- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After a run of four playoff appearances in five years, the past two seasons have been more like forget the Titans. Injuries and salary-cap problems produced a 9-23 mark over that stretch, including 4-12 last year -- the franchise's worst record in head coach Jeff Fisher's 11 seasons.
In 2004, Titans starters missed 135 games because of injuries. Fisher still keeps an injury report from that season tacked to the wall behind his desk as a reminder. Last year the Titans were the youngest team in the league, as 27 players had two or fewer years experience, with rookies accounting for 60 starts.
And in the offseason the Titans got younger at quarterback by shipping Steve McNair, league co-MVP just three years ago, to Baltimore in yet another in a long line of salary-cap-related moves.
But don't tell Fisher how difficult his team has it the first six weeks of the upcoming season. After they open at home against the Jets, the Titans play at San Diego, at Miami, home against Dallas, at Indianapolis and at Washington before a well-deserved bye.
"Yeah," Fisher says when reminded about the stretch of five straight playoff hopefuls, "but they gotta play us, too."
Is that to say teams would be wise to once again remember the Titans, though so many of the names have changed? "I would not want to play us early in the season," Fisher says. "I think we're a very dangerous team."
Fisher is excited because the team took its medicine, and after two tough years he can see improvement. For the first time in years the Titans added more impact players in the offseason than they lost. Nine starters return on defense, and the Titans feel they're better at the other two spots. Eight starters return on offense, and 30-year-old quarterback Billy Volek has six seasons and 10 starts under his belt. All those rookies Tennessee relied on so heavily last year are veterans now. The young players who had to learn the hard way -- on the job -- are experienced starters now.
It would seem like this team is still a year away. Fisher, however, sees his club as capable of surprising some folks. You have to admit, the Titans are an intriguing team. No one is saying they're ready to challenge healthy Colts and Jaguars teams for a playoff berth, but they do have the look of a team that could win six, seven or even eight games. Tennessee at least should be more competitive than it was in '05, when the Titans either trailed or lost by double digits in each of their defeats.
"This team is going to be significantly better than the one we had on the field the last two years," Fisher promises.
Adds outside linebacker David Thornton, a free-agent pickup from Indianapolis: "We're going to be feisty."
As with every team, the key is the quarterback. Volek has put up nice numbers playing in place of McNair, such as when he passed for more than 400 yards in back-to-back games two years ago. But the Titans are 3-7 in games Volek has started. He has a nice arm, but he has a tendency to hang on to the ball too long, which leads to sacks and missed open receivers. But he's comfortable in the offense. When the Titans dealt McNair, offensive coordinator Norm Chow told Volek, "This is your offense. Go out there and take charge."
With Vince Young waiting in the wings and likely to get action early, perhaps even in the opener, Volek knows he has a small window to try to prove he's more than a backup. "I feel like the game is slowing down for me," Volek says. "I just have to go out there and play my game."
Chow should be a better play caller now that he's had a year in the pro game. He acknowledges struggling with the NFL's shorter play clock and having a tough time getting into a rhythm. Says Chow, "We average about 60, 65 plays a game. In college you get 75, 80 and you can set things up. Here it's harder to set things up. You can't waste a play."
The offensive line shows the kind of youthful experience Fisher is excited about. With Brad Hopkins retired, '05 second-rounder Michael Roos takes over at left tackle. Roos gained experience as a rookie, starting every game last year (the opener at left tackle and the last 15 at right tackle). Jacob Bell becomes the right tackle. He was mostly a reserve last year but started 14 games at left guard as a rookie two years ago. While the line is young on the ends, it has a veteran interior, including six-time Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, a free-agent pickup from the Jets.
Ben Troupe, a 270-pound tight end, is coming off a 55-catch season and has 18 starts in two years. Tight end Bo Scaife and receivers Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby and Roydell Williams (21 starts among them) are second-year players now. The starters are Drew Bennett and David Givens, an up-and-coming wideout the Titans signed from New England.
It's the same story on defense. It seemed like every year the Titans would lose a starting defensive lineman to free agency. Josh Evans, Jason Fisk, Kenny Holmes, Jevon Kearse Robaire Smith, and John Thornton all left and got paid.
The revolving door has stopped. Coordinator Jim Schwartz and defensive line coach Jim Washburn finally have everyone returning. The Titans re-signed Pro Bowl end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Tennessee has five defensive linemen on the roster who were drafted in 2004. Guys such as Antwan Odom, Randy Starks (both starters) and Travis LaBoy were forced to play early. It wasn't always pretty but they and the Titans should be better for it.
"This team is going to be significantly better than the one we had on the field the last two years."
Jeff Fisher, Titans coach
"I was told we were the first team since the beginning of the salary cap era to start two rookie corners," Fisher says. True or not, it's definitely not what you're looking for as a head coach, throwing a pair of rookies into the fire at a position like corner. Fact: Sixth overall pick Adam "Pacman" Jones (13 starts) and seventh-rounder Reynaldo Hill (10) were the only duo of rookie corners in the league last year to start 10 or more games. Jones got a late start because of a holdout. He had his problems last year and in the offseason but by all accounts he's had a phenomenal camp.
Even place-kicker Rob Bironas is primed to make the sophomore jump. The Titans are a team full of kids who are growing up.
"We've got those kinds of ingredients throughout," Fisher says.
Tennessee had become more of a passing offense as McNair matured, but Fisher wants to get back to running the ball the way the Titans did in Eddie George's heyday and let Volek throw against eight-man fronts. Tennessee has as good a trio of running backs as there is in the league, with rookie LenDale White joining Travis Henry and Chris Brown. The backs, along with the linebackers, should be areas of strength for the Titans.
Then there's also the bitter taste of fourth- and third-place finishes, respectively, the past two years. "There's a sense of urgency now that perhaps we were lacking a little bit last year," Chow says.
The question is whether Fisher can create and maintain a sense of togetherness, what with so many young egos in the locker room. The Titans had one of the best offseasons of any team, adding four key veteran free agents, three of them -- free safety Chris Hope (Pittsburgh), Givens and David Thornton -- on the upside of their careers. Standout linebacker Keith Bulluck theorized that perhaps last year's veterans were a little too concerned with their uncertain futures.
The future looks promising for these Titans. If they stay healthy and play together, who knows, perhaps that bright future isn't so far off.
"When you have a couple of off years I think people have a tendency to look past you," Fisher says. "'They're going to be good but they're not there yet.' Well, who has a right to determine when that is?"
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.