Despite Salary Woes, Titans Still in Playoff Hunt
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004; 10:57 AM
No other team lost as much in free agency while getting as little in return as the Tennessee Titans. No other club was more handcuffed by the salary cap this offseason than the Titans, who had to trim nearly $18 million off their cap total just to be in compliance with the 2004 spending limit by the March deadline.
But they will plow forward and probably will be in the thick of the race for AFC supremacy, just as they have been virtually every season for the last five years under their steady and under-appreciated coach, Jeff Fisher.
The Titans have no one to blame but themselves for their cap situation. They have been so close to a Super Bowl title in recent seasons -- with 11 or more wins in four of the last five regular seasons, including 12 last season -- that they have been unwilling to tear apart their roster, take their lumps by losing for a year or two and set themselves up for worry-free spending in the future. So they have continued to rework contracts, losing a player or two while keeping the nucleus of their team intact. And, thanks mostly to Fisher and quarterback Steve McNair, they have remained one of the top clubs, although they haven't been quite good enough or lucky enough to be the last team left celebrating on the Super Bowl stage.
This offseason brought more of the same, as Fisher and General Manager Floyd Reese scrambled to get under the $80.5-million salary cap by restructuring a series of veteran players' contracts.
The most interesting contract reworking came with McNair, the reigning league co-most valuable player (with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning) who added three years to his contract as part of a restructuring that lowered his impact against the 2004 cap from $10.77 million to $5.69 million. The contract runs through the 2009 season, and the Titans have McNair locked up at reasonable prices through the 2005 season.
But they probably will have to rework the deal again or release him after that, because the new contract contains a $50-million -- yes, $50 million -- option after the 2005 season if the Titans want to exercise their option for the final four years of the deal. The final four seasons of the contract have salaries of $9 million, $11 million, $13 million and $15 million and salary cap values of $26.83 million, $24.82 million, $26.82 million and $28.82 million.
Even with owner Bud Adams's willingness to continue throwing money at players in the form of new signing bonuses to restructure contracts and get under the cap -- again proving the adage among NFL executives that "cash solves cap'' -- the Titans' salary-cap squeeze cost them some valuable players. They opted against using their franchise-player tag to limit defensive end Jevon Kearse's free-agent mobility. Kearse is one of the game's best pass rushers when he's healthy. But he hasn't always been healthy in recent seasons, and that might have been why a team that must make tough decisions because of a tight cap situation would let him go. On the day that the free-agent market opened -- March 3 -- Kearse signed an eight-year, $66-million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles that included a $16-million signing bonus and $4 million in roster bonuses.
The next day, the Titans lost defensive tackle Robaire Smith via unrestricted free agency when he signed a six-year, $26.3-million deal with the Houston Texans that included an $8 million signing bonus. And the day after that, Tennessee traded wide receiver Justin McCareins to the New York Jets, with whom McCareins signed a new seven-year contract worth $31 million, including a $7-million signing bonus. The Titans had tried to sign McCareins, a restricted free agent, to a contract extension but had offered him far less.
The salary-cap pinch also appeared likely at one point to lead to the June release of tailback Eddie George. With negotiations on a contract reworking to lower George's $7.321-million impact against the salary cap stalled, Adams said publicly that he expected George to be released and the Titans to make Chris Brown their featured runner. But the tone of the deliberations changed with what was described as a productive meeting late last week involving George, Fisher and Reese and agent Lamont Smith (participating by telephone). The parties appear optimistic that they will agree to a new deal by George's informal deadline, his June 20 wedding. He probably will agree to reduce his $4.25-million salary in exchange for a package of incentives, and he likely will be given a chance by Fisher to retain his starting job.
The Titans nearly lost backup quarterback Billy Volek -- compared by some scouts and executives around the league to Carolina Panthers starter Jake Delhomme -- in free agency but managed to re-sign him.
The reinforcements came in the form of 13 picks on draft weekend. The Titans traded out of the first round and emerged with seven choices in the initial four rounds. Florida tight end Ben Troupe came in the second round as a replacement for retiring veteran Frank Wycheck. The next three selections were spent on defensive linemen -- second-round ends Travis LaBoy of Hawaii and Antwan Odom of Alabama and third-round tackle Randy Starks of Maryland -- to fill the void left by the departures of Kearse and Smith. LaBoy came with the choice that the Titans got in the McCareins trade. Starks plummeted to the third round after being projected as a possible late first-rounder by some observers heading into the draft. Tennessee took another defensive end, Bo Schobel of TCU, in the fourth round.
So the result is a less talented, less seasoned but still potent team. George averaged only 3.3 yards per carry last season, but Brown is being groomed to inherit some of the workload even if George stays. McNair, who had a bone spur removed from his ankle in February, has become one of the sport's true leaders as well as a superb passer, and the receiving corps remains solid with Derrick Mason, Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico. The defense shouldn't suffer too much if a couple of the young linemen come through, and Fisher almost always finds a way to make it work.
