NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just like he replaced Jake Locker in the third quarter of the win last Sunday over the Jets, and just like he will do so Sunday against the visiting Chiefs, Ryan Fitzpatrick followed the injured Titans quarterback to the podium.
Before limping away without crutches or any assistance, though, Locker had explained that news of his sprained right hip and knee was about as encouraging as possible. No fractures, no dislocation, no surgery all add up to missing a month or so as the starter.
“It was the best news that I could have gotten,” Locker said Wednesday while greeting the media for the first time since the injury. He had guided the Titans to a 3-1 start and was playing the best of his three-year career.
Locker was injured Sunday when he was hit by two rushing Jets defenders — initially by end Muhammad Wilkerson from the front, followed by linebacker Quinton Coples from the back — after throwing an incomplete pass. After being carted from the field and nearly three days of tests showed no structural damage, Locker said he didn’t feel the hits were intentional, although the NFL fined Wilkerson $15,000 for his hit.
“I didn’t feel like that on the field” Locker said. “And after watching it, it wasn’t anything malicious, I didn’t feel like. I kind of got bounced into the second guy. So, I didn’t feel like they were out to get me.”
Before their bye week, the Titans face a three-game gauntlet against visiting Kansas City (4-0) on Sunday, followed by a trip to currently unbeaten Seattle on Oct. 13 and host defending NFC champion San Francisco on Oct. 20. After the bye, the Titans travel to St. Louis to face former coach Jeff Fisher, and that could be the game the Titans are targeting for Locker’s return.
“I am going to do everything I can to get out there as quick as possible,” said Locker, who had completed 69-of-111 passes for 721 with six touchdowns and no interceptions for a 99.0 rating before the injury. He had rushed for 98 yards and a score.
“What that timetable is, I really don’t know,” Locker said. “But I am going to do everything in my power to get out there as soon as I can.”
In the meantime, the offensive reins are handed to Fitzpatrick, the nine-year veteran and former Bills starter. In 75 career games, including starting 53 the past four seasons at Buffalo, Fitzpatrick has thrown for 14,444 yards with 93 touchdowns and 81 interceptions.
“My role is different today than it was last Wednesday,” Fitzpatrick said after his first practice with the team as the starter. “The reason being, this was Jake’s team. This is Jake’s offense. There is stuff I try to give him input with, but the receivers are going to run routes the way he wants them.
“Now, with Jake now being injured, I have got to go out there and let them know what I expect. If you’re not on the same page, then that’s what leads to some miscommunication and stuff that can happen. Yeah, my role has definitely changed.”
Which means extra work with the receivers before and after practice, and extensive conversations before, during and after film study. Then again, the Titans have a deep, experienced and talented receiving corps featuring Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams and Kenny Britt, who could return against the Chiefs after missing last Sunday’s game with a rib injury. Rookie receiver Justin Hunter has two touchdown catches in as many games.
“Instead of a whole off-season, I have three days to kind of work with these guys and just make sure we are on the same page and thinking alike in a lot of our stuff,” Fitzpatrick said. “There is going to be a lot of side conversation during practice and watching film with these guys, just so they understand my expectations on certain things.”
Experience is Fitzpatrick’s best attribute to handle this situation, according to Titans coach Mike Munchak.
“He’s been through it before,” Munchak said of Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round draft pick by St. Louis in 2005. After two seasons with the Rams and two more with the Bengals, he became the Bills’ starter in 2009.
“He’s been in the league a long time,” Munchak added, “so we’re hoping he can make this adjustment rather quickly because we need that on Sunday.”
That’s especially so since the Chiefs are in the process of turning around from a franchise-worst 2-14 record in 2012 with the 4-0 start under first-year coach Andy Reid, the longtime Eagles skipper. With a win Sunday, the Chiefs will start 5-0 for the first time in a decade.
“You know, I never really got caught up in that 2-14 thing,” said Reid, who won 130 games in 14 seasons leading the Eagles. “I didn’t go back and analyze that whole deal. We’ve got good coaches, we’ve got good players, and we’ve got a good GM (John Dorsey) — it starts with ownership and how they set things up.”
Former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith also joined the team and is leading an offense that has scored more than 26 points in three of four games after doing it only twice last season. With receiving weapons like talented receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery, the ninth-year veteran has completed 88-of-146 passes for 957 yards with seven touchdowns, no interceptions and an 89.9 rating. Running back Jamaal Charles is third in the NFL at 125.5 yard from scrimmage per game.
Led defensively by safety Eric Berry and linebackers Tambia Hall and Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs lead the league in scoring defense (10.3 points allowed per game) and sacks (18).
“Go win this game, that’s the biggest thing right now,” said Fitzpatrick, who led the Bills to a 35-17 win over the Chiefs with two touchdowns passes in the second game last season. “That’s what I am putting all my focus into. And it is a tough opponent for us, obviously 4-0, they have been playing some really good football.
“Defensively, they have had the talent for a long time. And now they’re playing up to their potential. It is a team I am familiar with in terms of the guys that they have over there. I’ve played the Chiefs a bunch.”
Reid said it would be a little different preparing for the Titans and Fitzpatrick, who is less mobile than Locker, but probably a more accurate passer from the traditional pocket style.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Reid said of Fitzpatrick. “I believe he’s had some success against the Chiefs, so the guys here know him and know how good he is.
“We’re preparing for a good quarterback and an experienced quarterback that has wins under his belt. We got all that. We’ve got to make sure we really put together a good week at practice.”