Friday, August 09, 2002

Titans beginning to make tough decisions

The Tennessean

        NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The eyes are everywhere. The eyes of Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher and his assistant coaches, of general manager Floyd Reese and director of player personnel Rich Snead, of all of the team's scouts.

        They are on the field each day reviewing, deciding which players will stay, which players will go. Sometimes it's just a look, a nod, a hushed discussion off to the side, but they are making choices.

        They want to see good practice habits. They want to see players who know where to be, who have studied the playbook. They want players athletic enough to make the plays once they know them.

        “We talk a lot about the importance of every practice, every (repetition), but for some guys, I don't think it really sinks in until this time of year,” Fisher said. “We're picking the team that will open against the Eagles and there aren't that many days left.”

        Before the season opener against Philadelphia on Sept. 8, names will be crossed off the roster, playbooks handed in. A long list of young, eager players will be told it's a numbers game and that their number is up.

        NFL rosters must be cut to 65 on Aug. 27 and to 53 on Sept. 1 (the expansion Houston Texans have until Sept. 23). The Titans currently have 85 players, so that means more than a third (about 37 percent) will not be there in four weeks when the preseason work is all but done.

        Saturday night, when the Titans play their preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams in the Coliseum, the eyes also want to see who can perform when the bright lights are on.

        “What a guy does in a game is a reflection on what he has done in practice, in minicamp and in training camp,” said running backs coach Sherman Smith, who had a nine-year playing career with the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers. “I've never seen a guy who was a Sunday-only player.

        “A guy who doesn't practice well, doesn't remember what he's supposed to, isn't going to be able to play. But there are times where a guy practices great, always in the right spot, knows the playbook, and he just blows a fuse on a game day. He's not going to make it either, because he can't handle the pressure.”

        Few positions provide a better glimpse of what will go into selecting the final roster this year than Smith's group at running back.

        There are currently eight, but only four are expected to remain. Quickly put aside Eddie George (franchise running back) and Greg Comella (free agent fullback) and that leaves six players battling for two spots.

        George is getting a big chunk of the preseason carries, leaving the others to do whatever they can to get noticed. Smith said he looks at everything a player brings to the table. Can he play special teams? Can he do more than just take handoffs?

        “Every year is different, and this one is, too,” said Skip Hicks, who had the Titans' best rushing game in 2001. “You just try to make the most of every single opportunity you have to show what you can do.”

        “You just try to show what you can do every time you touch the ball,” said Rafael Cooper, who signed with the Titans last August, was released shortly after and played in NFL Europe this year. “A guy like me, too, I'm trying to make the team as a kick returner. It might help if you can do more things and I'll do whatever they want me to.”

        Hicks and Robert Holcombe, veterans signed in free agency, will earn $700,000 each this season if they're on the roster Sept. 1. In today's NFL, when saving a few thousand bucks against the salary cap can be vital to a team's makeup, keeping both may not be feasible.

        A first-year player like Cooper or John Simon, who had a 58-yard reception for a touchdown in the scrimmage with the Miami Dolphins last Saturday, would earn the league minimum, $225,000.

        Also in the mix are Dan Alexander, a 2001 draft pick, and Mike Green, a 2000 draft pick. Alexander was among the final cuts in last year's training camp, but he was signed to the practice squad and later promoted to the active roster. Green, who has moved to fullback, has made the roster the last two years.

        They all know the eyes are watching, forgiving little.

        “I'd say 50, 60 percent of the decision is what they do on the practice field, because it's going to be difficult to put them in a game situation if they haven't shown they can compete,” Fisher said. “But in the end, things always have a way of sorting themselves out. We decide and we go. That's just how it is.”


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