Wiedmer: Did Hunter save Titans' season?

Wiedmer: Did Hunter save Titans' season?

September 23rd, 2013 in Sports - Columns

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter (15) takes a break during a preseason NFL game in this file photo.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter (15) takes...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - The game, if not the entire season on the line Sunday afternoon, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker had a request. Or maybe it was a demand.

The Titans down to their final possession against San Diego, and still trailing by four points on the LP Field scoreboard, Locker wanted rookie wide receiver Justin Hunter in the game.

"We drafted him because he's a long, fast receiver who can jump and plays above the rim," said Locker of the former Tennessee Vol. "I think he's a mismatch against any corner in the league when you throw that jump ball and its one-on-one."

Yet skeptics might have also pointed out that this was the same Hunter who was yet to catch a pass nearly three full games into his professional career. As well as the same Hunter who had failed to secure a Locker offering in the end zone in the second quarter against the Chargers.

But with large target Kenny Britt having another off-day at the office, Locker was running out of options. So he rolled the dice, hoping that the 6-4 Hunter might finally relax and play the way he tends to do in practice, when, in veteran defensive back Michael Griffin's words, "he has that same body style as (Cincinnati Bengals wideout and former Georgia Bulldog) A.J. Green."

Still, with 21 seconds to go and the Titans facing a 3rd and 10 at the San Diego 34, the chances for victory looked bleak. That 1-0 start earned by that improbable victory in Pittsburgh was about to become a 1-2 hole after the home opener. That smattering of empty seats that never filled despite a stunningly beautiful early autumn afternoon might become a vast wasteland if this trend continued.

But both Hunter and Locker had a plan.

"I was like, I have to go deep, I have to run as fast as I can and make sure the DB is nowhere around me when I get the ball," Hunter recalled. "And I have to jump for it. And hold on tight like a baby."

Of course, Hunter could do none of that unless Locker delivered a catchable ball. And that's just what he did, floating it high and slightly short, just enough for the wideout to screen San Diego defensive back Crezdon Butler from the pass.

"Honestly, once I threw it and I saw them both jump, he was so much higher than the guy guarding him - I started celebrating," the quarterback recalled.

A few feet in front of Locker, standing around the line of scrimmage, Titans center Rob Turner saw the ball in the air, saw Hunter hold it tight like a baby, saw and heard the crowd erupt for joy as it rose to its feet.

"You're obviously excited," he said. "But it's always scary, too. You're always looking around and thinking, 'Is there laundry [an official's flag] on the field?'"

This time there were no flags. There was only the official's signal for a touchdown. And a 20-17 lead after Rob Bironas's extra point. And 15 seconds left on the scoreboard before San Diego's nine-game winning streak against Tennessee could finally come to an end.

Naturally, the Chargers ran a trick play of sorts on their final snap, lateraling the ball backward at least six times before San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers kicked it in desperation, earning a penalty that ended both his teammates' desperation and the game.

"As soon as Rivers kicked it, I felt relief," said Griffin. "I knew the game was over, I knew the losing streak was over."

And with that game over, any certainty about this Titans season is over. If Locker can play the way he did in that final drive, when he completed 7 of 9 passes for 94 yards and the game winner, battling the clock and all those past moments he failed to deliver, this team just might reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Now in his seventh season, Griffin certainly believes he senses a change.

"It's totally different around here from some years," he said. "A different attitude. Everybody's tired of losing. Everybody should know their jobs are on the line. When the head coach is on a one-year deal, nobody is safe."

That head coach, Mike Munchak, isn't saying much about the far off future, even if the Titans are just the fifth team of the Super Bowl era (1966 forward) to have gone the first three games of the year without a turnover.

Munchak did say of this comeback win, "That's the stuff at times last year we didn't get done. Last week (in losing at Houston), we didn't get it done. So I thought it was fun to watch these guys battle through it today. Here we go again, another tight game at home, first time at home and we come away with the type of win we needed."

But regardless of what happens going forward, beginning with Sunday's visit from the New York Jets, the Titans and their fans can long smile over Hunter's game-winner against the Chargers.

"Not bad," noted Munchak, "for Hunter's first catch to be a game winner."

Not bad at all.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com