NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Though he played poorly last year and the Titans brought a parade of potential veteran replacements through town during free agency, Eugene Amano remains in place as the Titans' center.
He had surgery on his right knee and left ankle, and said the knee hampered him all of last season. He recently returned to action, and better health should help him if he retains his spot.
But even more significant is the new guy who will line up to his left, veteran guard Steve Hutchinson.
“He’s the glue of that offensive line right now,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “He’s a veteran that’s played a lot of snaps, he knows how to play the game and I think he settles everyone down up front…
“I’ve been very, very pleased with the run game in OTAs and minicamp, we’ve done a good job there. It looks like we’re in sync, all five guys are working well together and I’m anxious to get the pads on when we get back for camp.”
While the Titans offered QB Matt Hasselbeck excellent protection last season, the run game crumbled. Chris Johnson’s effort was ultimately questionable, but he wasn’t finding any room consistently and the ground effort ranked 31st in the league.
Coach Mike Munchak talked about how it was a collective problem that couldn’t be pinned on one or two people: Johnson didn’t always make the right decisions, the offensive line had some communication issues, the fullback and tight ends had busted plays, too. There were different mistakes on different plays and far too few cleanly executed run snaps.
Still, the way the Titans addressed personnel suggested things they thought should be fixed. Fullback Ahmard Hall is gone -- the Titans will go with Quinn Johnson or Collin Mooney. Right guard Jake Scott hit free agency and they didn’t discuss bringing him back. Leroy Harris is flipping to that side to accommodate Hutchinson, who's always been on the left.
And the Titans courted veteran centers Scott Wells, Chris Myers, Jeff Saturday and Dan Koppen but didn’t land one of them and continue to back Amano. His competition is Kevin Matthews, an undrafted free agent from 2010, and William Vlachos, an undrafted rookie.
Hutchinson’s arrival gives the Titans several things.
In 12 seasons with Seattle and Minnesota, he’s seen it all. He’s a standard-setter at practices already. He’s helped solve communication troubles. And the team hopes that he can help Amano the way Kevin Mawae did, back when Mawae was the veteran center and Amano played guard.
Working under two Hall of Fame offensive linemen, Munchak and line coach Bruce Matthews, Hutchinson will now work to spread their messages.
Munchak said he loves the way Hutchinson runs from drill to drill and practice period to practice period. The guard does not pace himself in the early practice offensive line period, but always goes full speed.
“Guys see that and realize that’s the standard,” Munchak said. “That happens automatically. They’re going to be better players just because they see how a guy that’s had success does it.”
Said Amano: “It gives you motivation to keep up with the old guy.”
Munchak talks disappointedly about the communication problems that were a piece of the run struggles last season. He coached the offensive line for 14 seasons before he became head coach last season.
“That’s the first time in awhile we’ve had some of those issues," he said. "That’s something when you have another veteran in there you’re going to have guys that really get along well. The things they’re doing, the adjustments they are making, the calls they are making -- it’s so much ahead of where you think they’d be this time of year.”
That’s not only about line calls and adjustments that linemen need to analyze correctly and communicate clearly, Hutchison said, but about a degree of non-verbal communication and understanding the group has to have.
And the defenses the Titans face are increasingly unpredictable up front. In the AFC South, the Texans changed to a 3-4 last season and the Colts are making the switch this year. It used to be clear where guys like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis would be. Now there will be mystery to it as Indianapolis tries to create confusion.
In considering the Titans’ run blocking, I wrote recently that they don’t necessarily have to be a top-flight rushing offense in order to be a good team. A great pass-blocking unit that’s middle of the pack as a run offense can be good enough overall to win.
Hutchinson and the Titans aren’t going to co-sign that thinking.
They’ll strive for balance and want to execute every play the way it’s drawn up. But he did say there is only so much an offense can do.
“You’d like to be great at both, but there are only so many offensive yards you can get a game,” he said. “If you’re throwing the ball for 300-plus yards a game, you’re not going to run the ball that much. If you have the ball for 45 minutes in a game and running for 200 yards on the ground, you’re not going to throw the ball that much.
“You strive for a good balance of both, you want to be good at both. But you just want to get the yards, you want to win the game.”