From a promising 9-7 debut in 2011 to a disappointing 6-10 in 2012, it wasn’t exactly the season Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak envisioned for his second season at the helm.
Promising play from certain players and positions groupings were not enough to overcome key injuries, especially to a decimated offensive line, and personnel inadequacies — which were reflected by zero Titans receiving as much as a sniff to make the Pro Bowl lineup. Despite being a part of the team as a Hall-of-Fame offensive linemen turned assistant coach turned head coach, it wasn’t a given that Munchak would return to coach in 2013, the third year of his four-year contract.
Twice during the regular season following blowout losses — to Chicago and Green Bay — Titans owner Bud Adams questioned the direction of the team and performance of everybody on the football side of the operations all the way up and down the line.
“It comes down to if Mr. Adams is confident I could do the job,” Munchak said after Sunday’s 38-20 win over Jacksonville in the season finale. “I think that’s what it comes down to. I think the fact I have been here is nice and I’ve played. I think it has been good for both of us, me as a player, me as a line coach. I think it has been good for both of us.
“But I think when it comes down to the NFL, it’s about winning football games. And believe me, he’s not going to keep me in the job just because I’ve been here.”
On Monday, Munchak received a vote of confidence from Adams to return next season. That wasn’t the case for Mike Reinfeldt, the team’s senior vice president and former general manager, who was fired.
Reinfeldt’s job had expanded to oversee both business and football operations for the franchise and serve as the direct link to the Houston-based Adams for all things happening in Nashville. He moved into that position in early 2012 after serving as general manager for five years.
“I think we’d be better off without him,” Adams said matter-of-factly about firing Reinfeldt. “I don’t think he was getting the job done. Mike Reinfeldt is out.”
It has been speculated that Adams was not pleased on how Reinfeldt handled his request this past offseason to sign free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning, who signed with Denver for less money than the Titans offered. Apparently, Adams felt Reinfeldt dragged his feet while thinking the Titans were set at quarterback with veteran Matt Hasselbeck and heir apparent Jake Locker.
Apparently, the results of this season only exasperated the situation for Adams, who turns 90 on Thursday and is eager for a first Super Bowl title.
Reinfeldt played for Adams and the Houston Oilers from 1976-83 and brought front-office experience with him from three different teams when he was named Titans general manager in 2007. Last year, he was promoted to senior executive vice president/chief operating officer when Ruston Webster was named general manager.
While the front-office shakeup appears complete, there are questions about Munchak’s staff. In late November, he fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and elevated quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to the job in the interim. Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray’s future is in doubt after the team gave up the most points in franchise history. But he and other staffers have survived any more staff purges thus far.
Which turns us to the Titans themselves.
Following the promising winning record and playoffs near-miss in Munchak’s debut in 2011, there was guarded optimism heading into 2012. But on a variety of fronts, especially the 6-10 record, there were varying levels of disappointment that overshadowed some flashes of promise.
Here is a positional breakdown of the Titans heading into the offseason:
• Quarterback — While Locker is firmly planted as quarterback heading forward, it is done so with some anxiety. After playing sparingly last season, Locker won the job out of training camp and played inconsistently before missing five games after dislocating his non-throwing shoulder in two separate games.
After sitting out five games, Locker returned to flash even more inconsistency, especially with passing accuracy. With Locker as starter, the team went 4-7. Surgery is planned on the shoulder within the next few weeks, and he should return to minicamps by May.
In 11 starts this season, Locker completed 177-of-314 passes for a mediocre 56.4 percent with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His overall passer rating was a lowly 74.0.
“It’s not record-wise ideally where you want to be,” Locker said of the season. “But I thought there were a lot of positives to take away from it, a lot of learning experiences and things that make me better going forward.
“(It’s) not where we wanted to be, but definitely a lot to take from it and encouraging moving forward.”
Backup Hasselbeck will enter the third and final year of his contract in 2013 and will count $7.5 million against the camp, if he returns, which he says he wants to do. Third-stringer Rusty Smith hasn’t played enough to provide a read whether he is ready to be the backup.
• Running back — Ever since Chris Johnson held out of training camp the season before last and eventually received a $53.5 million contract extension, expectations have risen dramatically for the fifth-year back out of East Carolina.
Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009, finished this season’s hit-or-miss campaign with 1,243 rushing yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry with a long of a franchise-record 94 yards. Running behind an underachieving and then injured offensive line, Johnson gained more than 100 yards only five times and less than 60 eight times.
Come Feb. 9, the Titans have five days to pay Johnson $9 million of the $10 million he is due for 2013 or release him. With plenty of salary cap room to spare, the Titans say they will pay, and Johnson will return.
“I wouldn’t say that we are close,” Johnson said of the Titans being playoff contenders next season. “But I wouldn’t say that we are very far, because it’s very hard for me to speculate. … We all have to get healthy and get back together and just see where it takes us.”
• Receivers — Saying Kenny Britt can’t stay healthy is like saying Halle Berry is cute. Justice just isn’t served. After playing only three games last season because of a knee injury, the former first-round draft pick worked his way back into the rotation this season, flashed at times, disappeared at others, and ended up with 45 catches and 589 yards.
Rookie Kendall Wright, the first-round draft pick out of Baylor, led the team with 64 catches for 626 yards as the third receiver. Veteran Nate Washington seemingly hit a career wall with a team-high 746 yards. No receiver had more than four touchdowns.
Fourth-year tight end Jared Cook objected early to his lack of activity, but did finish with 44 catches for 523 yards. He didn’t play the last three games because of a knee injury.
• Offensive line — Not like it was blowing away opposing defensive lines before injuries hit, but the Titans front only had left tackle Michael Roos still standing from the original grouping by season’s end. Finding their way to injured reserve throughout the season were right tackle David Stewart, veteran guard Steve Hutchinson, and guard/centers Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris.
Not that the line was blazing trails from the get-go, which was baffling because of the presence of two Hall-of-Fame offensive linemen on staff — Munchak and position coach Bruce Matthews. Look for an upgrade here, especially on the interior and depth-wise, through free agency and the draft.
• Defensive line — This grouping runs a close second to being the most disappointing position this season, just behind the offensive line.
By season’s end, third-year defensive end Derrick Morgan, the former first-round draft pick, started showing flashes of why he was once so highly acclaimed before injuring his knee during his rookie season. This season, he finished with career highs with 59 tackles, 6.5 sacks and nine passed defensed.
Defensive end free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley was a disappointment with only 30 tackles and six sacks. The middle of the line had flashes from Jurrell Casey (54 tackles), Sen’Derrick Marks (41) and Mike Martin (37).
Still, the defense hasn’t had a playmaker up front since the departure of Kyle Vanden Bosch to Detroit through free agency three seasons ago.
• Linebackers — This might well be the most secure position on the team, that is if middle linebacker Colin McCarthy can stay healthy. After breaking into the starting lineup midway through his rookie season a year ago, he played on seven games this season because of concussion symptoms.
If he can stay on the field, the Titans should have a solid trio for years. Rookie Zach Brown came on strong late, picking off two passes for touchdowns in the season finale and finishing with 93 tackles and 5.5 sacks
Second-year Akeem Ayers is solid at the other outside slot. He had a team-high 103 tackles with six sacks and eight passes defensed.
• Secondary — Free safety Michael Griffin was much-maligned after having the franchise tag lifted and signing a five-year, $35 million contract before start of the season. That raised the ante on expectations for the two-time Pro Bowler.
Let’s say he might be a product of his environment. The Titans couldn’t settle on a running mate for Griffin at strong safety amongst several underachieving players, so his efforts might be skewed.
Standout cornerback Cortland Finnegan departed to St. Louis through free agency, and several players — Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Ryan Mouton, Tommie Campbell and rookie Coty Sensabaugh — tried to take up the slack with a varying, yet underwhelming degrees of success.
• Special teams — Many wondered who would take up the return slack when Marc Mariani was lost to an injury before the season. Darius Reynaud filled the bill nicely, punctuating that by returning two punts for touchdowns in the season-ending win over Jacksonville. That could make for a curious roster situation, if and when Mariani returns.
Kicker Rob Bironas is one of the league’s most consistent, but he will hit the market as a free agent. But the Titans want to keep him and he wants to stay, so he should be back. Punter Brett Kern had another average season.