NASHVILLE, Tenn. The team that didn’t have a home to call its own for three years is perfect at home.
Perfect as in 12-0 at 14-month-old Adelphia Coliseum, the best start ever by an NFL team in a stadium. Perfect as in the “Music City Miracle” kickoff return last January that helped propel Tennessee into its first Super Bowl, where it fell inches short of beating St. Louis. Perfect as in perfectly happy to bask in the adulation for the Titans that has gripped a town better known for foot-stomping music than football.
“I was astonished at how quickly this city accepted us and supported us and how readily our players wanted to get involved in the community,” said Titans general manager Floyd Reese. “It was important to them because they had been shunned for so many years. It was like, ‘Someone wants my autograph? I’ll be there.’ ”
Just ask 10th-year safety Marcus Robertson.
“We definitely appreciate what we have here,” Robertson said in the massive, carpeted locker room at the Titans’ glistening practice facility. “It was no fun going through what we went through, but we’re a better team because of it.”
What the Titans went through was playing in two states, three cities and four stadiums under three names in four years.
On Aug. 11, 1995, Houston owner Bud Adams announced he was negotiating to move the Oilers to Nashville. Despite improving from 2-14 in 1994 to 7-9, the Oilers’ average attendance sank to 36,000. The following April, the NFL approved the move, effective in 1997. The Oilers were 8-8 in 1996 but averaged fewer than 19,000 for their final three games at the Astrodome.
With the stadium in Nashville not due for completion until 1999, the Oilers planned to play two years in Memphis, practicing during the week at a temporary facility in Nashville and then busing 3 1/2 hours for home games. The Oilers, 8-8 again, averaged barely more than 28,000 at the Liberty Bowl.
“It was like we played 16 away games,” Robertson lamented.
So Adams moved the 1998 games to Vanderbilt Stadium, outmoded but at least in Nashville. The Oilers again went 8-8, and their average attendance of 37,700 was the NFL’s worst for a third straight year.
“It was better than Memphis, but not much,” said 18th-year guard Bruce Matthews, who remembers the glory days in Houston. “When we left Houston, they told us that Tennessee was going to be the land of milk and honey up here and it was worse than the lame-duck year in Houston. We had become a little skeptical if this was going to be all that great of a move. The fans were a little skeptical as well.”
Tara Rowley, a bartender at Second-and-Goal, said quarterback Steve McNair would be ignored when he would come by the sports bar.
“It was like they weren’t our team,” Rowley said.
The team, which used 16 interconnected trailers as its office in 1997 and 1998, and the players, who practiced on two substandard fields, certainly felt the cold shoulders in their various locales.
“For three years, we were a lame-duck team,” said Pro Bowl halfback Eddie George. “It was extremely difficult. You were thinking about everything else other than football. It’s tough to focus on winning a championship when you’re worried about where you’re going to live or how your family’s going to get from city to city when you’re flying from Memphis to Nashville. We were dealing with fans who weren’t really excited. We were pretty much the laughingstock of the league. They weren’t the happiest times, but they made us tougher mentally.”
It helped that Reese, the only GM who used to be a strength coach, and the 42-year-old Fisher, youngest of the seven NFL coaches who played in the league, could relate to their charges’ woes.
“The toughest thing about the NFL is dealing with distractions,” Fisher said. “But after what this team went through for three years, not too much can faze these guys.”
That certainly showed last Sunday at Baltimore. Top cornerback Samari Rolle and starting receiver Carl Pickens were inactive with injuries and George, the team’s linchpin, went out with a sprained knee on his first carry. The Titans mustered little offense, but the defense scored one touchdown and the special teams set up another as they pulled out a critical AFC Central victory. The 14-6 triumph gave Tennessee an NFL-best 25-19 road record over the past four-plus years.
“We would love to be the Rams and score 44 points a game, but that’s not us,” Reese said. “We’re the ugly duckling of the NFL. When the game’s over, you’re going to look at the numbers and say it’s impossible for us to have won, but then you’ll look at the scoreboard and say, ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’
“We might be 6-1, but we’re not overconfident. Every week you’re holding your breath. It’s a war every week, and right now we’re finding a way to win that war.”