Guts, near glory for Nate Washington

Receiver Nate Washington battled multiple injuries to help keep the Titans competitive on Sunday. Don McPeak/US Presswire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nate Washington didn’t need to illustrate that he was ailing during his postgame chat with reporters in the locker room. We believed him.

But as his (bad) luck would have it, while he discussed a re-aggravated ankle injury and back troubles, he endured another wave of back spasms.

He passed on an invitation to sit. Then later he asked if it was OK if he moved to a chair.

Washington was the offensive star for the Titans in a 22-17 loss to New Orleans that damaged their playoff hopes but also showed that in bad circumstances they can hang with one of the NFL’s best teams. Tennessee had several chances to win it at the end, largely thanks to Washington’s six catches for 130 yards and a touchdown.

The career high in receiving yardage came after a week of no practice because of the painful ankle injury he suffered last week in Buffalo.

It didn’t come in a win, but it’s the pinnacle of his time in Tennessee.

He signed a six-year, $27 million contract with $9 million guaranteed in 2009. In his first two seasons after signing as a free agent from Pittsburgh, he was best known for his drops and he faced more questions about immaturity than the sort of big plays the Titans were expecting.

But all kind of forces have converged in one place for Washington this season, among them a new coaching staff, two new quarterbacks and an early season-ending injury to No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt.

He came into the day as the NFL leader in third-down receptions, a true sign of quarterback and playcaller confidence.

And it’s not overstating to say he’s been transformed.

In 2009 and 2010, he could be a mouthy, overly rambunctious locker-room presence, often in the center of loud debates after practice, arguments that could reach nonsensical levels.

He’s mellowed considerably, often coming across as contemplative, running his hand through his beard while speaking in low tones.

I think he used to think he was underrated, and he could bristle when asked about drops or even when he overheard a teammate being asked about one. Now, though he’s put himself in few bad situations, he qualifies as stand-up.

Initially reluctant to shift inside to the slot in three-wide packages, he’s thrived there.

The team is relying on him much more.

“The mentality of this team has taken me there,” Washington said. “I owe a lot to [receivers coach] Dave Ragone and to this coaching staff. They really believe in me.”

In what might have ranked as the biggest play of the game had the Titans found a way to win, Washington made an incredibly heady choice despite his throbbing ankle and pulsing back.

After he pulled in a 40-yard catch at the New Orleans 5-yard line and got pinballed by two defenders, he was hurting big time. Still, he had the presence of mind to get up and get set to allow Jake Locker to spike the ball and stop the clock with 7 seconds left.

Washington then went down, and attentive teammate Chris Johnson literally dragged him off the field.

Had officials had to stop the clock after either play, the Titans would have been subject to a 10-second runoff because they had no timeouts, and the game would have ended.

“I knew I had to get up, that time was short,” he said. “At the same time, my ankle was hurting so bad. Somebody had hit me in my back and I started having spasms. I have to be better. I could have done a better job. I wish I could have stayed in, I wish I could have given these guys a little more.”

Said Ragone: “His football intelligence and IQ are, maybe not downplayed, just not talked about. He’s always talking about coverage. And the one thing that I respect is that when he’s telling me something, I can see it on film that he’s right most of the time. It’s good evidence on his part that he can recognize it and give it back. It allows the quarterback to trust him more, too.”

Washington repeatedly mentioned how he wasn’t “hanging his crown” on anything he’s done yet. He was sure to talk up his teammates and the Titans’ warrior mentality. He said he wasn’t the only guy hurting and working through it, just perhaps the most visible. He also spoke out against what he viewed as dirty play by Saints safety Roman Harper.

He’s a leader now. Back when he first met Ragone, it’s something the position coach told Washington should be expected of a seventh-year guy.

“A lot of these guys are looking to me now as a guy who’s going to push them in the right direction,” Washington said. “So with that being said I know I have to fly straight, I have to do things right. I’m not afraid of it, I accept it. From now on whenever these guys need me, I’ll be there...”

“I’m happy about the progress that I’ve made, but I think I have a long way to go. I think I have a lot more learning to do and I have a lot more plays that I can make.”