It's that time again! One of the great side benefits of playing the Titans is another Q/A with Tom Gower of Total Titans and the Football Outsiders. Tom's last Q/A was honest to God one of the highlights of the whole season for the Colts. I think they are going to put it on the NFL Films video yearbook. Tom's a great guy, and he's coming in for the game this week. Here are my questions and his answers.
ND: The Titans have already won 7 games for what would be the 12th time in 15 seasons in Tennessee. That's a lot of respectable football. Is it fair to describe the franchise as "Upper Middle Class" in the NFL's social order?
TG: The term "upper middle class" seems to get tossed out a lot by people who are solidly middle class and solidly upperclass but not uber-wealthy, so I'm not sure how much weight it should get. In the sense that the Titans have rarely been among the dregs, but their stays in the upper-class have been some combination of sort of unexpected, not particularly long-lived, and relatively frequent, the appellation probably fits better than my initial reaction to the term would make you think.
ND: Is this season what you expected? The Titans have a positive point differential (like last year). Is this team all that different from last year's squad, save maybe for injuries at the quarterback position last year?
TG: I was very pessimistic heading into the season, setting my expectations at 5 wins +/-2, so with a couple winnable games left the Titans are poised to exceed my expectations. The defense has been better than I thought it would be and more consistent.
It's weird, as the pass defense fell apart the second half of last season when the Titans stopped pressuring opposing passers. This year, the Titans' pass rush has been horrible (they're 29th in FO's Adjusted Sack Rate measure), but the secondary has been much more sound in both man and zone coverage. I still think they're vulnerable against better quarterbacks (the Saints would've scored 28 points on four straight possessions this past week, but Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham couldn't handle catchable balls in the end zone), but they haven't faced too many of those.
ND: Is Jake Locker going to be 'the guy' for this franchise? Is he the starter four years from now? Do you have any gut feeling at all?
TG: Well, if he starts this weekend (it's uncertain as of when I write this Wednesday evening, but I expect him to), it'll be his first in the NFL. I expatiated on his play against the Saints at some length and saw a mix of good and bad, which is to be expected from a rookie quarterback. Overall I'm on the pessimistic side because of his college work, but thus far at least he's not making head-scratching plays like the guy who used to wear #10.
ND: Chris Johnson was barely credible as an NFL caliber running back early in the season. He's since come on. Who do you blame more for his not being ready to go? If he had been in shape from week one are the Titans on top of the AFC South right now?
TG: Obviously, Chris Johnson is now playing better because I wrote a post declaring I was pretty much done with him. The Titans weren't reporting an injury. He hasn't admitted to having an injury. I didn't see an injury. Was he out of shape at the start of the year? He probably wasn't in great shape, but LenDale White was in lousy shape and it didn't prevent him from running with his head down, not locating holes, not trying to cut, and going down easily when confronted a defender (well, forget that last, but for different reasons). I think CJ's problems earlier in the year were mental. He was great against the Bucs and Bills and kind of mediocre, but not as bad as he'd been early in the year, against the Saints. I think right now he's a week-to-week player, which is better but still frustrating.
Even if Johnson had replicated his 2010 season, which is more or less where I think he is right now, I still see the Texans atop the AFC South. I have a lot of respect for that team, and particularly for the magnitude of the defensive turnaround.
ND: There were rumors were that Hasselbeck was approached by the Colts but elected to sign in Tennessee. You've seen him all season. Given how atrocious the Indy QBs have been this season, what is the Colts record right now if he had chosen Indianapolis.
TG: The conspiracist side of me I rarely listen to says that if they couldn't win the division, the Colts wanted to get the #1 pick, and Hasselbeck doesn't play defense, so they'd have put him on injured reserve early in the season with a convenient injury like they did with Kerry Collins.
Taking off my tinfoil hat, though, Hasselbeck's success has come as one short and intermediate passes thrown largely in rhythm off three- and five-step drops. He's savvy enough to thrown the ball away (like Collins), and is more accurate on those passes, but he's not real mobile and doesn't have the arm to threaten defenses. He'd have better targets in Indy than he does in Tennessee, but a worse offensive line. To be honest, I haven't seen the Colts play much lately, so I'm not sure exactly how much Painter/Orlovsky have set them back. Maybe 4-8, maybe 6-6. Take where you think they'd be with Peyton, and shave a couple games off that.
ND: I know the Titans are still fighting for the playoffs, but Indy fans are all intently focused on 2012. One year from now the Titans are...? Do you have a sense about what direction the franchise is headed?
TG: Offensively, I feel like there are some major question marks. I expect Locker to be all but handed the starting job, but am not sure how he'll play over a sustained period of time. Wideout Kenny Britt should be back from his ACL injury, but he missed time last year, too, so who knows if he'll be able to stay healthy, and he has off-the-field question marks as well. While I don't expect them to, they could cut Chris Johnson and find a new starting running back who gets paid less than $11 million a year. They better also look for at least one new starter on the offensive line, as Jake Scott is in the last year of the deal he signed after leaving the Colts and is not really living up to his current salary.
Defensively, they need to find a pass rusher somewhere, and it probably won't be somebody on the roster. They also need to decide how they're going to handle the secondary. Their top three safeties aren't under contract for next year, with Michael Griffin the big name, and corner Cortland Finnegan is also set to be a free agent and I'm pretty sure he wants a lot more money than they want to pay him.
Honestly, right now you could tell me they go anywhere from 5-11 to 11-5 in 2012 and I'd say, "Yeah, I could see that happening."
My thanks to Tom! Great as always.