Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray uttered the words of a man boiling over with frustration on Thursday — the kind of words that might not escape the view of the NFL commissioner’s office.
The performance of the Titans defense through four games has been historically bad. The team has yielded 151 points. Twenty-one of those points have come as a result of scores by opposing defenses, bringing Gray’s unit’s share down to 130, which would still extrapolate to 520 allowed at season’s end. That total would represent the second-worst single-season mark in NFL history.
The 1981 Baltimore Colts yielded 533 and the winless 2008 Detroit Lions allowed 517. The 1966 New York Giants rank third with 501, but only played a 14-game season, giving them the dubious title for the most points allowed per game at 35.8. For the record, this year’s 1-3 Titans have allowed 37.8 points per game.
Gray’s comments came on Thursday in his weekly meeting with Nashville media when he was asked if perhaps his players were too fearful of being fined for illegal hits.
“Like I said, the thing is if you’re worrying about that, you’re not going to try and blow the guy up,” Gray said of a big hit to break up the pass. “I know one thing, if you’re thinking about one thing, that one thing you’re thinking about is probably going to show up. … And great football players have to put that out of their mind. You got to say, ‘Hey, look, this is my territory between the numbers and if you throw the football, you better bring the Gator truck.’ And that’s how you got to play. You can’t play timid in the NFL.”
The reference to the Gator truck is the four-wheel vehicle that helps to remove those players from the field who are seriously injured. In fairness to Gray, he did not explicitly say he was advocating illegal play. Instead, the former defensive back, a four-time Pro-Bowler in a nine-year NFL career, could have been referring to clean, hard-hitting plays that accidentally result in injury, as so many football plays do.
Nonetheless, he might have reason to be concerned if the commissioner’s office comes calling. However, seen in a different light, Gray’s words will only continue the debate over “defenseless” receivers and player safety. But they also illustrate the quandary for defensive players over how to play the game — with recent changes in the game to protect players and concussions becoming such a hot-button issue and legal quagmire for the league.
In Week 3, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Mundy put a dangerous hit on Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey that reportedly resulted in a fine of $21,000. Heyward-Bey’s route took him across the middle and Mundy, coming in the opposite direction, put his helmet into the chest of Heyward-Bey, clipping his Titans helmet in the process. Heyward-Bey stayed down for an extended period, since saying he has no memory of the hit. He only returned to practice this week.
On the flip side of that equation is a player like Atlanta Falcons defensive back Dunta Robinson, who last year was fined for a hit on a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver for the second time in two seasons. Robinson protested the decisions and his $50,000 fine from 2010 on DeSean Jackson was later cut in half.
“I’ve been in this league for eight years,” Robinson told FOXSportsSouth.com. “You can go back and watch film, year after year, I’ve played hard and I’ve played physical, so I don’t know why now it’s being called dirty football. That’s just the way I play, man. I don’t intentionally go out there and try to hurt people. I play hard.”
The way Robinson plays — the style that got him fined twice — is how Gray wants his unit to play. Football, after all, is a game in which intimidation plays a major role.
Clearly, Gray believes his defense is not intimidating enough, if at all. He ended a chat with Nashville media on Thursday with a performance that was a classic example of the Socratic method. A video of the 12-minute session, from which his quotes for this story were taken, is posted on the Titans website.
Gray turned the questions around on his questioners when the query came as to whether his defense was playing too timidly.
“Has anybody caught the ball in the middle of the field?” Gray asked.
Yes, was the answer.
“Have we blown anybody up?” Gray asked.
No, was the answer.
“Maybe we’re playing too timid,” he said, then strode off to amused chuckles.
But debate is less of a laughing matter and it will continue to rage on.