NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the end, the hope Zach Mettenberger provided wasn’t for this NFL Sunday, but for ones to come.
Expecting more, considering he’s a sixth-round pick asked to lead a struggling team against the game’s premier pass-rusher, turned out to be too much.
It shouldn’t have been, of course. The Tennessee Titans were five games better than Houston in 2013 and both organizations are in their first season under new coaches. Ken Whisenhunt arrived in Nashville and told us it was a team that didn't need time and that had plenty of ingredients.
But the Texans coasted at LP Field and beat Tennessee 30-16. Houston has caught and passed the franchise that used to occupy the Astrodome.
Mettenberger wasn’t going to tackle Arian Foster or intercept Ryan Fitzpatrick, and neither were the guys the Titans hired for those jobs. The rookie quarterback could have helped make up for failures of the defense and the run game with better play early. He could have avoided his interception and lost fumble in a game where turnover-prone Fitzpatrick didn’t give the ball away.
The rest of the Titans should have given Mettenberger a buffer rather than creating additional pressure on him. They simply aren’t good enough for that.
So following another ugly loss, the Titans are 2-6. They are heading into a bye week where they hope to recover from a brutal first half. They are hopeful the remainder of the season will offer opportunities to spring some upsets and alter the franchise’s trajectory.
Mettenberger connected on 27 of 41 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while getting pulled down for two sacks, both by the other-worldly J.J. Watt. It gave the rookie a 93.4 passer rating and a feel for how his week of preparation looked to a guy intending to break him in half once kickoff arrived.
I don't expect Mettenberger to get caught up in a war of words or care much about Watt's thoughts. He doesn't need to change his style so long as he can build off the performance. I cast my vote in favor of personality so long as it comes with production.
“I think he’s an extremely capable quarterback,” said rookie left tackle Taylor Lewan, who’s close friends with Mettenberger. “The guy can sling it, he’s got accuracy, he sits in the pocket. If he takes a hit, he gets up and he loves it. He’s a different breed of quarterback in my opinion. He’s not going to shy away from contact. He’s going to take it and he’s going to keep moving, keep going forward.”
In Mettenberger, the Titans are hitting the reset button again. Resets take time, but the fans are restless or disinterested, since the team is 38-50 since its last playoff appearance in 2008.
He got the team in and out of the huddle efficiently, which is a start. He made a couple of big throws while standing tall in the pocket, like the 48-yard laser down the middle to Kendall Wright.
That and a 43-yard sideline pass to Nate Washington in the fourth were key components in an excellent statistical half: 20-of-28 for 167 yards, two scores and a 134.8 passer rating. Of course, the Texans' defense softened after the game was in hand. They had a 27-3 lead in the third quarter.
“As I kind of settled down and got back to doing what I do and playing football, I was able to let it rip and complete some big balls,” he said. “…We showed in the second half we can do it. We’ve got the right guys on offense to get the job done. We’re still trying to break in a lot of young guys. We work hard and we want to be successful.”
Mettenberger and Whisenhunt both said they’ll need film review to assess just how he did.
The coach calling plays for an offense that is the worst in the league on third down didn’t get the spark he thought might show up with a new quarterback in the huddle. Penalties leading to third-and-longs remain far too frequent.
With two third-down conversions in 12 chances, the Titans' season percentage drops from 31.3 to 29.5.
Mettenberger talked of all he can improve on, but also said he won’t be able to cure things on his own.
“Me being a spark is not just about me,” he said. “There’s 10 other guys on that field that have to help me along. Obviously I can’t make a lot of plays on my own running around. Those 10 other guys, protecting, catching balls, catching tough passes for me is really going to help our offense get better.”