Extra Points: Are the Titans ready to reboot?
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If pro football teams actually had to sell their product, you might be seeing quite the advertising rollout in Nashville this holiday season.
After another disappointing year, the Tennessee Titans are at least contemplating a complete rebuild and moving on from perhaps the three most high-profile people in the organization, the head coach, the quarterback and the franchise player.
It certainly could and maybe should have been different.
With the two-time defending AFC South champion Houston Texans completely falling off the rails with a franchise-record 11-game losing streak, and Indianapolis looking awfully pedestrian after losing Reggie Wayne to a torn ACL in Week 7, the Titans had every opportunity to push the Colts for the division crown.
Instead, Indianapolis clinched the AFC South last Sunday despite a two- touchdown loss at Cincinnati.
The real disappointment for the Titans wasn't their second-half defensive collapse in Denver against one of the greatest offenses of all-time, a setback which handed the Colts the division. It was their inability to beat a deeply- flawed Indianapolis team despite having two opportunities to do so over a three-week span before the Broncos contest.
First, Tennessee squandered a 17-6 halftime lead in Music City back on Nov. 14, allowing Andrew Luck and Co. to score 24 second-half points en route to a 30-27 victory. Then, the Colts won the sequel in Indy two weeks later when Donald Brown's late fourth-quarter touchdown run, coupled with five field goals from the ageless Adam Vinatieri lifted the Colts to a 22-14 victory.
Those two defeats could have coach Mike Munchak looking for another job and general manager Ruston Webster seriously contemplating whether or not to pick up the fifth-year option on oft-injured quarterback Jake Locker. Meanwhile, former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson, perhaps the signature player on the team, likely won't be back.
Of course, first and foremost is who will be making these decisions?
The belief is Webster, who was close to late team owner Bud Adams, remains safe because Tommy Smith, the son-in-law of Adams, is now team president and CEO.
With that in mind, here's what Smith and Webster will be weighing:
Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who has been with the franchise as a player or coach since 1982, is under contract through 2014 but hasn't produced. He is 20-25 during his three seasons and perhaps more importantly 0-4 in 2013 and 1-9 over the past two seasons in a weak AFC South.
"It's awful," Smith told the Tennessean when discussing the potential of moving on from Munchak. "I have known Mike for 30 years, and it's hard to find someone of higher character, with greater integrity than Mike Munchak. He is a very intelligent guy and a good man."
Good man or not he hasn't been able to help CJ2K in recent seasons. Since cracking the 2,000-yard mark in 2009, Johnson is on pace for his fourth straight 1,000-yard campaign but his yards-per-carry rate has dropped from 5.6 in his historic season to 4.3, 4.0, 4.5 and now 3.8 in the subsequent ones. He is due $8 million in 2014.
"Chris has done nothing but what he's been asked to do there. He suits up and he plays every game. I think they need to figure out how to use him and his skill set better, but he has been a good teammate and a good player," Smith said. "Chris, like every player, we are looking at all of them. We are evaluating each and every position on this team, and we are only going to keep players we think will contribute and earn their keep."
Locker, meanwhile, is probably the biggest story, a young player who looked like he was turning the corner on the field this season until injuries chased him off of it.
While other high-profile QBs from the 2011 NFL Draft like Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert were putting the final nail in their own career coffins with egregious play this year, Locker seemed to be on the upswing until suffering hip and knee injuries against the New York Jets on Sept. 29.
The University of Washington product showed a lot of moxy when he returned in just three weeks from ailments that were supposed to keep him on the shelf for at least a month. His return was short-lived, however, as a Lisfranc injury to his right foot against Jacksonville on Nov. 10 ended his season.
In the end Locker improved his completion percentage in 2013, turned around his touchdown-to-interception ratio which was underwater a year earlier, and improved his passer rating by 12 points, albeit in a small sample size. He also had Tennessee off to a 3-1 start before the injuries came calling.
