NASHVILLE, Tenn. â The first time the paths of Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt and wide receiver Nate Washington crossed, they were sporting the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was 2005, and Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, while Washington was an undrafted rookie who bounced between the regular roster and practice squad. A year later, they would help the Steelers win the Super Bowl.
In 2007, Whisenhunt became coach of the Arizona Cardinals, eventually guiding them to the Super Bowl. Washington stayed two more years in Pittsburgh, before spending the past five with the Titans, who hired Whisenhunt earlier this year.
"He’s a different guy," said Washington on being reunited with Whisenhunt after eight years. "He’s a lot more vocal, I will say that. As a coordinator, you don’t speak up as much as you would as a head coach. But him speaking to the masses now is required of him, and he now definitely does it well."
It wasn’t a given that Washington would return to the Titans for the sixth and final year of a contract that is paying him $4.8 million in 2014, even though his 919 receiving yards last season were second-best during his nine-year career. But his production, experience and leadership of a young and talented group that features third-year Kendall Wright and second-year Justin Hunter, were paramount for him to remain on the roster.
"I’m very pleased with Nate," Whisenhunt said. "He had a great spring. He’s working really hard. Nate’s in a good place for us. I’m happy that he’s on our squad."
On Sunday, Whisenhunt even went as far to unofficially crown him the "ambassador" of the locker room. Only linebacker Shaun Phillips, with 10 years played in the NFL, has more experience. But he’s only in his first season with the Titans.
"He knows what the expectations are," Whisenhunt said of Washington, whose career includes 371 receptions for 5,649 yards and 38 touchdowns. His best season was 2011 with the Titans, when he had 74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns, all career highs.
"He knows how we’re going to go about operating," Whisenhunt added, "and I think he can be a good, for lack of a better word, ambassador for that. There’s always questions with a new team â ‘What are we doing? What’s this going to be like?’ — and Nate has an idea about that."
When informed that Whisenhunt had deemed him the team’s ambassador, Washington immediately figured that he would be continuing the leadership role that he shares with fourth-year quarterback Jake Locker on offense, and with veteran strong safety Bernard Pollard throughout the team, among others.
"Just to lead the guys in the right direction," Washington said of what it meant to be a team ambassador. "If I see something going on wrong â and not only on the field, but in the locker room, the class room â I have to speak up. (Whisenhunt) can’t be the one that is always hawking on us about getting better, or doing things that are expected of us.
"There has to be a guy in this locker room who is going to speak up and push these guys forward to get to where we want to be. So, if that is what he requires of me, then that’s the guy I will be."
Certainly, the Titans have plenty of offensive weapons for Locker’s perusal beyond just the trio of talented receivers that includes Washington, Wright and Hunter. Veteran tight end Delanie Walker is coming off a career year. And there is versatility in the backfield with Dexter McCluster, a weapon both running and receiving; rookie Bishop Sankey, the top running back selected in the NFL draft in May; and bruising Shonn Greene, who battled injuries last season with the Titans, after rushing for more than 1,000 yards the previous two seasons with the New York Jets.
In as much, Washington has found Whisenhunt’s offensive playbook to be much more wide-ranging than a decade or so ago when they were with the Steelers. But at the same time, Washington said it has many simple components that allow for players to be effective in various ways.
"His playbook has expanded, I will say that," Washington said. "I think we had a really good playbook back in Pittsburgh. We created some good opportunities for some guys to make some plays."
"A lot of the things he is doing are not complicated or complex," Washington said. "It gives the guys a lot of opportunity to make different plays and puts us all in different positions to make plays that will help this team win."
After training camp sessions on Saturday and Sunday, the Titans practiced Monday for the first time in pads during Whisenhunt’s tenure.
"Coach Whisenhunt’s expectations are not just going to be good, but they have to be great," Washington said. "He understands in order to get to the playoffs, in order to be a good team in this league, in order to leave your mark, you just can’t come in here and just say we worked today.
"We have to be dog tired from pushing ourselves to the extreme. That’s what he expects, and that is what I expect out of my teammates and myself. It will be a constant push. If we have a good day, we have to make sure the next day is better."