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VOL. 37 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 4, 2013

Titans' best seasons featured emergency QB changes

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Former Tennessee quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who took over for Steve McNair during the Titans’ drive to the Super Bowl in 1999, knows what Ryan Fitzpatrick can expect in the coming weeks.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Jake Locker’s sprained hip certainly puts a damper on the encouraging developments he’s shown the past two weeks.

Beginning the week before with his 94-yard game-winning drive to beat San Diego, and continuing Sunday with three touchdown passes against the New York Jets, Locker had even the most skeptical of Titans fans believing he had turned the corner and was showing signs of becoming a quality NFL quarterback.

That goal might yet become reality, but that notion has been shelved for the next few weeks while Locker recovers and the Titans go on without him.

The Titans announced Tuesday that surgery will not be required, lessening Locker’s recovery time.

It’s been a while, but the Titans have been here before.

In fact, in two of their most successful seasons since arriving in Nashville, the Titans have had to turn things over to a backup quarterback for a sizable portion of the campaign.

In 1999, Steve McNair underwent back surgery after a season-opening win against Cincinnati, and the Titans called on veteran Neil O’Donnell, who guided Tennessee to a 4-1 record while McNair was on the mend.

O’Donnell’s steady play was key in keeping the Titans on track. The club eventually finished 13-3, won the AFC Championship and reached the Super Bowl.

Nine years later, in 2008, the Titans were faced with a different situation but found a similar result as veteran backup Kerry Collins.

Collins’ emergence came following Vince Young’s injury/meltdown in the season opener, as he guided the Titans to a 10-0 start en route to a 13-3 season and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

In both cases, the Titans had a trusted, veteran backup who was able to not only steady the situation but lead the team to successful seasons.

Now, the Titans hope it is Ryan Fitzpatrick, a starter for the Buffalo Bills last year, can come in and duplicate what O’Donnell and Collins did before him.

O’Donnell says one of Fitzpatrick biggest obstacles will be going from no attention to becoming the center of attention.

“Ryan is stepping into a team that’s brought excitement back to this city,” O’Donnell says. “He’s not coming in for a team that’s 1-3 and needs a spark.

“You go from having no one at your locker to now having the media hype back in Nashville, Tennessee, being 3-1 and playing a 4-0 Kansas City Chiefs team, and having the starting quarterback out of the picture.”

Collins says the biggest thing Fitzpatrick can do as the starting quarterback is make sure his teammates know there will be no drop-off in the expectations.

“You know the team is counting on you to lead them and you want to show them they can win with you in there,” Collins says.

Fitzpatrick says he understands what is needed.

“I was brought here for a reason,” the Harvard University grad explains. “The reason I was brought here was to help Jake out and be ready for a situation like this if it came up.

Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick hands off in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the Jets. Fitzpatrick stepped in after starting quarterback Jake Locker suffered a hip and knee injury.

-- Ap Photo/Wade Payne

“Jake’s had a great start to the season in terms of everything he’s been able to do. (He has) been real smart with the football, making big plays with his feet, throwing touchdowns.

“For me, now, if he’s not in there, then this is why they brought me here – no longer to tutor Jake and help him along but to help win football games for this team.”

There are adjustments to be made by coaches and players in order to tailor the offense more to Fitzpatrick’s skill set. The same thing held true for O’Donnell when he spelled McNair and for Collins when he took over for Young.

One of the more noticeable differences, O’Donnell says, was the change from a scrambler to a pocket passer, a situation that is once again in play with the shift from the mobile Locker to Fitzpatrick.

“Steve was very good at improvising in the pocket, and I was more about getting rid of the football as quickly as possible. That will be a change for the offensive line,” O’Donnell explains.

“When you have a scrambling quarterback, the offensive line doesn’t always know where he is, but now the line is gonna know where Ryan Fitzpatrick is gonna be holding shop. And it’s a benefit for the line to know where he’s gonna be.

“He has a chemistry with his receivers because he’s been in training camp with them, and he’s been a starter before. I think he’ll get with Dowell Loggains, and they’ll get rid of things like the naked bootleg.

“I think you’re gonna see a lot more slants, inside routes and more stick routes to tight end.

“I think they’ll limit Ryan’s reads and let him get the ball out quickly.”

How well Fitzpatrick does over the next several weeks could determine just how successful the Titans’ promising 2013 season ultimately becomes.

While Collins kept the starting job for the remainder of the 2008 season, thanks in part to Young’s emotional issues, Fitzpatrick’s role is likely to more closely mirror O’Donnell’s in 1999.

In other words, when Locker is ready to come back and start, he will do so.

“I was a starter for so many years for Pittsburgh and the Jets, but when I came here, I knew it was Steve’s team. I knew what I was signing up for,” O’Donnell adds.

“I wasn’t bitter about handing the ball back to Mac, because it was about the team winning and the team having fun playing football.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is a blogger for National Football Post.

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