NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A coaching change always creates excitement, bringing the promise of more wins and elusive playoff berths.
Ken Whisenhunt’s resume is loaded enough that the Tennessee Titans believe their new boss can end their losing ways.
“He understands what perfection looks like,” receiver Nate Washington said. “He understands what a Super Bowl looks like. He understands what getting to that top tier in the NFL is going to take, so his expectation right now is much needed. He understands what it’s going to take for us to get to where we want to be, and that’s hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the day.”
That’s bold talk for a franchise that last reached the postseason in 2008 and last won a playoff game in January 2003. The Titans had losing records four of the past five seasons. New president Tommy Smith fired Mike Munchak after a 7-9 record and went outside team ties in hiring a man with Super Bowl experience.
Whisenhunt took the 2008 Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, and won a championship ring three years earlier as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator.
The Titans made a bunch of other changes, too. They cut one-time 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson, long-time kicker Rob Bironas, right tackle David Stewart and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. General manager Ruston Webster brought in a batch of veterans, including Pro Bowl punt returner Dexter McCluster, linebackers Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard, and right tackle Michael Oher. He also re-signed safety Bernard Pollard and kick returner Leon Washington.
Whisenhunt brought in Ray Horton as defensive coordinator, and he’s starting to move the Titans from the 4-3 scheme they’ve played for a couple of decades to a 3-4. Webster continues tinkering with the roster, helping ramp up the pressure to perform.
“That’s what it needs to be like,” Pollard said. “Guys need to walk around on eggshells. That’s how it needs to be, and I think guys are understanding. Guys are seeing what it’s really like. … With our coaching staff, they eat football, they sleep football. They smell like football, and that’s what we needed.”
Some things to watch for at the Titans’ training camp:
ALL EYES ON LOCKER: How the Titans fare depends heavily on quarterback Jake Locker. He has missed 14 of 32 games since being chosen the starter, which is why Tennessee did not pick up his 2015 option. But the Titans have made it clear Locker is the starter. Charlie Whitehurst was brought in as the backup.
Locker didn’t miss a session on the field this offseason and will go into training camp healthy.
“Jake works hard,” Whisenhunt said. “He’s doing a great job as far as studying the offense and understanding his reads, really done a good job with a lot of the little things. His footwork, his technique, we’ve seen improvement there, and that’s really exciting to see.”
NO MORE CJ: Johnson was cut in April, so the Titans must replace the NFL’s second-leading rusher since 2008. Bishop Sankey, a second-round pick out of Washington, has a chance at the starting job with veteran Shonn Greene coming off his second knee surgery in the past year. Veteran Dexter McCluster also will be used at running back after catching 53 passes in Kansas City last year. With Johnson, the Titans averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2013.
REPLACING VERNER: Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay rather than returning to Tennessee, and the Titans didn’t sign a veteran to replace him. Instead, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a third-round draft pick in 2013 out of Connecticut, is competing with Coty Sensabaugh to start opposite veteran Jason McCourty.
BRAND NEW KICKER: Tennessee unexpectedly cut Bironas in March and brought in Maikon Bonani, who only kicked one field goal in the preseason with the Titans last year. Bonani, a Brazilian native who played at South Florida, at least spent most of the preseason in Tennessee. Travis Coons, an undrafted free agent from Washington, also is competing for the job.
TOP DRAFT PICK: The last team to sign its first-round draft pick a year ago, the Titans may cut it close again with left tackle Taylor Lewan. The 11th pick overall out of Michigan remains unsigned. Right guard Chance Warmack missed the first four practices of camp before getting his deal last year.