After a $100 million off-season shopping spree, Tennessee Titans fans may have been expecting something they'd never seen before from the Two-Toners.
The team offered a 16-9 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers as prima facie evidence that the 2013 edition of the team would clamber from the depths of the colorless, flaccid, barely better than bad football that has plagued the franchise for years.
Certainly, a win in Pittsburgh is laudable. The Steelers as currently constructed are rickety — a more apt name would be the Balsa Wooders, perhaps — but are still the Steelers, the benchmark franchise for the Titans organization dating back to their days in the old AFC Central when Love Ya Blue struggled to crack the mighty Steel Curtain.
But make no mistake: This is a bad Steelers team, and yet the Titans were lucky to beat them, especially after kick returner Darius Reynaud spotted them two points on a safety as baffling as it was amusing.
Luckily for the Titans, Reynaud's cerebral (and patellar) misfire was not the game's key sequence.
The Titans truly exposed themselves on a second-quarter scoring drive: a 12-play drive covering just 49 yards, taking 6:48 off the clock. It was capped with Jackie Battle taking the drive's 11th rush into the end zone for the Titans' only touchdown.
Yes, it was Battle, the twice-cut cast-off, who scored — not superstar Chris Johnson, nor his $10 million backup Shonn Greene.
The drive was akin to watching a man try to pass a kidney stone, with the same sort of excruciating relief at the end of it all.
And it proved that these Titans — new as they promised to be — are clinging to the past.
In a league that now emphasizes high-octane, high-speed offenses and big arms on quarterbacks — with relaxed rules protecting them and giving extra room for flashy receivers to work — the Titans are shrinking the field instead of stretching it.
Yes, Jake Locker struggles with accuracy. No, he'll never have the arm of Peyton Manning. But he is quick on his feet, the sort of hybrid quarterback who has had success in the college game for years.
As more of these types of signal-callers are pumped out, some NFL teams adjust. The Washington Redskins built a playbook around Robert Griffin III's skills, as did the 49ers with Colin Kaepernick. The Eagles hired wild-eyed wizard Chip Kelly to implement the go-go offense he put in at Oregon, and early returns show it fits Michael Vick like a tailored suit.
Instead of expanding the playbook to fit Locker's strengths, though, the Titans are going the other way: limiting the playbook to hide his weaknesses.
It is not innovative. It is retrograde. It is the strategy of a coaching staff that knows their nonagenarian owner is short on patience (and with good reason). It is the decision of men who are willing to fail carefully rather than lose wantonly.
None of this is meant to suggest that such calculation won't work. While Kelly and his ilk have been successful with their bonkers brand of barely contained chaos, the bore-them-to-death bludgeoning tactic has also been a pathway to gridiron glory, particularly in the Big 10.
But it shows a lack of imagination, evidence that old-school coaches like Mike Munchak are content to continue with something, anything that worked in the past, even if that past was decades ago.
It's a problem not limited to football. The Nashville Predators opened training camp this week, and with their return came promises of a return to their identity: "hard to play against" and "hard to match-up with."
Barry Trotz talks of opponents paying an "entertainment tax" when they travel to Nashville, and thus the team paid for bruiser Eric Nystrom and the pugilistic Matt Hendricks.
As constructed, the team looks like the classic Preds teams — no true first line, but rather four basically identical ones. It's a method Trotz has employed to various degrees of success in the past — the best example being the 2010 team, which came within a Marty Erat misfire of beating the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.
But like the Titans' small-ball, the Preds' tough-puck strategy lives in the margins with little room for error. It is structured and strict, and deviation from its tight architecture is disastrous. But when executed properly, it gets the job done.