On the turmoil in Tennessee

In late October, the Tennessee Titans had the best record in the AFC South. They were flying high at 5-2 and had won 13 of their last 17 games. A no-name defence was earning a stellar reputation and Vince Young was holding his own as the starting quarterback.

Three months later, the Titans have cut Young, came close to firing the league’s longest-tenured head coach and have now lost their defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.

Tennessee, which lost eight of its last nine games in 2010, has become the clear-cut bottom-feeder in the division, and might be on the verge of falling right off the map. Jeff Fisher is coming back for a lame-duck season, but the odds appear to be stacked heavily against a team in flux.

Thursday’s firing of defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was surprising for two reasons. 1) Cecil was supposed to have a bright future as a defensive coach and didn’t get a lot of help from his personnel this season, and 2) the move came almost three weeks after the end of the regular season. The Titans have now missed out on a multitude of potential replacements who have already signed elsewhere.

One of the top potential replacements would have been defensive line coach Jim Washburn. Washburn is probably the most reputable d-line coach in the game, and the team let him walk to Philadelphia to take the same position there just two days before Cecil was relieved of his duties.

Maybe Washburn was sensing that the stool was about to hit the fan in Nashville. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall for Cecil and saw that the team has a slew of veterans slated to become free agents this offseason and he jumped ship before things went from bad to worse. He must have either felt a promotion to defensive coordinator wasn’t coming his way, or maybe he wouldn’t have even accepted such an offer to join Fisher on his sinking ship.

It appears as though that was the case. “Inside Baptist Sports Park the 61-year-old coach had made it known he would be looking for another job,” wrote the Tennessean’s Jim Wyatt, “because he wanted more long-term security and was dissatisfied with some facets of the Titans’ defense.”

Washburn’s lines in Tennessee were top-notch, year in and year out. He got the best out of Albert Haynesworth — something the Redskins haven’t been able to do — and he turned journeymen like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jason Babin into sack masters. Guys like Antwan Odom, Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith also had their best years in Tennessee.

Eleven defensive linemen left Tennessee during Washburn’s tenure, signing free-agent contracts for a grand total of $355 million.

“Washburn is one of the few Titans coaches that has been stellar through thick and thin,” wrote the Music City Miracles blog. “As it has been noted many times, he creates stars.”

And now a frustrated Washburn has hit the road, leaving the Titans panicking to find replacements before free agency launches (whenever that is). Babin, who led the team with 12.5 sacks this season, is slated to become a free agent, as is defensive end Dave Ball. Don’t be surprised if those guys consider following their leader to Philly — hell, Albert Haynesworth is already stating his desire to reunite with Washburn.

Cecil and Washburn weren’t the only position coaches to ditch Fisher this week (by choice or not). Assistant Craig Johnson — who had spent the last nine years coaching quarterbacks and running backs — jumped to Minnesota Tuesday to become the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach.

If it isn’t a mass exodus, it’s close.

Fisher can only hope that the trend doesn’t continue when/if free agency gets underway. The Titans have a lot of holes to fill and several important players — Babin, Ball, defensive end Jacob Ford, quarterback Kerry Collins, fullback Ahmard Hall, guard Leroy Harris, tight end Bo Scaife and linebackers David Thornton and Stephen Tulloch — are slated to hit the open market.

Oh, and they don’t appear to have a starting quarterback.

In a solid division, the smart route for the Titans would be to cut their losses, admit that they’re in a bad spot and commit to a retooling. The problem is that Fisher will be coaching for his financial future in 2011, and he’s faced with what appears to be an impossible task.

Remember the Titans that contended for the Super Bowl annually? Those days are officially long gone.