MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. — The line of fans seeking face time with Jake Locker snaked through the aisles of the huge sporting goods store here on the outskirts of Nashville.
With Titans merchandise in tow, they would bide their time with Titans small talk until being summoned for autographs and/or photographs with Locker, the third-year quarterback whose time has come to finally emerge as the team leader and face of the franchise.
So, it was to nobody’s surprise that Locker was the first player on display for the annual Titans Caravan, which started here and runs through May 10 with stops at schools and businesses in Tennessee, southern Kentucky and northern Alabama.
“It is awesome to come out and have the opportunity to spend some time with our fans and let them know how much we appreciate the support they give us,” Locker said. “It is cool to see how excited the fans get year in and year out about the team.”
But that feeling has cooled for the Titans since 2008, the last season the Titans made the playoffs under former head coach Jeff Fisher. Last year’s 6-10 record wasn’t found with much joy by many folks, especially owner Bud Adams, whose edict for this season — the third for Mike Munchak as head coach — is to show progress or else.
Locker knows it, too, as do Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster. Locker’s teammates understand it, and even fans of the team realize this is a vital year for everyone involved.
“I hate to say it, but this is Locker’s and Munchak’s make or break,” said Titans fan Rick James, 61, of nearby Lebanon. “If everything works great, they’ll both be here the next season.”
This season is especially crucial for Locker, who has shown flashes of playmaking ability with his arm and legs, but just as much inconsistency, too.
“I am just going to go out and do what I have always done, just try to play to the best of my ability and put us in the best situation to win,” said Locker, when asked about expectations to take leadership roles with the team, in general, and offense.
After playing sparingly behind QB Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie (2011), Locker earned the starting job in training camp last season. But he missed five games because of a shoulder injury, and the Titans were woeful in just about every phase of the game — halting the progress of Munchak’s 9-7 campaign in 2011.
This time, though, Locker has the advantage of a complete offseason and full training camp as the starter.
“I have the opportunity coming in knowing that I will be the starter and working with those guys I will be working with throughout the course of the season and this offseason,” he said. “It should help out quite a bit, so I am excited about all that.”
In 11 starts last season, Locker completed 177 of 314 passes for 2,176 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His passer rating was a paltry 74.0. In the fourth game against Houston, he injured his non-throwing left shoulder while trying to make a tackle following an interception.
Three games after Locker returned to the lineup in early November, the Titans fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and replaced him with interim QB coach Dowell Loggains, who has since gotten the job full time.
In January, Locker underwent surgery on the injured shoulder, with the expectation of returning for off-season workouts in May and June.
“With the things we’re doing, especially these next five weeks, he’s able to throw with the receivers, do those types of things,” said Munchark. “He’s lifting, and he’s doing everything he wants to do that way, which is good. We’d assume by training camp — and as you know, in camp, he’s not going to get hit either or there will be consequences to that — he won’t get hit in camp.”
Locker was a bit surprised by the Titans’ draft —Alabama guard Chance Warmack in the first round and former Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter in the second. Even California center Brian Schwenke (fourth round) caught Locker’s eye.
“I wasn’t too involved with where we were going to go and who we were going to draft, so I was a little bit surprised,” Locker said. “Overall, I think it was probably the value that we were able to get at that pick.”
In Warmack, Locker sees a guard who can play at the highest level for many years to come.
“He’s a talented guy, a downhill player,” Locker said. “(He’ll be) be physical for us and brings an attitude to the game.”
As for Hunter, he only adds to a deep receiving pool that already has two former first-round draft picks in Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, along with veteran Nate Washington.
“He’s a big-body guy who can run and jump and catches the ball well,” Locker said of Hunter. “He’s a guy that can be a dynamic player for us, so we’re excited about that.”
Add those draft picks to such offensive free agents as guard Andy Levitre, the best player at the position on the market, tight end Delanie Walker and running back Shonn Greene, and Locker understands there are plenty of playmakers and quality depth at all offensive positions.
Yet with that comes even more expectations, especially for Locker. Instead of re-signing Hasselbeck, the Titans opted to sign former Bills starter Ryan Fitzpatrick as the backup and, seemingly, as insurance for the starting slot, should Locker not get the job done.
“I am excited about the guys that we have added,” Locker said of new teammates through free agency and the draft. “They are guys who are excited about playing the game of football. That’s contagious. It’s good to get those guys in the locker room.”
Even so, one fan doesn’t think it is enough to get the Titans back to the playoffs this coming season, much less to the Super Bowl.
“Locker has all the accoutrements that he needs,” James said. “He has all the offensive linemen. I think they will do all right. I don’t think they will be able to go to the Super Bowl, but I think they have a chance to win seven or eight games.”