Must Win? Nah, Jeff Fisher and the Titans Have Been Here Before
"That was one of my favorite teams," Fisher said on a conference call earlier this week. "I've never been around a better locker room than that 0-5 team, because they believed in themselves and what they were doing. The key is, you just sell that belief."
That's what Fisher is selling this week, as his tough-luck Titans head to the Meadowlands to face the fast-starting, trash-talking Jets and the very real prospect of being 0-3. The good thing for Tennessee is that there's probably no salesman in the NFL better equipped for the job.
"I think we've got a good perspective on things," Titans quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I get the sense that Jeff is pulling us together. By no means is this team cracking or falling apart."
And it very well could be. (See Browns, Cleveland) This can be panic time in the NFL. You lose your first two games and you start hearing the ugly statistics. No team has ever reached the Super Bowl after starting 0-3. Only three times since 1990 (and not once since 1998) has a team started 0-3 and even reached the playoffs. When you start looking 0-3 in the face, you start thinking about lots of chilly free time in January, and those aren't fun thoughts in September.
That's when it helps to be the only team in the league who's had the same coach since 1994.
"You give them two options," Fisher said. "You can sit here and panic and shake and quiver with an upset stomach, or you can go out and have fun and try to improve. It makes no sense to sit there and worry about those things."
What Fisher won't do is buy into the notion that this game is a "must-win."
"I've had two must-wins in the last two years," Fisher said. "One was (a 2008 playoff game) against San Diego and the other was (a 2009 playoff game) against Baltimore. We lost them both, and our season ended. Those were must-wins. You classify this as a must-win, you just make things harder on yourself."
And things are hard enough as it is. The Titans' defense is coping with the free-agent loss of Albert Haynesworth, and it's showing. Sure, they're still ranked No. 2 in the NFL in run defense after two weeks, and the Jets offensive linemen who watched them on film this week said the D-line remains one of the best-conditioned and most energetic groups in the league. But the Titans are also 32nd in the league against the pass, and part of the reason is the absence of the massive Haynesworth, whose size and skills enabled last year's Titans to pressure quarterbacks with a four-man rush and drop seven defenders into coverage.
"That guy's going to be hard to replace," Jets coach Rex Ryan said of Haynesworth. "Those are rare guys, with his size and athleticism. But they believe in developing players, and (11-year defensive line coach) Jim Washburn does a good job with developing those guys."
That's a big reason the Titans didn't feel the need to match Washington's nine-figure free-agent offer for Haynesworth last spring. In Fisher and his coaching staff, the Titans have a level of continuity that doesn't exist anywhere else in the league. And they base their organizational decisions, in large part, on their faith that Fisher and his staff will make things work.
"Obviously, Jeff Fisher has done an outstanding job there," Ryan said. "Sometimes they say after 10 years you've got to get rid of a coach because everything's stale. I don't believe that's true. If you've got the right coach, he keeps it fresh for his team. He's a smart guy, he's a competitive guy and just really one of the top coaches in the league."
So even with Haynesworth now clogging up the middle in Washington, and even after a Week 1 overtime loss to the Super Bowl champs and a tight Week 2 shootout loss to Houston, the Titans have a coach who can stand in the middle of the locker room on a Sunday morning, staring 0-3 in the face, and tell his team everything's going to be all right. And because they know there's a decade and a half of success behind his words, Fisher's players are going to be inclined to believe him.
"The fact that you've been in this situation before, not that it's fun, it helps," Fisher said. "You have a philosophy, you stick with it, you believe in it and the wins will come."
That's what Fisher is selling as a desperate-looking Week 3 dawns in the NFL. And because of the resume that comes along with that sales pitch, Fisher is the reason the Titans may be the least desperate of the league's nine 0-2 teams.