Saints (9-3) vs. Titans (7-5) @ LP Field, Sunday, Noon C.T. (Fox)
When Titans' owner Bud Adams fired the NFL's longest-tenured Head Coach Jeff Fisher after 17 seasons, slim pickings were left for a successor in late January after the top-tier prospects had all been snapped up by other teams following the annual "Black Monday" Firing Spree around the League. Speculation included Eric Mangini, Mike Mularkey, Brad Childress, & even the Saints' D.C. Gregg Williams, though reports surfaced Jed Clampett was the front-runner as the Hillbillies' new Head Coach, with Jethro as D.C., Ellie May O.C., & a new critter-filled roster.
In a far less humorous move, Adams promoted the ultimate team insider, Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak. While other candidates with head coaching experience remained unemployed, Adams went with a first-time Head Coach because Munchak gave the Titans something the self-destructing franchise that tore itself apart from within needed very badly: stability.
So who is the Titan's first-year Head Coach? Including their Oiler past, Munchak is the 16th Coach in franchise history and the first former player to Coach the team. And what a player he was--as an Offensive Lineman, Munchak was a nine-time Pro-Bowler & 10 times All-Pro, made the NFL's 80's All-Decade, & was a 2001 inductee into the Hall of Fame. He's spent his entire playing & coaching career with the organization, which makes you wonder if he's either the best butt-kisser/"Yes Man" the legendarily evil Bud Adams ever had or too lazy to find another job that doesn't require him to work for a hateful old geezer who routinely screws over his franchise's fans (or both.) Muchak's NEITHER. He hasn't stuck by the side of the man who was the worst thing to happen to the City of Houston until Texas Gov. Rick Perry unintentionally triggered a massive crime wave after he opened the Astrodome for Katrina evacuees. He's stood loyally by the FRANCHISE that made him who he is. For once, Adams did something right when he hired Munchak.
Before becoming an Oilers/Titans lifer, Munchak was an offensive lineman for none other than now notorious Penn State (as God as my witness, I'm implying NOTHING!) To his INFINATE credit, Munchak said this about the scandal: “(Paterno) is ultimately responsible for anything that happens while he’s the head coach there, and so he knows he has a lot of responsibility in this.” As so many who've played for Paterno have hidden under rocks & shied away from comment, Munchak won my respect for putting the truth on Front Street.
As he heralded the new era for the Titans, Munchak took over a team with big challenges. He's worked hard to overhaul the Titans' culture, preventing another replay of the Jeff Fisher/Vince Young fiasco that saw both ousted from the team. He brought in QB Matt Hasselbeck & ended Chris Johnson's hold-out (although failed to keep Kenny Britt healthy or out of jail.) Make no mistake, it's Munchak's way or the highway. "I am into accountability — be a pro," said the Rookie Head Coach. And he practices what he preaches (see Paterno comments.)
The "Munchak Way" seems to be working. The 7-5 Titans have won two straight and three of four & are in 2nd place in the AFC South, two games behind the Texans (can you smell the irony?) They're within striking distance of weaseling their way into the Playoffs (as 7th Seed currently.) For his efforts, Munchak has an 85% approval record from fans in a poll conducted by Music City Miracles.
When Coach Munchak looks across LP Field Sunday, he'll see an old friend on the opposing sideline, Saints D.C. Gregg Williams. Allegedly, Williams was on Adams' short list of candidates for the Titans' vacancy, but came to his senses in time. Williams was with the Oilers/Titans from 1990-2000. The two worked together for seven years on Jeff Fisher's staff & remain good friends. Word around the campfires is the two used to play practical jokes on each other, probably to get through the daily grind of working for the Prince of Darkness, Bud Adams.
So what can we expect Sunday? Gregg Williams' Defense isn't pretty (ranked 27th giving up 378.8 YPG,) but in terms Titans' fans can comprehend, it still manages to "get 'er done." Meanwhile, the Saints Offense is #1 in the NFL & firing on all cylinders like it did in 2009's Super Bowl run--if not better. The Titans D that allows 319.3 YPG faces a Saints Offense that averages 448.7 YPG. So the real question is: can the Saints stop the Titans now that CJ3K's back to form?
Chris Johnson looks like his old scary self after starting expectedly slow coming off an extended contract holdout. In his last two outings, he ran for his season-best of 190 yds. in a 23-17 win over the even-MORE-worthless-than-the-Failcons Buccaneers Nov. 27 & 153 yds. and two TDs in a 23-17 victory at Buffalo last week. The Saints D holds up better against the Run (16th 114.6 YPG) than it does against the Pass (30th 264.2 YPG). The Titans Rushing Stats (18th 96.8 YPG) are skewed thanks to Johnson's holdout. Visions of Steven Jackson's 159 yds. in the St. Louis debacle continue to give me P.T.S.D. flashbacks, but that was the wake-up call that brought the Saints back to its senses. The Saints' last two opponents (NYG & DET) had nary a ground game to speak of. Definitely, the Titans will put the Saints' Rushing Defense to the biggest test it's had since the Foulcans. And THAT went to OT. Chris will run, that's for sure. Too bad the Titans have no Receiving Corps worth mentioning.
Meanwhile, the Titans will have their work cut out for them (as EVERY team the Saints have played this season have) trying to stop Saints' TE Jimmy Graham. He's the 5th Leading Receiver in the NFL with 1,046 yds--the most of any TE in the League. He caught eight passes for 89 yards versus the dirty Lion Defense.
The Brees/Graham combo is a big reason the Saints are smoking opponents on a four-game winning streak. True, all three losses this season have been on the road, but the Saints have blown apart opponents on their current streak, outscoring them 133-80 (averaging 32.8 PPG--better than their 31.9 PPG during their '09 Super Bowl run.) This aint the same team that lost in St. Louis, folks. May the wishful thinking cease.
Fearless Prediction: So much of the former infrastructure of the Titans still exists that Williams not only has Munchak's number, he's got the entire Coaching staff's as well on speed dial. Williams gave Titans' D.C. Jerry Gray his first coaching gig in the NFL as a defensive backs coach. He's also well-acquainted with Titans' O.C. Chris Palmer from his days with the Redskins back when Palmer was with the Giants. Palmer admitted it’s hard to know what to expect from blitz-happy Williams. “One game he blitzed getting off the bus, and then the next game he dropped eight,” Palmer said. “The key with him is keeping you off-balance. He is going to try to confuse you and try and keep you off-balance.” The Titans run a one-dimensional Offense & Williams' insider knowledge will be just enough to keep them guessing. The Titans' last three games have all had scores of 23-17; one was a loss to the wretched ATL Felons, the other two Wins against the Bucs & Buffs. Ergo, it won't be the same score. Saints 32-Titans 14.
Next Up on Sunday, Dec. 18: Saints @ Viqueens (Payback Time, Jared Allen!) Noon C.T.; Titans @ Colts, Noon C.T.