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VOL. 35 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 11, 2011

Titans halfway home, looking for leaders

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We’re halfway through coach Mike Munchak’s first season and still have no idea what to make of his Titans.

Are they the team that knocked off the Baltimore Ravens, perhaps the best team the AFC has to offer? Are they the team that was blown out in back-to-back weeks by Pittsburgh and Houston? Maybe they’re the team that gave away Sunday’s game against Cincinnati with a second-half collapse.

Truth is, the Titans are all of the above, and that’s probably the biggest reason they are 4-4 right now instead of being at the top or bottom of the AFC South.

Now it’s time for this team to define itself.

Here’s why:

A team can take its identity from a head coach and his philosophy, such as the way Rex Ryan’s bombastic persona filters through the New York Jets or Bill Belichick’s cold and calculated precision runs through the veins of the New England Patriots. Back in the day, teams always knew what they were facing going against Tom Landry’s Cowboys, Bud Grant’s Vikings or John Madden’s Raiders.

Munchak wants to impose his personality on the Titans by enforcing a no-nonsense, professional approach. But eight games into his tenure, the task is far from complete.

Teams also take their identities from the biggest playmakers on the field. The Colts certainly look lost this year without Peyton Manning. For longer than we care to remember, the Baltimore Ravens have taken their cue from Ray Lewis and, to a lesser degree, Ed Reed.

The reason is simple. Those players make the players around them better. The Titans saw it first-hand Sunday with Bengals rookie receiver A.J. Green making catch after catch.

In Indianapolis, for example, does anyone believe Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie are superstar receivers? Rather, as we are finding out with Curtis Painter at quarterback, it was Manning’s expertise that made them what they were.

And no matter how many players they have to replace in their lineup due to injures, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense will always look formidable as long as Troy Polamalu is at safety. When Polamalu was hurt and played in just five games in 2009, the Steelers slumped to 9-7. The year before and after Polamalu’s injury, they were in the Super Bowl.

Which leads to this: Who sets the tone for the Tennessee Titans? Who on the Tennessee roster elevates the play of his teammates?

No one.

Kenny Britt was a true difference-maker early in the season, showing that the Titans had finally awakened to the fact that the NFL is a quarterback/receiver-driven league. But a knee injury against the Denver Broncos wrecked that plan for the rest of the season. And no one else has come close to filling the void.

Chris Johnson? His difference-making days look to be dwindling. Since holding out and getting paid a big contract, CJ hasn’t even been able to elevate his own game above three yards a carry, much less elevate the entire offense.

Matt Hasselbeck? He’s been a nice addition and a definite upgrade at quarterback. But leaning on a 36-year-old who has had to learn a new system on the fly is not the surest recipe for success.

While Hasselbeck has been much better than probably even the Titans expected, he’s not the long-term answer. Within the next year or so, the reins will be handed to Jake Locker in hopes that he is the guy who makes everyone around him better, which is what elite quarterbacks do in the NFL.

Who’s the leader on defense? Sorry, but that seems to be the problem with this unit. There are some solid pros here, but this unit hasn’t had a real difference maker since Albert Haynesworth was playing to show he deserved a big-money contract.

Sad to say, the hand Munchak and his coaching staff have been dealt isn’t promising. To their credit, they are doing as well as they can with what they have.

“We have the team that we have,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer says, “and it’s our job as coaches to try to get them to play as well as they can play.”

But a difference-maker or two on each side of the ball sure wouldn’t hurt.

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

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