NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans' 37-34 overtime loss to Arizona mere minutes old, the team's new president and CEO, Tommy Smith, approached receiver Nate Washington inside the Titans' LP Field locker room.
"I want to thank you for your leadership," said Smith as he extended his right hand to Washington. "The wins and losses haven't been what we wanted ... but you've been a true professional every step of the way."
There's no denying Washington's professionalism and leadership on a Titans team that has often seemed in desperate need of both in recent years. And his 33-yard catch on the second play of overtime seemed to set up the home team for one of the most improbable wins in franchise history, since the Titans trailed the Cards by 17 with just 6:13 to go.
But needing no more than 13 yards to move Rob Bironas into position to kick a go-ahead field goal, Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an interception on the very next play. Arizona then drove the ball far enough for Jay Feely to boot a 41-yard game-winner. Now 5-9 on the year, Tennessee's playoff hopes are officially over.
But it is Smith, not Washington, who must now lead the franchise following the October death of Bud Adams, the only owner the Titans have ever known and Smith's father-in-law.
With third-year coach Mike Munchak once again assured of missing the playoffs, with LP Field appearing to be no more than 60 percent full for the mid-afternoon kickoff, with team having now missed the postseason for five straight years, Smith appears to understand that Titans Nation is on the verge of switching from anger to apathy, which is every owner's worst nightmare.
Addressing the media a little more than an hour prior to Sunday's kickoff, Smith noted that the organization was "Attuned to the fans." He also said that it's "highly important" to satisfy them.
So does that mean Munchak, who's under contract through 2014, is out now that the franchise has posted its third losing season in four years and its second straight under Munchak?
"I have the highest degree of respect for him," Smith said of the NFL Hall of Famer. "He's a good football man. We'll evaluate each and every player and each and every coach [after the season]."
Offensive left tackle Michael Roos is wrapping up his ninth NFL season, all of them spent with the Titans. Because Munchak was his position coach before he became the head coach, Roos has an obvious soft spot for his boss.
So even as he freely admits that the record's "not good enough," he also said on Sunday, "You look at our locker room, the culture in our [headquarters] building, the improvement in attitude everywhere. It's changing for the better, and that's because of [Munchak]."
Continuing, he added, "It's been too little, too late to show up on the scoreboard this year, but look at all the close games we've had (seven of the nine losses are by less than 10 points, with two coming in overtime). There were times last year when it looked like we didn't want to be out there."
Of course, Munchak was also the coach last season. To bring him back next year without an extension -- and even if Smith keeps him an extension is deemed highly unlikely -- would stamp "Lame Duck" across his forehead, since his contract ends in 2014.
Maybe there are enough players such as Roos who'll give their best for "Munch" to keep him. But what if there aren't? What if injured quarterback Jake Locker fails to make it through yet another season due to injury?
He failed to play in five games last year. He'll miss nine games this season.
There is no doubt he's becoming a better quarterback when healthy. Before this season ended with a foot issue he was hitting a career-high 60 percent of his passes and had thrown twice as many touchdowns (8) as interceptions (4). A year ago he threw more INTs (11) than TDs (10).
But with Locker out, the Titans have clearly struggled. Beyond that, if the team loses early a year from now, does a lame-duck Munchak lose the locker room?
"People think we'll stop playing," said wideout Kendall Wright of this season. "People think that with our record like it is, everybody is going to just come out here and lollygag, just go through the motions. But we're playing for much more than people think."
And the quarterback issue can't be overplayed, even if it seems the Titans have had a quarterback issue for close to a decade.
"I think the last time we had a quarterback play every game was 2008, and Kerry Collins was actually supposed to be the backup but ended up playing in every game (after starter Vince Young was injured)," Roos said. "(Locker being out) definitely made a difference. So much of the offense is designed around his strengths, and he's a unique player, the way he can scramble and all. When he's out, a lot of the offense changes."
It's worth noting that 2008 was also the last year the Titans reached the playoffs. It's a story likely repeated throughout the NFL. The best teams tend to have the best quarterbacks. And when they're not there -- think the Indianapolis Colts in 2011, who went 2-14 minus an injured Peyton Manning -- bad things tend to happen.
You could even argue that with that as a measuring stick, the Titans have overachieved at times under Munchak.
But even the Titans coach will occasionally shovel dirt on his coaching grave with lines such this one from Sunday: "It seems like we keep finding a different way to lose games that we've had a great chance of winning."
Now they've again found a way to lose more games than they'll win for a second straight season, turning it over three times against the Cardinals while forcing none.
Said Smith early Sunday: "We're not in the losing business, we're in the winning business. We have a quality organization now, and we're going to get better. And we're going to win."
There are lots of ways to get better. But the quickest way for a new CEO to show the fans that he's committed to getting better is to change coaches. Whether Smith actually travels that path when the Titans overwhelmingly seem to want Munchak to remain may ultimately say more about the owner than the coach.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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