By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009
When Sherman Smith spent a few restless days last winter mulling an offer to become the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, he knew precisely what he would be leaving and was unsure of where he was headed. The Tennessee Titans, for whom Smith served as the running backs coach for 13 years, were family, Smith's only employer in professional coaching going back to the days when the team played as the Houston Oilers. Plus, Smith knew one other thing: The Titans were going to be good in 2008.
"I knew the team was building up," Smith said. "To say that they went 13-3 and got a bye for the playoffs was a total shock? No, that wouldn't be right. I knew."
This afternoon, the Titans will host the Baltimore Ravens in Tennessee, trying to begin a march that ends in the Super Bowl, where the franchise last appeared following the 1999 season. Smith was there that day, when the Titans lost to the St. Louis Rams. And until he departed for Washington in the winter for a chance to join former teammate Jim Zorn, the Redskins' new head coach, he had been a part of every game in Titans history. Titans history, Smith believes, offers a glimpse into how teams should be built.
When Smith made his decision to join Zorn, Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said to him: "I know you guys can do it. I just hope you're given the time to do it."
"It takes time," Smith said in a telephone interview this week. "That was my whole point. I want to be to a point to help build this thing where year in and year out, they're not just happy to get in the playoffs. Not just, 'Oh, well, at least we got to the playoffs.' No. We're talking about winning the Super Bowl.
"But to do that, you have to have patience. They had patience in Tennessee."
Fisher is in the midst of his 14th full season as the franchise's head coach, and the team's halcyon days appeared to be from 1999 to 2003, a five-season span when the Titans went 56-24 and won at least 11 games four times. But for Smith, the lessons learned about how to build a franchise came after that, in 2004 and 2005, when the Titans went 5-11 and 4-12.
"We knew what was happening," Smith said. "With our situation with the [salary] cap, we knew we were not only going to have a hard time keeping our free agents, but we'd have a hard time getting free agents. Some of our main guys -- Eddie George, Steve McNair, Bruce Matthews -- were getting older. We knew a couple years there were going to be lean."
Owner Bud Adams, though, kept Fisher, and the team began to build both through the draft and through free agent signings. In 2005, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch signed from Arizona. Not only has he anchored the defensive front for four seasons, but Smith said Vanden Bosch re-established a work ethic that still permeates the locker room.
"When he came in, we thought the way he was practicing was only so he would make the team," Smith said. "Then we thought he couldn't play in the game the way he played in practice. But that's the way the guy is. He plays 100 percent 100 percent of the time, and that made a difference for all our guys in the years to come."
The following year brought three more free agents Smith considered key in setting an example for the players the Titans drafted. Safety Chris Hope had just won the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh and "brought instant credibility," Smith said. Linebacker David Thornton was a starter for division rival Indianapolis and was familiar to Tennessee players and coaches as a smart overachiever. And center Kevin Mawae's reputation during his 12 years with Seattle and the New York Jets was unparalleled.
"They brought a work ethic that guys really bought into," Smith said. "We had lost a great deal of our leadership, and that's what had to be replaced."
Fisher and his staff were then allowed to mold the team around those veterans. The Titans drafted quarterback Vince Young in 2006, rebounded to go 8-8 and nearly made the playoffs. In 2007, Young helped them to a 10-6 record, and the foundation for this year was in place -- even though Young had a troubled 2008 and has given way to veteran Kerry Collins.
Last year, when Tennessee returned to the playoffs but lost in the first round to San Diego, Fisher gathered the Titans in the locker room immediately afterward. Smith said he identified the team's goals immediately.
"Our goal is, next year, win the division," Smith recalled Fisher saying. "We want a first-round bye. We're setting our sights higher. We have to win the division."
"That's what we have to do here," Smith said. "We've got to win the NFC East. We can't have it be, 'Let's just get into the playoffs.' "
As Smith spoke, two other NFC East teams, Philadelphia and the New York Giants, prepared to face each other in a playoff game Sunday. Smith's former employer, Tennessee, will host a playoff game today, and if it wins, the AFC championship game next weekend. The Redskins are home for the season.
But even though Smith struggled with the decision about leaving Tennessee, he said he has not, and does not, look back.
"I knew they were going to be good," he said. "They may win the Super Bowl this year. But my only regret is if we don't get a chance to do what they're doing, to build like that, then I would say, 'Man, that was a bad decision.' That's the only way."