Ken Whisenhunt had his choice of NFL head-coaching jobs after the 2013 season. Taking the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2009 and the excellent job he did turning the Chargers offense around last year made him a hot candidate and he saw the Titans job as the best opportunity in the NFL. Time will tell if his vision for the franchise will come true.
New owner Tommie Smith, who took over for the deceased Bud Adams, was a big plus in Whisenhunt's decision to head to Nashville, as well as GM Ruston Webster and his ability to acquire talent. Per my conversations with people in the organization, as well as Whisenhunt, he couldn't be happier with the structure and support he has received since arriving in the Music City.
'Whis' played for me on the Jets. As a versatile tight end with a Georgia Tech engineering background, he had the makings of a great coach. He is organized and I know him to be firm with players wherever he has coached. As he said to me when describing the Titans' locker room this past spring, 'everyone is a little uncomfortable and that's the way I like it until they prove themselves.'
Well, running back Chris Johnson, wide receiver Kenny Britt, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and kicker Rob Bironas didn't even get a chance to prove themselves in the eyes of the new head coach as all were informed early on that they were not going to be part of the future plans. Three of the four men have been replaced by rookies with no NFL experience or young players with little experience. Bironas and Johnson were the top two scorers on the team and talent must replace talent. The aggressive maneuvering with the personnel on the roster surely got the attention of the veterans in the locker room. As one veteran said to me 'no one is really secure right now.'
Change was necessary in Tennessee when you consider the team had a 36-44 record over the past five years and the most glaring issue Whisenhunt faces is turning around a 9-21 division record over the last five seasons. Andrew Luck is already 4-0 against the Titans and the Texans aren't staying down for long.
When Whisenhunt took over the Cardinals he immediately went 8-8 and improved to 9-7 in year two and then 10-6 in his third season. All of Whisenhunt's success has come with pocket passers Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, and Philip Rivers. Now he has to work his magic with athletic Jake Locker who does not fit the mold of a Whisenhunt QB.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE OFFENSE: Whisenhunt has always wanted to be a solid running team but isn't afraid to shift over to a heavy passing team if that's where the strength lies at the end of camp. In his first year in Arizona he did call 402 rushing plays (25 per game) and I'm sure he would like to run it even more in Tennessee. He will have the offensive line to ground and pound and the right side of that line features Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan who should be the point of attack most of the time.
Say what you want about Chris Johnson but he did have 321 touches for 1,422 yards and 10 touchdowns last year in what many considered an off year. CJ never missed games over his career and the big question is can rookie Bishop Sankey replace the production of 20 touches a game that Johnson supplied?
The running back situation is a risk but the biggest risk is the fact Tennessee is banking on Jake Locker -- 8-10 record as a starter who gets sacked once every 13 pass attempts. How long will Coach Whisenhunt go with a guy that can't win games? I'm told the head coach is pleased with Locker's progress so far but Whisenhunt has a history of pulling quarterbacks. Look no further than Matt Leinart who was the 10th over all pick the year before Whisenhunt got to Arizona and never won the starting job.
Tight end Delanie Walker and the wide receivers are a solid group and I would venture to say that Walker will have a career year with former tight end Whisenhunt calling the plays. Last season, Walker caught 60 passes and six touchdowns which in a career-year. But 2014 should be even better.
Last year the Titans had 8 games when they scored 20 or fewer points and history says Whisenhunt will find a way to reduce that number of sub-20 point games to four or less.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE DEFENSE: Whisenhunt turned his defense over to his former coordinator Ray Horton, and that means two things. One, the defense will switch from a 4-3 to 3-4 scheme and the blitzing will increase. Horton likes pressure and typically wants to bring the heat close to 50 percent of the time. As for the transition in scheme, I don't worry about the front seven or the safeties, but I do have concerns about replacing CB Alterran Verner, which also leads to concerns about the nickel and dime back situations.
PERSONALITY OF THE TEAM: At this point it is hard to tell who the real team leaders are and it can always be an issue if the quarterback is fighting for his job. Some early success could go a long way in building the confidence of this team but three of the first four games are against 2013 playoff teams and they, all on the road. The more I look at the whole situation the more I sense the pressure on Jake Locker to deliver on so many fronts. Tennessee is one of my camp tour stops and I will have more to say about the personality of the team then.
THE EARLY BUZZ: It appears Tommie Smith, the new President/CEO is getting high grades from the football people in the building as a guy that will let the football people do their job. That is a big change from days gone by. The players are cautious about coach Whisenhunt and they should be if they want to be around very long. Most of the opponents and other teams around the league see the Titans in a sort of rebuilding mode but all seem to like the guys that play with their hand on the ground (offensive & defensive line). There seems to be a real split among coaches that either worked for or know Whisenhunt about the probability of success for Jake Locker.
OUTLOOK: Keep in mind Ken Whisenhunt and the Arizona Cardinals needed a QB in 2011, and after studying Jake Locker, passed on him in the first round. The Titans have had one winning season in the last five years and their division opponents have dominated them. I see the Titans as an 8-8 team with most of the success coming in the second half of the season. If the club has to go to Zach Mettenberger, then this turns into a 6-10 season with an eye on 2015.