"You know how I feel about him," Munchak said after Locker suffered his season-ending injury. "You know how I believe in him. You know how we felt when he was 3-1. He was on his way. So that did hurt a lot when he got hurt. I'm still hoping he can have a great career in this league by overcoming another injury."
Locker remains under contract for next season at just $2.091 million but the Titans would have to exercise that fifth-year option by May 3, 2014, a move that would cost them $13 million in 2015, a steep price to pay for a guy who has missed 14 out of a possible 32 games in 2012-13.
"Nothing is going to happen in free agency until March," Munchak said. "The draft is not until May. So there's a long ways before you start building your team back. If you're a good team and a thorough team, you're going to consider all your options and make your decision. It's not an indictment on a player. You do it with everybody."
Munchak is right about that despite the fact that he more than likely won't be involved in any of the decision-making regarding Locker or anyone else moving forward.
A lot of people in Nashville are connecting the dots between the Titans and potential free-agent to be Jay Cutler, who starred in Music City back in his college days at Vanderbilt University.
Cutler is unquestionably a franchise-type talent but has been labeled as an underachiever in both Denver and Chicago, and may get to the market only because veteran backup Josh McCown has actually outplayed him in the Second City after getting a chance due to Cutler's own injury issues.
"This thing didn't fall apart overnight, and it's not going to be put together overnight either," Smith said. "But we certainly had higher expectations than what we are seeing right now, across the board, I can assure you of that."
Changes seem inevitable even if Smith sounds like a tortured soul when ruminating over them.
"If there is anything that is a bright light, I believe the players are still playing hard for Mike, and I think that is a testimony to his character," Smith said. "A lot of these other teams are not. We just need to finish out the season the best we can and then we'll evaluate and see where things stand."
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THE GAMES (All Times Eastern) - WEEK 15
San Diego (6-7) at Denver (11-2), Thursday, 8:25 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 10
THE SKINNY: It's been a historic season in Denver, one that is about to result in another AFC West crown for the Broncos.
Denver can take the division this week by defeating San Diego on "Thursday Night Football," coupled with a Kansas City loss at Oakland on Sunday. The Broncos, who have already clinched at least a wild card berth, can also lock up a first-round bye on the AFC side of things by topping the Chargers and hoping for losses by the Chiefs and Cincinnati, which plays at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
"Our goal every year is to win the division No. 1, and obviously (if you) you win your division you're in the playoffs," said Broncos coach John Fox, who returned to the sidelines against Tennessee last week for the first time since undergoing a heart procedure on Nov. 4. "That's still our goal, always has been our goal and we still have three games and on a short week we got a division opponent coming to our place."
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning continued his run toward a record fifth MVP award with 397 yards and four touchdown passes as Denver ripped off 24 consecutive points en route to a convincing 51-28 decision over the Titans in Week 14. It was Manning's NFL-record seventh four-touchdown game this season and the high-powered Broncos also became the first team in NFL history to have four different players score at least 10 touchdowns in one season (running back Knowshon Moreno, receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, along with tight end Julius Thomas).
San Diego hasn't been nearly as spectacular this season but remains in the hunt for the final postseason berth in the AFC after Philip Rivers got the better of Eli Manning once again, tossing three touchdown passes to lead the Chargers to a much-needed 37-14 victory over the New York Giants at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 14.
Rivers completed a crisp 21-of-28 attempts for 249 yards without an interception in the one-sided win, which kept San Diego (6-7) a game back of Baltimore and Miami in the race for the final wild card spot in the AFC with three games to play.
"We're one game back with three weeks to go," said Rivers of the AFC playoff picture. "Let's go and see what happens."
PREDICTION: Broncos 37, Chargers 24
Washington (3-10) at Atlanta (3-10), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Falcons by 6
THE SKINNY: Kirk Cousins will get a chance to quarterback the 3-10 Redskins for at least Sunday's game against Atlanta and possibly for the final three games of a disastrous season, or for as long as the embattled Mike Shanahan remains Washington's coach.
