Special Report
Interview: Houston Chronicle's John McClain
By Jeff Fuqua
March 19th, 2006, 13:19

Over the next few weeks, goTitans.com will interview a number of the media who cover the Tennessee Titans. Our first interview is with John McClain, NFL writer for the Houston Chronicle.

What is your opinion on the recent free agency moves by the Titans and what other positions or players may be considered before the end of free agency?

I think General Manager Floyd Reese and General Counsel Steve Underwood, who negotiate the contracts for players coach Jeff Fisher and his assistants want, have done a superb job with the cap room they've had for the first time in years. Getting four starters so far -- veterans with a lot of playoff experience, including two with Super Bowl rings -- has been exciting and rewarding for the Titans and their legion of loyal fans.
Fans -- as well as many members of the media -- may complain when they believe a team pays too much for a player. Here's what I tell them: If they've targeted a player they want, they have to do what they believe it takes to get him. Take receiver David Givens, for instance. He grew up outside Houston, and the Texans wanted him desperately. But they could offer only $18.5 million over five years, including a $5 million signing bonus. He wanted to come home and play for the Texans, and he told them he'd give them a hometown discount. Agent Brad Blank wanted him to return to New England, but the Patriots could offer him only $17.5 million over five years. The Titans stepped up to the plate. They did what they had to do to get the top free agent receiver on the market. NFL scouts I trust had Givens rated ahead of Antwaan Randle El. So Reese gave him $24 million over five years rather than risk the Texans increasing their offer enough for Givens to accept less money to play in his hometown. Not only did Reese improve the Titans' offense with the Givens addition, but they kept the Texans, an AFC South rival, from strengthening their offense.
Not only does Givens have a lot of ability and two Super Bowl rings, but he's a first-class act who has leadership ability. He knows what it takes to win and win big because he's known nothing else since he came into the NFL and spent four seasons with the Patriots. I expect him to surpass his numbers with the Patriots, whose style is to spread the ball all over the field. But the question is who'll be throwing the ball -- Steve McNair or Billy Volek? It may take a while for that question to be answered. But I can tell you this from knowing Reese, Fisher and owner Bud Adams for a long, long time: If McNair and Bus Cook don't come to their senses on their contract demands, they'll be in the same situation Eddie George was in. McNair should look back and think long and hard about what happened to Eddie because he wanted an extra million. And I guarantee you that Eddie regrets it, even if he'll never admit it.
I think getting David Thornton was another good move. They need an experienced outside linebacker. He's not big, but he can run and cover. He's got starting experience. He's familiar with the division. He should make a nice bookend opposite Keith Bulluck. Not only does Thornton help the Titans, but his departure hurts the Colts. He's another good guy who should help in the dressing room because he knows what it takes to win. He also knows how bad it hurts to get to the playoffs and fall short of the Super Bowl, which should be a motivating factor for him when he tries to help the young players on defense.
Free safety Chris Hope is another player who knows what it takes to win. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers. Like Thornton, he's got a lot of speed, which is something the Titans need at safety. Hope's still young but experienced. Think about where he's been the last two years -- two AFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl victory. He's another class act. Notice a trend here? Do you think Reese and Fisher are trying to get some good guys in the dressing room after the off-the-field problems they experienced last year? Hope will make the entire secondary better because he'll be the quarterback with a lot of range to make some big plays. The question is will he play free or strong safety? If he plays strong safety, he's got to be a force against the run.
Last but not least is Kevin Mawae, who's been one of the NFL's best centers for a long time. Yes, he's 35 and nearing the twilight of his career, but he's going to love getting out of the rat race in New York and fitting into the Nashville environment. And he's going to love being coached by Mike Munchak, who's simply one of the best coaches in the league. Mawae has experience. He's a winner. The Titans offered to match what Justin Hartwig got from Carolina, but he wanted to play somewhere else. He owes a lot to Munchak, who turned him into a multi-millionaire, the same thing he did with Jon Runyan. I hope Munchak is on Hartwig's and Runyan's Christmas list.
As far as other free agents they're interested in, I'm not sure at this point because I don't know how much money have available. They need a true middle linebacker. I think they need another safety. Most of all, of course, is the Titans need a running back they can count on, a back who'll stay on the field. They need another Eddie George. There's one in the draft -- LenDale White, but they wouldn't take him with the third pick, and they also need one of the three quarterback prospects to develop.