Around the League
The Green Bay Packers are the favorite to sign quarterback Tim Couch when his release from the Cleveland Browns becomes official, as expected, today.
But the Packers could have competition, with so many teams around the league still needing quarterback help. New England, Buffalo, the Jets, Kansas City, Denver, San Diego, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco and Arizona are among the clubs that could use more depth at the position.
Couch will go down as a failure in Cleveland, where he threw more interceptions (67) than touchdown passes (64) in five seasons after being selected with the top overall choice in the 1999 draft. When he announced his May 1 resignation as Browns' president, Carmen Policy called Couch's struggles one of his biggest disappointments, saying that every interception was painful because the franchise had so much invested in the quarterback and because he liked Couch and wanted him to succeed.
Couch has ability -- he totaled more than 5,800 passing yards in the 2001 and 2002 seasons -- and he is only 26. He's a more-than-capable backup, and a change of scenery perhaps could revive his career.
Couch and agent Tom Condon won their stare-down with the Browns, who wanted to trade Couch to Green Bay for a draft pick but couldn't because Couch and Condon wouldn't agree to a new contract with the Packers. Couch and Condon wanted a one-year deal, apparently worth about $1.5 million, that would allow Couch to be back on the free-agent market next offseason. The Packers wanted Couch to sign a two-year contract if they were going to surrender a draft choice for him. Couch and Condon had leverage because Couch's contract with the Browns called for him to earn $15.6 million in salaries over the next two seasons. Cleveland couldn't afford to keep him as a backup for that price, and no team wanted to trade for him without a new contract.
The Browns finally wanted to be rid of the distraction, and informed Couch's representatives Wednesday that they were releasing him. Condon and Couch agreed to drop their grievance against the Browns, filed when team officials told him to stay away from the club's training facilities while they attempted to trade him. The necessary paperwork should be completed in time for the Browns to file the transaction with the league today and announce the move.
The Browns didn't want to release Couch before rival Baltimore had a quarterback to replace the injured Anthony Wright backing up Kyle Boller. The Ravens have signed Kordell Stewart and say they won't pursue Couch.
The Packers still have Couch atop their list of candidates to back up Brett Favre this season, and likely would agree to a one-year, $1.5-million contract now that they wouldn't have to give up a draft selection. But Couch's representatives also expect to generate interest elsewhere. Couch perhaps will have a workout in Kansas City even though the Chiefs already signed former Patriots backup Damon Huard as a free agent.
The 49ers have stayed out of the market but can't be certain starter Tim Rattay will be ready to open the season after undergoing surgery for a torn groin muscle. The Chargers are an intriguing possibility because they perhaps could use a temporary starter while first-round draft pick Philip Rivers prepares to play.
Broncos' Mobley to Miss Season
Broncos linebacker John Mobley has been told by doctors to sit out the season as he continues to recover from a spinal-cord contusion suffered during an October game at Baltimore. Broncos officials are uncertain whether Mobley, 30, will be able to resume his career.
Coleman Says He Will Retire
Veteran defensive end Marco Coleman signed with Denver as a free agent this offseason but has told the Broncos that he will retire. Coleman, 34, has played 12 seasons for Miami, San Diego, Washington, Jacksonville and Philadelphia. He reached the Pro Bowl as a member of the Redskins in the 2000 season, when he had 12 of his 62 sacks and was a team leader. . . .
Cornerback Ty Law has been in a bitter contract dispute this offseason with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick but is scheduled to attend the mandatory minicamp that opens today. . . .
Tight end Jeremy Shockey missed the New York Giants' practice Wednesday because of what Coach Tom Coughlin called a sore foot. Coughlin declined to say which foot is bothering Shockey, but the tight end played with a stress fracture in his right foot last year before his season was cut short by a torn left posterior cruciate ligament.
Parcells, Bryant Try to Get Along
Wide receiver Antonio Bryant's representatives are working to smooth over their client's differences with the Dallas Cowboys after Bryant had a practice-field confrontation Tuesday with Coach Bill Parcells. Although Bryant did not participate in the Cowboys' practice Wednesday, the team needs him to complement starting receivers Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson and would save only $240,000 in salary-cap space by releasing him. . . .
Parcells seems satisfied with guard Larry Allen's conditioning, and the Cowboys probably will keep the eight-time Pro Bowl selection after he was in jeopardy earlier in the offseason of being traded or released. He refused to rework his contract to accommodate a draft-day trade to Detroit. . . .
Former Pro Bowl defensive end Joe Johnson, who was released Wednesday by Green Bay, apparently intends to continue his NFL career despite being limited by injuries to 11 games in two seasons with the Packers. He signed a six-year, $33-million contract with Green Bay in March 2002 after totaling 21 sacks in his final two seasons in New Orleans. He collected $9.65 million while producing only two sacks in two seasons for the Packers, who saved $4 million in salary-cap space for the upcoming season by releasing Johnson but will carry a $3.25 million charge on their 2005 salary cap for him. It's likely that some team will give Johnson, 31, a minimum-salary chance to make its roster as a part-time pass-rush specialist.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com