the tank.
As for others in the backfield, undrafted rookie John Simon has been a pleasant surprise as a kick returner, ball carrier and receiver. As long as the Titans keep games close and George can keep going, Simon’s rushing opportunities will be limited, but he does have 12 catches. Mike Green, who surprised some by even making the roster, has been valuable on special teams and working at both fullback and running back. Greg Comella has not been the receiving threat he was with the New York Giants and now is slowed by a shoulder injury. In all, this was a group that wasn’t making the grade for whatever reason until the win over the Jags. Grade: C-minus.
Derrick Mason continues to be McNair’s favorite target, as evidenced by the fact that he is still second on the team in receptions with 23, despite missing two games with a shoulder injury. He should be back for Sunday’s game at Cincinnati. In his absence, the Titans have discovered that youngsters Drew Bennett (17 catches) and Justin McCareins (nine catches) are capable playmakers.
In Mason’s absence, Bennett became one of McNair’s favorite targets. Veteran Kevin Dyson has had an up and down season thus far. After a breakout season in 2001, Dyson has had occasional troubles with dropped balls this season. Grade: B.
With Mason on the shelf, old reliable Frank Wycheck has once again become a player the Titans look to to make clutch catches. Wycheck leads the team with 25 receptions, mostly for short gains.
Also of late, Erron Kinney, who was bothered earlier by an ankle injury, has begun to come on. The Titans, who use a lot of two tight end formations, need a healthy Kinney because he is their best blocking tight end. Third tight end Shad Meier has again been slowed by injury, this time a dislocated shoulder. Grade: B-minus.
This group, along with George, bore the brunt of the criticism for the shortcomings in the running game. It got so bad that at one time, they even stopped talking to the media before coach Jeff Fisher put a stop to that. The line put a stop to some of the criticism with their performance against the Jaguars. Before that, the unit was plagued by penalties and problems with execution.
Now that they have gotten a good performance under their belts, it is imperative to the Titans’ chances to salvage something from the 2002 season that they continue to play well and not fall back into those same lapses that stifled their production. Grade: D-plus.