How do you feel the Steve McNair contract situation will be resolved and what terms and amount can he expect in a new contract if one is reached?

At Steve's age and with his injury history -- not to mention his work habits -- he should be happy to get a few million a year. Right now, his one-year deal with a $23 million cap figure won't do. If he and agent Bus Cook don't come to their senses, I don't think he'll be back. I think Billy Volek will be starting and grooming the quarterback they take with the third pick in the draft. Steve's made enough money. He better not delude himself into thinking he's going to get richer on the open market, even if desperate teams like the Raiders and Vikings would check him out. I'd hate to see McNair sign with another team, but he's got to be realistic with his age and injury history.

What changes do you think Norm Chow will make to the offense to increase production in '06?

First of all, Chow didn't play the way he wanted to play. When he was hired, his priority was to keep Steve McNair off the ground. Without a consistent, productive running game to keep the defense off balance and on its heels, the Titans had to throw too much. Chow was forced to play a dump-off game, which isn't what he wanted to do. It was what he had to do under the circumstances. I think having a year of NFL experience will help Chow, but getting David Givens and Kevin Mawae will help, too. The Titans need for young players on offense, like the linemen and receivers, to show solid improvement this season. And, more than anything, they need running backs they can count on.

Will Jim Schwartz look to do anything defensively from a scheme standpoint to be more effective stopping the run?
I'm not sure what getting outside linebacker David Thornton and free safety Chris Hope will do for the run defense. Thornton is more of a finesse player. Hope plays too far from the line of scrimmage to be a force against the run. Both will hit and tackle, but they're not feared. If Hope has to play strong safety some, he's got to really contribute on run defense. The biggest improvement must be up front in the defensive linemen. Coach Jim Washburn is one of the best in the business, and he's made Albert Haynesworth into a top tackle. He'll do it with some of the other young guys, too. If the linemen don't play the run well, the defense doesn't have a prayer of being good against the run. Whoever plays middle linebacker must be a force against the run.

Who do you feel GM Floyd Reese will consider with pick #3 and why? How likely is a trade out and what would it take for Reese to be willing to do a trade?
I could see Reese trading down if he's sure he can get the player he wants. Keep this in mind: Reese wants to know who Fisher and the assistant coaches want, but Floyd's going to make that pick. Reese is the one who took Steve McNair in 1995 when Fisher and the assistants wanted players at other positions. Reese's philosophy is that when it comes to draft choices, it's his butt on the line, so he's got to go with the player he thinks is best for the Titans. His predecessor, Mike Holovak, had the same philosophy. In other words, if they believe a certain player is the one they need, they can't let others talk them out of it. Remember, final grades on prospects won't be made by teams until a couple of weeks before the draft. Vince Young and Matt Leinart haven't had their pro days. Jay Cutler has. The biggest mistake the Titans can make is to take a player the fans and media want. The only reason they should take Cutler is because they believe he's the franchise quarterback of the future. The same for Young or Leinart. Leinart should be ready to play faster than Young and Cutler. And he knows Chow. Young should take longer to develop, and he'll excel only in a certain kind of offense that's tailored to suit his ability, kind of like the Titans did with McNair when he was ready to play. Cutler may turn out to be better than both, but no matter what you hear or read in the media, almost every team still has him third at this point. That could change. I expect all three to be gone by the seventh pick. If one falls, I think it'll be Young.