The second-year quarterback will start in place of Robert Griffin III, who is expected to be inactive this week after being sacked 24 times in the past five games, Cousins, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, started one game last year, completing 26-of-37 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns in the Redskins' 38-21 win over the Browns.
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is 2-0 in his career versus the Redskins while wide receiver Roddy White has 18 catches for 217 yards in his past two games.
PREDICTION: Falcons 23, Redskins 17
Chicago (7-6) at Cleveland (4-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Browns by 1
THE SKINNY: The Bears remain in the thick of the NFC North race after blowing out Dallas on "Monday Night Football." Chicago is tied with Detroit atop the division at 7-6 with three games to play although the Lions hold the tie breaker by virtue of sweeping the season series between the two clubs.
The Bears figure to continue to ride the hot hand of QB Josh McCown, who has been brilliant in place of the injured Jay Cutler. McCown threw for four TDs and added one on the ground against the Cowboys and now has 13 TD passes versus one interception on the season. He is also second in the NFL with a 109.8 passer rating and has developed quite the rapport with Chicago's dynamic receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who have combined for 2,283 receiving yards, the most of any WR combination in the NFL.
Cleveland, which has ex-Bears backup Jason Campbell at QB, has lost four straight and seven of eight overall. Campbell had a career-best 391 passing yards with three TD passes in last week's 27-26 heartbreaking loss to New England. Big-play WR Josh Gordon, meanwhile, is in the midst of the best four- game stretch in NFL history with 774 receiving yards over that span.
PREDICTION: Bears 28, Browns 20
Houston (2-11) at Indianapolis (8-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Colts by 6
THE SKINNY: An 11-game losing streak was enough for Gary Kubiak to lose his job in Houston. The veteran mentor was relieved of his duties less than 24 hours after the team was dealt its 11th consecutive loss with a 27-20 setback at Jacksonville last Thursday. Kubiak had guided the Texans to consecutive AFC South titles and a pair of playoff wins over the previous two seasons, but the team presently owns the NFL's worst record at 2-11. Interim coach Wade Phillips takes over.
Conversely, Indianapolis replaced Houston as AFC South kings, clinching the division last week despite a two-touchdown loss at Cincinnati. The Colts figure to get back to their winning ways this week because second-year signal caller Andrew Luck has yet to lose two consecutive games in his NFL career.
PREDICTION: Colts 23, Texans 16
Buffalo (4-9) at Jacksonville (4-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bills by 2
THE SKINNY: After starting the season 0-8 Jacksonville has rebounded to win four of its last five behind QB Chad Henne, who has thrown four TD passes and just one pick during the team's current three-game winning streak.
Buffalo will be trying to salvage the back-end of a two-week trek through the Sunshine State after losing in Tampa Bay in Week 14. The Bills continue to build around rookie QB EJ Manuel, who needs two TD passes to pass Dennis Shaw (10 in 1970) for the most scoring tosses by a rookie in franchise history.
PREDICTION: Bills 17, Jaguars 16
New England (10-3) at Miami (7-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Entering Week 15, the Patriots lead the Dolphins by three games in the AFC East and Miami is deadlocked with Baltimore for the final playoff spot in the conference. A New England win on Sunday will clinch the division for the Patriots.
New England has won three in a row, trailing by at least 10 points in the second half of all three. Last week, the Patriots erased a 16-point second- half deficit in their 27-26 win, tying an NFL record with three consecutive wins in which it trailed by at least 10 points in the second half. The Pats, however, did lose All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season with a torn ACL.
The Dolphins improved to 7-6 last week with a 34-28 road victory at Pittsburgh. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw three touchdown passes, in that one, including two to tight end Charles Clay, and the Dolphins held on late as Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown barely stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone on a final play that featured five laterals.
