Ye gods, the disintegration of the Flaming Thumbtacks is so agonizing, it has inspired an onslaught of reader haiku:
My mighty Titans
stumbled: boo-boos and damned cap.
Can we start over?
Eddie is hobbled.
DBs so terribly bad.
Titans games are lame
Titans lose again.
Music City Miracle?
Seems so long ago.
Considering the Titans were a purist's team—efficient OL, power running, built around defense—it's hard to accept they are gasping for breath at fifth place in their division and Sunday just barely beat cellar-dwelling Jax. Tennessee is 3-5 stretching back to the point last season when it finished with the best record in football. Last year: Titansfirst overall in defense, seventh rushing. This year: 27th defense, 26th rushing.
The football gods continue to punish
But there is bad football afoot, too. The Thumbtacks had many sal-cap deletions, especially among DBs. Management was complacent about the team's continuing weakness at WR. Last season great blocking papered over a lot of the Titans' offensive shortcomings, but injuries and age have depleted the OL. Eddie George has been looking like he's run so hard, he has used his body up young. Watch Jerome Bettis carefully—despite his rep, he jukes constantly to avoid contact while rarely lowering his shoulder. That's why he's still barreling after nine years. George lowers his shoulder on almost every run, and it's started to catch up to him.
Things could get worse for the Thumbtacks, who are already wayover next year's cap. Which brings us to the team's emblematic offseason mystery move, Kevin Carter.
The Titans traded a No. 1 pick for the flashy but erratic DE, first saying goodbye to steady DE Kenny Holmes to make cap room. This though Carter played himself out of the Rams lineup in 2000. Carter has been a let-down for the Titans, too—never think you're going to marry them first, then change them! He plays strictly for sack stats, ignoring the run. On Sunday, Jax's Mark Brunnell had a long scramble to set up a TD when Carter sprint-rushed so far up the field he looked like he was running a pass pattern, leaving his "under" responsibility exposed. Brunnell took off like he'd been lying in wait for this classic sack-obsessed DE's mistake. To top it off, the T's moved Pro Bowler Jevon Kearse from left end, his natural position, to right because Carter said he could only play left; Holmes was happy to line up wherever coaches wanted him.
Carter may become an expensive discard. He signed for what looked like a $10 million bonus, and in theory a gentleman who just cashed a huge check cannot be cut for years because proration of the bonus would crash-land onto the salary cap. Carter's agent boasted that the deal made his client waiver-proof—funny that he was worried about this. But Carter actually got $3 million up front ($1.5 million per sack so far); the balance is a "split bonus," due next winter. Here's the math: If Tennessee pays the second bonus, Carter will count $2.4 million against the 2002 cap and much more against future caps. If he is released, the 2002 cap charge would be an all but identical $2.5 million. So from a cap standpoint, the man practically has a sign taped to his back that says WAIVE ME. If the Titans keep him, Carter will haunt the team's cap for years, whereas if they cut him, he'll be gone from the books in 2003.