As we get into the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team.
Today’s feature team and question?
Tennessee Titans: Can the passing game help Chris Johnson?
At 6-10, the Tennessee Titans struggled through much of last season. With young quarterback Jake Locker and veteran Matt Hasselbeck, the passing game was particularly bad. The Titans’ passing attack ranked in the bottom third of the NFL with only 3,323 yards and the team’s 17 touchdowns were among the worst in the league. Tennessee did a bit to improve, bringing in veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick from Buffalo, but there are still questions about the productivity the Titans will get under center.
The one consistent threat on offense continued to be running back Chris Johnson. Johnson hasn’t approached the heights he reached in his second NFL season in 2009, when the back ran for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns. However, he has still rushed for at least 1,000 yards in every season and missing only one game in his entire career, has proved to be incredibly durable.
When on his game, Johnson can be one of the best backs in the NFL. Over his five-year career, he has averaged nearly 1,400 yards per season and has 48 career touchdowns. The rusher has also been extremely valuable as a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Johnson has 230 career catches averaging nearly 50 grabs a season and he’s quickly become an incredible all-purpose player.
Despite Johnson’s individual success, the team has only gotten to the playoffs once – when they were bounced in the first-round by the Baltimore Ravens in his rookie year. One problem has been that the passing game has never provided much support during his time in Tennessee and teams have loaded up against Johnson determined to stop the run.
The Titans’ best passing game during Johnson’s time with the Titans was in 2011 with the aforementioned Hasselbeck at the helm. In that season, he threw for more than 3,500 yards and Tennessee finished 12th in the NFL in yardage. Other than that, however, the Titans’ passing game has been among the worst in the league behind guys like Vince Young, Kerry Collins, and now, Locker.
With Locker only in his third season, it’s not surprising that the team handed over the keys to him again for 2013. There’s no doubt that he needs to improve as he completed only 56% of his passes last year while throwing for more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). His passer rating of 74.0 was among the worst for starting quarterbacks and while he was a top-ten pick back in 2011, it’s still questionable just how long his leash will be. In Locker’s first game this season, he faced the always-tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense, and was unimpressive. The quarterback completed only 11 of his 20 passes for a mere 125 yards and no touchdowns. At this point, it’s difficult to find many believers in him and the newly acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick.
It doesn’t all rest on the quarterbacks, though. Despite trying, the franchise has simply been unable to add a star receiver. The team starts Kenny Britt and Nate Washington and both are more second string receivers than starters. In four seasons, Britt has never topped even 800 yards and Washington hasn’t been much better. He did have one 1,000-yard season in his seven-year career, but with only 4,776 career yards, really isn’t an ideal starter.
It’s not as if the Titans haven’t tried to help the passing game along. The team has invested one of their top two picks in four of the past five drafts on a wide receiver. Britt was the team’s top pick in 2009 and others selected included Damian Williams (2010), Kendall Wright (2012), and Justin Hunter (2013). Britt and Williams have underachieved, though, and the jury is still out on Wright and Hunter. There’s also not much help at tight end where the Titans are starting former 49er backup Delanie Walker.
The passing game will eventually improve sooner or later but it won’t be this season. Tennessee won’t always face a defense like that of the Steelers but Locker still looks like a big question mark. We could see Fitzpatrick at some point, but while he has a bit more experience, he’s not the type of player that will go out and throw for 4,000 yards to take pressure off of the running game. It’s easy to envision him being an upgrade over Locker, but without better receivers, he can’t be expected to have a big season.
Johnson should still get his yards in 2013, but they will likely come without much help from the rest of the offense. He wants to again rush for 2,000 yards, but with such a questionable passing game, don’t count on it.