Tennessee Titans linebacker Stephen Tulloch joined the team's statewide caravan tour this week to talk about the upcoming season. Titans fans are apparently having a hard time forgetting the past.
"They all want to talk about Albert (Haynesworth)," Tulloch said outside the Logan's restaurant on Gunbarrel Road as Titans loyalists lined up for autographs Tuesday afternoon. "How's Albert? Are we going to miss Albert? That's been the number one question."
Mike Keith, the Titans' radio play-by-play man, concurred.
"Everybody wants to know what we're going to do to replace Haynesworth," said Keith, who spent some of his childhood in Chattanooga.
It's a legitimate question, given that the All-Pro defensive tackle and former Tennessee Vol was generally regarded as the team's MVP last autumn before he took more money to become a Washington Redskin in February.
With Haynesworth dominating the line of scrimmage for most of the past two seasons, the Titans reached the playoffs in 2007, then compiled the top regular-season record in the NFL last year.
"The defense will change," said Tulloch, a fourth-year pro out of North Carolina State who started 12 games last season. "But some of the young guys got plenty of experience last year. Guys like Jason Jones, William Hayes and Kevin Vickerson are ready to step up now and make a difference. You don't just replace Albert Haynesworth, but I think we'll be fine."
Not that the defense figures to be all that will change this season. With quarterback Kerry Collins entering the season as the starter rather than Vince Young's backup, Keith wouldn't be surprised to see the Titans receivers flourish, especially second-year pro Lavelle Hawkins, a former California standout.
"(Offensive coordinator) Mike Heimerdinger's always done a great job of developing wide receivers," Keith said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see Hawkins have a breakout season."
This figures to be a breakout season off the field for the Titans, who will celebrate their 50th season as a pro football franchise. A special logo will commemorate the Houston Oilers' initial season as a founding member of the old American Football League in 1960. The Titans, who left Houston in 1996 for Tennessee, will play in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 9 against fellow founding AFL member Buffalo. Throwback uniforms will be worn and Titans owner Bud Adams and Bills owner Ralph Wilson - the last surviving original AFC owners - will be honored.
As for whom the Titans will honor in next week's draft with the 30th pick of the opening round, Tulloch isn't saying.
"I believe in our staff and our scouts," he said. "They're going to make the right decisions, and we're going to get some players who will improve our football team."
One thing Tulloch doesn't believe can be improved upon are the Titans fans.
"I'm not from here, so I think I can say this without bias, that they're the most loyal fans anywhere," said Tulloch, who estimates he had signed 500 autographs before the Chattanooga stop. "They sell out preseason games. They show up even when we're having tough years."
And they apparently never forget their football heroes, even the ones who desert them for Washington.