Remember the Titans?

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Fisher knows life in the shadows. He lived it in college, when he was the faceless fourth in a USC secondary that featured Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Joey Browner.

Fisher lived it in the pros, when he played cornerback for five years with the Chicago Bears and picked up a Super Bowl ring, even though an ankle injury sidelined him for all of 1985, their season in the spotlight.

So it's as if he has been groomed for decades to coach the Tennessee Titans, the team that fanfare forgot.

"We're kind of quietly winning games," said Fisher, whose team has won 16 of 19 and last week tied a franchise record by scoring more than 30 points in a fifth consecutive game. "We like to think we win the ones we're supposed to, and then we win many of the ones we're not supposed to. We've got a pretty good thing going here."

Not everyone notices. At one point late last season, Steve McNair ranked near the bottom of AFC quarterbacks in fan voting for the Pro Bowl, even though he led the Titans to 10 victories in their last 11 games and an AFC South title. Tennessee was on "Monday Night Football" once last season and will be on once this season. Nary a Titan was voted into the 2002 Pro Bowl, even though McNair finished third in most-valuable-player voting.

Announcers mistakenly referred to McNair as "Steve Fisher" so frequently it became a running joke.

Last season, the eternally youthful Fisher grew a salt-and-pepper beard, the ideal accouterment for a man coaching a team lodged in the NFL's witness-protection program. He has since gone back to wearing only a mustache, never giving a reason why he grew the beard in the first place.

Outside Tennessee, no one asked. Said offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger: "I don't know if a lot of people ever get to see us."

If they don't, they should. The Titans (6-2), who reached the Super Bowl in 1999, where they lost to St. Louis, have had double-digit victories in three of four seasons. They overcame a 1-4 start last season to finish 11-5 and advance to the AFC championship game, where they suffered a 24-21 defeat at Oakland.

Most impressively, they have continued to win despite a dramatic offensive metamorphosis. McNair, in his seventh season as a starter, has grown from a raw, error-prone liability who was at his best when handing off to Eddie George into one of football's most dangerous weapons.

The Titans have followed suit. Once a team that turned to the run first, last and in between, they now have the AFC's second-ranked passing offense and a quarterback who leads the league with a 105.1 passer rating.

"He's playing the best football he's played since he's been in the league," said Miami Coach Dave Wannstedt, whose Dolphins play at Tennessee today. "I've never heard of a 129 quarterback rating on third down. I don't even know how you compute that."

As injuries and ineffectiveness have caused George to recede into the background, McNair has stepped forward and carried the team, just as the Titans had hoped he would when they selected him third overall in the 1995 draft.

Only recently, it seems, are the masses starting to notice how good he is.

"Steve's gotten a lot of attention in the last three or four weeks," Fisher said. "We've been asked all of a sudden, 'When did Steve come on the scene? How did this all take place? What are you doing differently?' And I just point out that when we drafted Steve in 1995 we had a plan."

Fisher is the first to admit that even the best plans need tweaking. When people used to ask him what he'd do if a defense stopped the run, he had a stock answer: "Run it harder." What would you expect from a Woodland Hills Taft High kid who grew up a teammate of Charles White at USC and Walter Payton with the Bears? Passing was an acquired taste.

"We're at the point now with the people we've surrounded Steve with, the skill positions, where we don't have to be so hard-headed," he said. "We can pick it up and throw it."

A major turning point came last season, when, after the team started 1-4, Fisher motioned Heimerdinger into his office. The offensive coordinator feared the worst.

"I was sure I was going to be fired," he said.

Instead, Fisher told him he wanted him making offensive decisions from the field, not the press box. That would give Heimerdinger the chance to talk to McNair during the game with a coach-to-quarterback radio. (A coach must be on the field when using that, not watching the game from a bird's-eye view.)

The Titans won their next four games before losing at Baltimore, 13-12.

"After that game, Jeff came to me and said, 'Let's let them loose. Let's score some points,' " said Heimerdinger, whose quarterback threw three touchdown passes the next Sunday in a 32-29 overtime victory at the New York Giants.

"That was so much fun," Heimerdinger said. "I was making up plays in the headset. Steve thought he was back at Alcorn State. I'd say, 'This guy's thinking about this, so let's go with this.' He'd raise his hand in the huddle and say, 'OK. Gotcha.' It was kind of drawing up plays in the dirt. It was a blast."

Games like those embody what Fisher has striven to create in Tennessee. He wants his players to have fun.

He loves it when they pull into the parking lot at team headquarters, get out of their cars and jog into the facility as if they want to be there.

"This game should be fun," he said.

And for the Titans it has been. Whether or not anyone on the outside notices.

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