"Really, all that matters is we have an excellent football team coming to town," said Miami head coach Joe Philbin. "They've won five of their past six. We're going to have to play extremely well."
PREDICTION: Patriots 21, Dolphins 18
Philadelphia (8-5) at Minnesota (3-9-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Eagles by 4 1/2
THE SKINNY: The surprising Eagles lead the NFC East by a game over Dallas and will be shooting for their sixth straight win over a disappointing Vikings club. Philadelphia rides a high-powered offense led by QB Nick Foles, who leads the NFL with a 120.0 passer rating, and RB LeSean McCoy, who leads the league with 1,744 scrimmage yards and 1,305 rushing yards.
Minnesota will stick with veteran Matt Cassel at QB but will likely be without reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, who sprained his foot in Baltimore last week.
PREDICTION: Eagles 34, Vikings 24
Seattle (11-2) at NY Giants (5-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 7
THE SKINNY: Despite a logical loss at San Francisco last week the Seahawks control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Seattle has already clinched at least a wild card berth and can take the NFC West this week with a win, coupled with a loss by the 49ers, who play at Tampa Bay. The Seahawks can also lock up conference honors by winning and hoping both the Niners and New Orleans Saints, who play at St. Louis, lose.
Second-year star QB Russell Wilson has already accumulated 22 wins as the Seahawks' starter, tied for most ever in the first two seasons by any signal caller in the Super Bowl era. Wilson also has 49 passing TDs and can become just the third in NFL history with 50-plus pass TDs in his first two seasons.
New York is three games behind Philadelphia in the NFC East and just playing out the string behind Eli Manning, who will be starting his 149th consecutive contest, the longest active streak by any QB.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 28, Giants 17
San Francisco (9-4) at Tampa Bay (4-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 5
THE SKINNY: The 49ers are hitting their stride at the right time, having won three straight, including last week's impressive 19-17 win over conference- leading Seattle, while allowing just 13 points per game over that span. There is more work to be done, however, as San Francisco is just a game ahead of Arizona for the final wild card spot in the NFC with a Week 17 matchup at Arizona looming.
Tampa Bay has won four of five after a dismal 0-8 start and has been energized by the emergence of rookie QB Mike Glennon, who has thrown 12 TDs versus four INTs in his past eight games.
PREDICTION: 49ers 23, Buccaneers 14
NY Jets (6-7) at Carolina (9-4), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Panthers by 11
THE SKINNY: The Panthers can clinch a playoff spot with a win this week and a lot of help. That said Carolina is far more interested in getting back into the win column after a 31-13 drubbing in New Orleans, a setback which halted the team's franchise-record, eight-game winning streak.
The Jets are hanging on in the AFC playoff race and stand a game behind both Baltimore and Miami for the final wild card spot. Last week, Jets QB Geno Smith set the franchise rookie record for most passing yards (2,475), surpassing Mark Sanchez (2,444 in 2009).
PREDICTION: Panthers 23, Jets 13
Kansas City (10-3) at Oakland (4-9), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Chiefs by 4
THE SKINNY: The turnaround for Kansas City is almost complete. After finishing a league-worst 2-14 in 2012 the Chiefs are 10-3 and one more win (or a setback from Baltimore or Miami) would clinch a playoff berth. Last week, Andy Reid became just the 21st coach in NFL history to win 150 games (including postseason) when Kansas City blew out Washington. Trends point toward the Chiefs earning the playoff spot in Oakland this week. Kansas City is 5-1 on the road this season and has won eight of its past 10 in the Bay Area against the Raiders while QB Alex Smith is 3-0 as a starter against the Silver and Black.
Oakland continues to roll with former Penn State walk-on Matt McGloin, who has 957 passing yards with six TDs and a 88.7 passer rating as the team's starter.
