Welcome to salary-cap jail, Tennessee Titans.
The Titans have been one of the league's most consistent winners in recent years. They had at least 11 victories in four of five seasons between 1999 and 2003. They were unable to get a Super Bowl triumph, falling a yard shy of a tying touchdown on the final play of their loss to the St. Louis Rams in January 2000, but they usually were in the running, and they took a title contender's approach to managing the salary cap by continually restructuring contracts and doing all they could to keep the nucleus of their team intact long enough to take another shot at a championship. They knew it eventually would catch up to them.
It did. In February, the Titans gutted their roster because they were about $27 million over next season's salary cap. General Manager Floyd Reese said just afterward, at the NFL scouting combine, that everyone in the organization had been braced for it, but it was painful nevertheless.
The club released wide receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle, defensive lineman Kevin Carter, offensive tackle Fred Miller, fullback Robert Holcombe and kicker Joe Nedney. That was bad enough, but it was only the beginning. Tennessee later said its goodbyes to tight end Shad Meier and wideout Eddie Berlin, declining to exercise options in their contracts. The Titans declined to tender contracts to three restricted free agents (wide receivers Jason McAddley and Darrell Hill and linebacker Justin Ena) and three exclusive-rights free agents (tackle Matt Martin, guard Marico Portis and linebacker Jordan Kramer). Cornerback Andre Dyson and backup tailback Antowain Smith departed as unrestricted free agents, and the Titans traded defensive end Carlos Hall to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft choice. Reserve offensive tackle Jason Mathews retired, and safety Lance Schulters likely will be released soon.
The Titans lost three top-shelf players in Mason, Rolle and Carter. Those three signed contracts with new teams with a total value of $80.5 million, including $26 million in bonus money (add in Miller's deal with the Chicago Bears and the figures become $103 million in total contract money, including $32 million in bonuses). The Baltimore Ravens were the biggest beneficiaries of the Titans' salary-cap purge, signing Mason and Rolle. The Miami Dolphins landed Carter, whom the Titans tried but failed to re-sign after cutting him.
The Titans, predictably, added next to nothing in free agency, needing to resort to performing their roster rebuilding by obtaining the comparatively cheap labor that comes via the draft. They surprised no one by opting for a cornerback with the sixth overall pick in the draft, but did surprise some in the league when they selected West Virginia's Adam (Pac-Man) Jones instead of Miami's Antrel Rolle (no relation to Samari).
Tennessee probably has lost more talent than any other team in the league over the past two offseasons. A year ago, defensive end Jevon Kearse and defensive tackle Robaire Smith departed in free agency, and the club released tailback Eddie George. Still, the cupboard isn't bare.
Quarterback Steve McNair said repeatedly that he would consider retirement this offseason, that on the heels of a frustrating 2004 season in which he was limited to eight games because of a recurring sternum injury. McNair underwent surgery in which doctors used a bone graft to strengthen his sternum and, as expected, eventually decided to return to play another season. He is the heart and soul of the team, and the Titans are crossing their fingers that he'll be able to stay healthy and remain in the lineup next season. But if he doesn't, the Titans found last season that they can rely on backup Billy Volek, who threw for 2,486 yards and 18 touchdowns in his 10 games. Volek is the successor-in-waiting to McNair, if the Titans can hang on to him that long. He signed a four-year contract (with a club option for a fifth season) last offseason as a free agent to stay in Tennessee. But he's hired Drew Rosenhaus as his agent, and perhaps could try to force his way out of town next spring if it doesn't look like he's about to become the Titans' starter.
Drew Bennett established himself as a top receiver last season, when he had 80 catches for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns, and now succeeds Mason as the No. 1 wideout. Chris Brown took over for George as the centerpiece runner and amassed 1,067 rushing yards last season. The Titans talked to the Buffalo Bills about a possible trade for tailback Travis Henry and have discussed a possible return by George, who's a free agent again after spending one unsuccessful season with the Dallas Cowboys. But the Henry trade talks apparently are stalled and George didn't seem to have much left last season, so Brown again should be the workhorse runner.
Brown is recovering from a broken hand, and the Titans also are waiting for tight end Ben Troupe's broken foot to mend and for wideout Tyrone Calico to return from knee surgery. The Tennessee offense will be fascinating to watch next season because Coach Jeff Fisher hired USC's highly successful offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, to replace Mike Heimerdinger, who left for the New York Jets. Fisher failed in his bid to keep Heimerdinger but did retain defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who interviewed for the San Francisco 49ers' head-coaching job but lost out to Mike Nolan. Schwartz will have to patch some holes on his defense and build around tackle Albert Haynesworth and linebackers Keith Bulluck and Rocky Calmus.
The Titans still have a first-rate organization. They told the Browns that Reese was not available when Cleveland was looking for a general manager, and Reese and Fisher are among the best at what they do. But the Titans no longer have first-rate talent, at least not enough of it. They probably won't unravel completely. Fisher won't allow that, and the club has enough talent on offense to remain dangerous. But the Titans play in a tough division and must face AFC South foes Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Houston twice each. It's tough to envision them passing the Colts or Jaguars in the standings, and the improving Texans seem far more upwardly mobile than the Titans at this point. The Titans probably are headed toward a second straight last-place finish, and if they can exceed last season's five wins, they will have overachieved.
Around the league
The Miami Dolphins' hiring of Randy Mueller as their general manager this week adds yet another issue to the deliberations between Coach Nick Saban and Ricky Williams over whether the retired tailback will return to the team. Mueller, as the GM of the New Orleans Saints, drafted tailback Deuce McAllister in the first round in 2001, paving the way for Williams to be traded to the Dolphins in March 2002.
But Saban, not Mueller, is running the show in Miami, and the coach has said he'd welcome Williams back. Those in Williams's camp are worrying first about getting Williams back to the Miami area and getting him back in the league's drug-testing program before tackling the financial issues of his potential return to the Dolphins. Williams owes the club $8.6 million for breach of contract, and a clause in his contract perhaps could allow the Dolphins to reduce his salary for next season to the league minimum, if they choose . . . .
Three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour didn't show up Thursday for the New England Patriots' mandatory minicamp, presumably because of displeasure about a contract that is to pay him $2.87 million next season. Seymour is entering the fifth season of a six-year, $14.3 million deal signed when he entered the league. He is among the game's top defensive linemen and seems next in line for a new contract from the Patriots after the club signed tailback Corey Dillon and quarterback Tom Brady to extensions in recent months . . . .
The Atlanta Falcons fired Ron Hill as their vice president of player personnel. Hill helped the team to obtain quarterback Michael Vick but had his duties diminished after the arrival of Rich McKay, the club's president and general manager . . . .
Kansas City is negotiating with free-agent wideout Az-Zahir Hakim. If the Chiefs sign Hakim, they probably would pass on adding free-agent receiver Freddie Mitchell . . . .
Seattle wide receiver Alex Bannister suffered a broken right collarbone during a practice this week. It's the same injury that cut short his 2004 season, but the Seahawks expect him to be ready to play by the regular season . . . .
Pittsburgh signed defensive tackle Chris Hoke to a three-year, $2.7 million contract extension to keep him from being an unrestricted free agent next spring.