What would you consider the top needs the Titans will look to fill through the NFL draft beyond the first pick? Any particular player which the Titans have shown more than usual interest in?
I think they need a physical running back who can stay on the field. I think they could use a talented young right tackle to develop. I know they need a true middle linebacker who excels at stopping the run. As for who those players might be, LenDale White is the back, but they wouldn't take him at three if they could get one of the quarterbacks.

With both Fisher and Reese nearing the end of their current contracts and with back-to-back losing seasons, what record will the Titans need in '06 in order to save their jobs?
First of all, Jeff has a year left on his contract, but the team has an option for another year. If Bud Adams wants to keep Jeff, he won't be going anywhere. That being said, Fisher's been with the organization a long time. Jim Mora said the shelf life of a head coach is 10 years. Marty Schottenheimer agrees. Fisher doesn't. At least he didn't last year. If they don't finish at least 8-8 -- unless they have a lot of injuries to key players -- I think it might be time for Jeff to leave. He'll be snatched up in a heartbeat. Whenever Fisher leaves -- whether after next season or the one after -- I believe Gregg Williams will replace him. That's just my belief. No one's told me that. I think Gregg deserves another chance to be a head coach, and after the job he's done at Washington, he's going to get it. Nashville would be the perfect city because he loves the city and the organization. As for Floyd, he's got two years left, so he doesn't need to sweat it for another year.

Which current Titans showed the most improvement towards the close of the 2005 season and may make the biggest jump in production next season?
I was impressed with Michael Roos, who'll move from right to left tackle to replace Brad Hopkins. I thought cornerback Reynaldo Hill did a superb job. It's time for cornerback Andre Woolfolk to show he wasn't a wasted first-round pick. I think this is the season Ben Troupe becomes one of the best receiving tight ends in the league. I was impressed with the young receivers. Defensive end Travis LaBoy showed a lot of improvement and should continue to get better. Reese and his staff have done a good job of rebuilding the offensive line, defensive line and wide receiver over the last three years. Those are not priority areas.

Many players indicated at the end of the '05 season that the Titans had some locker room issues and that the team lacked discipline and leadership. How will Fisher & Co get that resolved?
They've addressed it with every move they've made in free agency. The problem was Pacman Jones dividing the team. I've said on 104.5 The Zone with George, Willy and Darren that I would have brought back Eddie George and told him that his primary responsibility, other than short-yardage situations and playing when Chris Brown and Travis Henry were injured -- would be to mentor Pacman. Eddie is the hardest worker I've ever seen for such a big star. He led by example. You can't have too many Eddie Georges. And if I were Jeff Fisher, I would have told Eddie that if he had to, just go ahead and beat the crap out of Pacman to get his attention. Pacman needs leadership and guidance on that team. There's no one he looks up to enough to pay attention to. He listens to everyone, and they think he'll put it to use, but so far, he hasn't. Perhaps he'll stay clean during the offseason, gain some maturity and show up with a new attitude. That being said, Pacman can play, and I wouldn't cut him. I'd just have a player to beat the hell out of him every time he screwed up.

Though it is early, what would you predict as the final regular season record for the Titans in 2006? How will the AFC South play out? And how long until the Titans are playoff contenders again?
This is impossible to predict at a time like this, but since my picks probably won't be any better when I make them before training camp, here goes: I think the Colts will drop down a little and finish 11-5. I look for Jacksonville to be 11-5 or 10-6. I see the Titans and Texans making the most improvement -- the Titans because they've upgraded their roster with free agency and the draft and the Texans because they've got much better coaching than last season when they were a league-worst 2-14. Let's pick the Titans at 8-8, depending on who starts at quarterback and how well he plays. Let's pick the Texans for 6-10. In other words, the AFC South is getting tighter.

John McClain covered the Oilers from 1977 through 1996 when they left for Tennessee and currently covers the NFL and Texans. He is a past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He can be heard on 104.5 The Zone Tuesday's from 2 until 3 p.m. and Wednesdays from 4 until 6 p.m.  He does a July fundraiser every year to benefit the Charles Davis Foundation. His article archive at the Houston Chronicle website can be found here.

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