PREDICTION: Chiefs 24, Raiders 16
Green Bay (6-6-1) at Dallas (7-6), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Cowboys by 7 1/2
THE SKINNY: Two teams in the middle of the NFC playoff picture will meet on Sunday at AT&T Stadium. The Packers, who defeated Atlanta 22-21 last week, sit just one-half game out of first place in the NFC North behind Chicago and Detroit. The Cowboys, meanwhile, enter Week 15 a game out of first place in the NFC East behind Philadelphia.
For Green Bay, it will be the team's first game back in Dallas since winning Super Bowl XLV. Rookie running back Eddie Lacy has rushed for a touchdown in six of his past eight games and last week set a franchise rookie record with his seventh rushing touchdown. All eyes in Green Bay, however, remain on All- Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has been sidelined since suffering a broken collarbone on Nov. 4 against Chicago.
The Cowboys still control their playoff chances and are poised to claim the division if they win their final three games which includes a Week 17 matchup with the Eagles in North Texas.
"You've got to keep working," said Dallas head coach Jason Garrett. "Green Bay is coming to our place on Sunday and we've got to get ready for it."
PREDICTION: Cowboys 24, Packers 23
New Orleans (10-3) at St. Louis (5-8), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Saints By 5 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Saints are closing in on a playoff berth and can punch their ticket with a win here or help elsewhere. New Orleans, though, is 7-0 at home and just 3-3 away from the Bayou this season. In Week 14 Drew Brees passed for 313 yards and four TDs in a big win over Carolina and surpassed 50,000 career passing yards (50,026), becoming the fifth in NFL history to reach that milestone.
The Rams are playing for pride and enjoying the emergence of dynamic rookie Tavon Austin, who is only player in NFL history with 95-plus yard PR-TD, 80- plus yard receiving TD and a 65-plus yard rushing TD in one season. Austin had a 56-yard run last week but suffered an ankle injury during the play.
PREDICTION: Saints 23, Rams 19
Arizona (8-5) at Tennessee (5-8), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Cardinals by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Cardinals have won five of six games to get back into the NFC playoff hunt and stand one game behind both Carolina and San Francisco for a wild card spot.
Arizona QB Carson Palmer has thrown for 1,717 yards with 12 TDs over that stretch. Meanwhile the Arizona defense is now ranked fifth and has allowed 15 points or fewer six times. The Titans are fighting to match last year's win total of six.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 20, Titans 17
Cincinnati (9-4) at Pittsburgh (5-8), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 3
THE SKINNY: The Bengals enter Week 15 with a two-game lead in the AFC North over Baltimore. With a victory on Sunday night and a Ravens loss, Cincinnati will be division champions.
"We know what we're capable of and we've got some momentum now," said Bengals QB Andy Dalton."But we've got to keep it going."
Pittsburgh has lost two straight and finds itself two games out of the final playoff spot in the AFC and will need to win out and get plenty of help to make a run at the postseason.
"A lot has to happen, but you never know," said Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood. "You don't want to look back and say we didn't take care of what we had to do. We have to keep looking up and do what we know we can do."
PREDICTION: Bengals 21, Steelers 20
Baltimore (7-6) at Detroit (7-6), Monday, 8:40 p.m.
LINE: Lions by 6
THE SKINNY: Both the Ravens and Lions remain in control of their playoff destinies.
Baltimore needed three touchdowns in the final 2:05 last week to knock off Minnesota in a game that featured five lead changes in the final 125 seconds.
Conversely, with three weeks to play, Detroit and Chicago are tied atop the NFC North with 7-6 records after the Lions were beaten in Philadelphia last week. Detroit still holds the tie breaker by virtue of sweeping the season series.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (3,973) is closing in on his third- consecutive 4,000-yard season while All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson needs just seven receiving yards to become the first player in NFL history to record 5,000 in any three-season span. Johnson has nine 100-yard games in his past 10 games against AFC foes, averaging 140.4 yards per contest.
PREDICTION: Lions 31, Ravens 23
12/11 15:17:09 ET