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VOL. 37 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 25, 2013

Like 2001 with McNair, it’s time to give the Titans' offense to Locker

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Despite missing two weeks to injury, QB Jake Locker played well in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco. With the ground game going nowhere, it might be time to give him more responsibility.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Back in 2001, the Tennessee Titans were struggling to run the football. They had lost three games in a row and were looking for solutions.

At the time, the Titans’ bread and butter was to pound the football with a strong offensive line and the power rushing of Eddie George. Only that wasn’t working, and Tennessee began the year 0-3 after posting the league’s best record the season before at 13-3.

It was during that search for a solution that then-offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger had a serious talk with then-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. The Titans, Heimerdinger insisted, must change the focus of the offense in order to move forward.

Tennessee’s best chance to turn things around, Heimerdinger reasoned, was to no longer make George and the running game the focal point of the offense, but to instead put the offense in the hands of Steve McNair.

It was a risky proposition, to be sure. Up until that point in his career, McNair had occasionally flashed the playmaking skills that made him a No. 1 draft pick from tiny Alcorn State, but he was mostly regarded as an offensive caretaker who had played second fiddle to George ever since taking over as the starting quarterback in 1997.

It took some convincing for Heimerdinger to persuade Fisher that this was the way to go. But in the end, the late offensive coordinator was proven correct in his assessment that the Titans offense needed to lean on McNair’s ability to both pass and run, rather than continuing to grind the ball out with George running between the tackles.

That vote of confidence in McNair managed to salvage some success in an otherwise-lost 2001 season (The Titans finished 7-9, thanks largely to a porous defense).

But beginning in 2002 and going through 2005, McNair blossomed with the added workload and responsibility into a quarterback who would share an MVP Award with Peyton Manning and become one of the most feared fourth-quarter comeback quarterbacks in the NFL.

Now, let’s come back to 2013.

At 3-4 and mired in a three-game losing skid, the Titans’ scheme as a run-first, clock-controlling offense have produced mixed results.

Tennessee is averaging an ordinary 3.8 yards per carry, and time of possession is a modest 29:16. Those are decent numbers, but certainly do not meet the expectations of the identity the Titans sought for themselves when they revamped the offensive line and brought in free agents Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle to complement Chris Johnson.

On the other hand, it is becoming more and more evident that Jake Locker is developing much faster than the Titans could have ever believed or hoped for.

Yes, much of what Locker accomplished in the fourth quarter was with the 49ers defense playing with a comfortable lead and trying not to allow scores. But Locker is showing that he has the capability to take on more of the offensive load with his playmaking skills that are not all that unlike McNair circa 2001.

And on Sunday, the Titans quite frankly wasted too much time in the first half again trying to establish Chris Johnson and the running game, all the while falling too far behind to catch up.

If the Titans want to salvage something from this season and perhaps save the jobs of a coaching staff that spent all off-season on the hot seat, courtesy of owner Bud Adams, then using the bye week to reassess things to make more of a shift toward Locker’s direction in the offense is a necessity.

Yes, there will be growing pains, and the accuracy issues will crop up from time to time. But after a sluggish start Sunday, Locker had shown by game’s end little effects of the hip and knee injuries that were a big concern entering the contest.

Locker’s 97.1 passer rating and eight touchdown passes to just one interception this year indicate he is ready for more.

He already has a good rapport with receivers Kendall Wright and Nate Washington. Damian Williams is steady, and Justin Hunter has big-play potential. Even Chris Johnson is getting into the receiving act, as his only touchdowns this year have come as a receiver.

Just as they reluctantly did with McNair more than a decade ago, the Titans have to make the transformation now by letting the offense run through Locker’s talents.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is a blogger for National Football Post.