Wiedmer: Are Titans back on the right track?

Wiedmer: Are Titans back on the right track?

November 27th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak, left, watches the action in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game between the Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Nashville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (4) runs against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (4) runs against...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

In case you needed a reminder that the National Football League is a business, consider that the Tennessee Titans waived offensive lineman Kevin Matthews on Tuesday. Kevin's dad is Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Famer who also was his son's position coach with the Titans. Think Thanksgiving could be a little uncomfortable around Titans headquarters?

But with or without young Matthews, the simple fact that this 5-6 football team would qualify for the playoffs as a wild-card entry if the postseason began today is also what makes this such a fascinating season in the Music City.

A team capable of losing at home to then-winless Jacksonville three weeks ago, a team that blew an 11-point lead four nights later at home against Indianapolis, wins a road game at Oakland last Sunday and suddenly controls its own destiny.

Or as Titans coach Mike Munchak said Monday: "You always say you want to be relevant in December and be in the chase. We still are doing that."

They've seemed anything but relevant for much of the past seven weeks. From Oct. 6 to Nov. 14 they lost five of six games, their lone win coming at St. Louis at the expense of former Titans coach Jeff Fisher.

Certainly, the absence of quarterback Jake Locker has hurt. Reserve Ryan Fitzpatrick seems gradually to be becoming more comfortable with his role as a starting quarterback for the rest of the season, but he lacks both Locker's mobility and arm strength, even if his experience and Harvard degree hint that he might out-think Locker at times.

There's also been a lack of consistent defense, though the Titans do stand 11th among 32 NFL teams in yardage allowed per game and 10th in points allowed, two stats definitely worthy of playoff participation.

And the defense could be even more uneven Sunday at Indy, given Titans safety Michael Griffin's one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Raiders tight end and former Tennessee Vol Mychal Rivera.

It's Griffin's fourth fine since 2011 and it couldn't come at a worse time, given Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's penchant for looking for a tight end.

"I was trying to do my job, but I hurt my team," Griffin tweeted earlier this week.

But will his absence hurt the Titans enough to keep them from winning against a team that has won their last three meetings by three, four and three points?

Could this become the game that not only defines this season, but also stamps Munchak as the guy to lead this franchise for at least two more seasons under the somewhat new ownership of the late owner Bud Adams' son-in-law Tommy Smith?

Munchak seemed squarely on Adams's hot seat at the start of the year. But with his death in late October and Smith's probable concern about not wishing to be seen as making too many decisions too quickly, any finish north of last year's 6-10 mark would seem to protect the coach. Especially since whatever happens will come to pass with Locker on the sideline.

And that's the problem with evaluating the Titans. They've always seemed to be in flux in recent years, whether it's breaking in a new quarterback or coach, dealing with untimely injuries or now coming to grips with the death of the only owner they've ever had.

With a trip to Indy on tap for Sunday and a visit to Peyton Manning's Broncos to follow a weekend later, it would be folly to assume Tennessee should reach the postseason. But let's say they split those games, returning home to host Arizona on Dec. 15 and hapless Houston on Dec. 29 sandwiched around a revenge run to Jacksonville on Dec. 22?

Let them win those final three, finish 9-7 and it's pretty hard to see them missing the playoffs they've failed to reach each of the past four years.

Which brings us back to Munchak and his coaching style, which always has been about the players, and the season, and the sanctity of the locker room. He may or may not be a great NFL head coach, but you get the idea that he's a pretty good husband, father and role model. You get the idea that his players want him to succeed, which isn't always the case at that level.

As he talked about last weekend's comeback win at Oakland on Monday, he said of the joy of victory, "We talked at halftime [about] where we were. We had 30 minutes left, and we needed to find a way to win this football game. There was no misunderstanding of where we were at. I think just watching all that come together ... it just kind of fell the way we all hoped it would."

If it continues to fall that way between now and the end of the season, Munchak's stay in Nashville may last a few years longer. If not, his close friend Matthews can gently needle him that if Munch had kept young Matthews on the active roster, they might both still have jobs.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.