The Brat Pac

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July 25, 2007
The Brat Pac

by Ric Sweeney

For all the Matt Schaub trading, Amobi Okoye drafting, and Rick Smith hiring the Texans did this winter, it was an altogether separate, non-Texan-initiated transaction that may ultimately do more for the 2007 Texans than Schaub, Okoye and Smith combined.

And that something was NFL commissioner Roger Godell suspending Tennessee’s Pac-Man Jones for the season.

Baby Vince received the lion’s share of the credit last year for Tennessee’s 8-3 finish but a closer inspection (read: less Vince-obsessed) reveals Baby Vince was Live Free or Die Hard to Pac-Man’s Die Hard. Blasphemy, I know, especially in these parts where Baby Vince swims leisurely in a pool of hero. But, let’s be honest: his legend (in relation to his actual impact on the Titans) has been severely overblown. He finished 2006 with the 30th-best passer rating in football; his average yards per attempt ranked 31st. And the guy barely completed 50% of his passes (51.5%).

Oh, I know – wins are the only number that matter. And I agree. But a closer look at Tennessee’s 8 wins reveals decidedly non-Baby Vince markings.

In their first win of the year, it was Travis Henry, not Baby Vince, doing all the heavy lifting as Henry rushed for 178 yards (which, by the way, without looking anything up, would have made him Houston’s leading rusher last year). In fact, here is a play-by-play recap of Tennessee’s game-winning drive: Henry for 9 yards; Henry for 12 yards; Henry for 3 yards; Chris Brown for 4 yards; and Henry for 2 yards. Rod Bironas’ 31-yard field goal is good and the Titans win, 25-22. Notice: it was decidedly Vince-free; he didn’t even attempt a pass. And yet, ESPN’s headline Monday morning? Young gets first NFL win, rallies Titans past Redskins.

And so it went all year long; the myth of Baby Vince growing uncontrollably each and every Sunday… even when Tennessee’s defense scored three touchdowns to help the Titans beat Jacksonville, 24-17 (do the math to understand the significance) – all we heard about was Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince.

But lost in the rush to secure space on Baby Vince’s privates were the efforts of Pac-Man Jones. The Titans were a perfect 4-0 in games in which Jones forced a turnover, thrice setting Baby Vince and the offense up with the ball in opponent territory in those four games. He returned the other interception 83 yards for a touchdown. As a punt returner, Pac-Man totaled 6 returns of 20 or more yards and scored three touchdowns; same number as Devin Hester and his 100-point Madden speed only in 13 fewer attempts.

Most impressively, in a single fourth quarter against the Giants, which the Titans began trailing 24-3, Jones intercepted two passes (setting Baby Vince up at the Giants’ 46 and 49-yard line) and returned a punt 23 yards (setting Baby Vince up at the Giants’ 36). Three times in a 15-minute stretch, Jones cut the field in half for his offense that was hurriedly trying to wipe-out a 21-point deficit. And ESPN’s headline after Tennessee completed the comeback? Young rallies Titans from 21-point deficit to stun Giants.

What’s my point? It’s not that Baby Vince is overrated (though, he is); it’s that Pac-Man Jones was every bit as integral as Young to Tennessee’s remarkable finish. And you could make a solid case for Jones being more important given Baby Vince’s unremarkable numbers.

And now he’s gone. For the entire season. And while Jones’ off-field exploits and subsequent suspension have certainly gotten its fair share of press, his actual impact on the Titans and how much that team is going to miss him has not. Mainly because far too many believe Baby Vince has the power to conjure up little Mini Pac-Men to take his place using only clay and his sweet, soulful tenor voice, at least based on the number of “experts” who think Tennessee’s 8 wins in their final 11 last season was a preview of things to come in 2007.

It won’t be.

Simply put, the Titans overachieved last year; WAY overachieved. They were like a riotously funny episode of Two and a Half Men. Tennessee was outscored over the course of their 16-game schedule in 2006. Wait – I know: He didn’t start the first three games. Well they were outscored in Baby Vince’s 13 starts, too. Hold it! I realize He was a rookie who hadn’t yet harnessed his magical skill of rallying teams to victory despite not actually performing His position at even an average level of competency in his first two starts: They were also outscored in the team’s 8-3 finish, too.

More than anything else, that is a sign of a team deep sea diving in an ocean of good fortune. A regression in 2007 is not only likely, it should be mandatory. And that was BEFORE they lost their best defensive player for the entire season.

And with Tennessee sharing a division with our beloved Texans and their roster of choir boys who have never been suspended, that could come in mighty handy this year on several fronts.

First, a falling off in the land of Baby Vince would buy Houston and its rebuilding efforts some much-needed space locally (where the sting of Mario Williams not being Young or Reggie Bush is still throbbing). Legitimate excitement is building in the Bayou City for the first time in a long time, and it’s NOT being directed eastward toward Tennessee.

But with that excitement comes a side order of expectations. And those become even trickier to handle when a team like the Titans, with all its Houston ties, is casting a shadow over your operation.

So a 6 or 7-win season for the Titans grants Bob McNair, Gary Kubiak, Williams and Matt Schaub a chance to fall down, learn from their mistakes and make the long journey to respectability without having to constantly have the “heroic” efforts of everyone’s favorite former Houstonian shoved down their throats at every turn.

More importantly, obviously – the Titans are on the schedule twice a year and Kubiak’s regime could desperately use a “19-10” moment to really drop an exclamation point on the amazing progress this team has made in such a short time. And I can’t think of a better statement than sucker-punching Tennessee in Reliant Stadium near the end of October.

Because lost in the ongoing Mario/Reggie/Baby Vince saga that all but swallowed the 2006 season was how much better this team was – six wins plus two losses on the game’s final play just a year removed from being the undoubtedly worst team in football represented an epic turnaround.

And all we heard was Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince, Vince.

Now the Texans are poised to build on that with a plethora of solid additions in free agency and the draft. And jumping back in front of the Pac-Man-less Titans would solidify to a still-edgy fan base that it’s time to jump on board full-time.

Next week, we’ll look at one last change the Texans still need to make.

Ric Sweeney sometimes wishes his columns would unexpectedly cut to black for ten seconds.

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