NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Name tags weren’t handed out, but there was a certain meet-and-greet feel on Monday for the Tennessee Titans before getting down to work.
Sure, first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt and staff have had multiple conversations with players since taking over in January, but the official start of the offseason workout program — albeit voluntary for the players — signaled the first time the coaches and players could gather collectively.
"It was good to see the guys," Whisenhunt said. "There is a lot of things that we had to cover as far as the rules, the expectations. It was a lot of administrative things that we had to do today, which is normal the first time because you are trying to get everybody on the same page."
Because of the head coaching change — Mike Munchak was fired after going 22-26 and not making the playoffs in three seasons — the Titans have an extra two weeks of offseason workouts, plus a three-day voluntary minicamp.
"(The players) don’t know what to expect schedule-wise, what’s coming up in the next couple weeks, what we are trying to get done," Whisenhunt said. "But it’s good to have everybody in the building and working. That’s the biggest thing."
The team’s new head coach said he was "very happy" with Monday’s player turnout, although it wasn’t 100 percent because of various reasons that he found reasonable. The event also marked the return of fourth-year quarterback Jake Locker, who missed nine starts last season because of two injuries. When he played, the Titans played well, including opening 3-1 before a shoulder injury in the fourth game caused him to miss two games.
Locker missed the last seven games with a foot injury that required surgery in November. He was in a walking boot for four months.
"We are a little ahead of schedule at this point," Locker said today of his rehabilitation that required surgery in mid-March to remove a plate and screws in his right foot. "The foot is feeling really good, responding to all the treatment that we’ve done. As we’ve increased it week to week, I haven’t added soreness or any pains, so things are going really well."
Locker said he hopes to join the team next month at full speed, but also plans to throw to undefended receivers while stationary the next two weeks and later in the month.
"We have been able to do some things the last couple of weeks we didn’t think we’d be able to this quick," Locker said, "so I’m hoping we continue on that trend. It could be even earlier than maybe we think."
Whisenhunt is installing a new offense along with offensive coordinator Jason Michael. The Titans signed veteran Charlie Whitehurst to be Locker’s backup. He was with the Chargers last season under Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator.
In essence, the move showed the head coach’s commitment to Locker as the starter.
"Even in our meeting today," Whisenhunt said, "I think you could see the respect the team has for Jake and they like him. He stood up in front of the group today. Part of one of the things that you work with the first day is working on (quarterback) cadence. There is new cadence, trying to get everybody on the same page. … You could tell the interaction was good."
That’s all happening with some major roster subtractions and additions, too.
Last week, the Titans released running back Chris Johnson, the team’s leading rusher each of the past six seasons and third-leading rusher in franchise history. Johnson, who gained 7,965 yards and scored 50 touchdowns since being the team’s first-round draft pick in 2008, was scheduled to make $8 million each of the next two seasons and $6 million in 2016. He was released after declining to renegotiate his contract.
"I wish him the best wherever he ends up," Locker said. "He’s a dynamic player that has provided a lot of offense for us in a lot of different ways. So, we’re going to have to work together as a football team to figure out how to replace the production we got out of him."
Also gone via free agency to the Bucs is Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner. Eight-year starting right tackle David Stewart, backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and kicker Rob Bironas were released. The Titans dipped into free agency to sign versatile Dexter McCluster, who can be used at running back, receiver and in the return game. They also signed former Broncos linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips and re-signed strong safety Bernard Pollard, the team’s leading tackler last year, and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua.
Whisenhunt feels strongly about how much the Titans need the extra workout sessions afforded them because of the head coaching change. They are also installing a new defense under coordinator Ray Horton, moving to more of a 3-4 base that will also utilize 4-3 looks.
"These extra two weeks is good, but we are way behind," Whisenhunt said. "I mean, we’re putting in a new offense, a new defense, and we’ve never done anything with these guys before. You don’t have a 16-game season under your belt, where you can look at cut-ups and talk about plays that you’ve run. So, we need the two weeks."
As much as anything, though, Locker felt Whisenhunt’s message to the team was most important.
"It’s going to be all about your character and what you are willing to do for this football team," Locker said. "That it is a team. And at the end of the day, we are going to win and we’re going to lose as a football team. The more we come together, the more we believe in each other, and the more we are willing to give up for each other, the more successful we will be."