Departures put more pressure on McNair

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Remember the Titans. Steve McNair does. He remembers when the Titans were the orphan child of a franchise dispute between the city of Houston and owner Bud Adams.

Then, they were the Houston Oilers. McNair and running back Eddie George were the young stars of the future. They survived the move from Houston to Memphis. Unfortunately, Memphis only treated the Titans like the end of an Elvis Presley concert. They couldn't wait for the Titans to leave the building.

McNair stood by his locker recently, suddenly feeling a little alone. George was a salary cap casualty. Defensive end Jevon Kearse, a star since hitting Nashville in 1999, went off to Philadelphia for a rich contract the Titans couldn't match. Tight end Frank Wychek, he of the Music City Miracle and a lot of critical chain moving completions, has retired. A lot of Titan memories slipped out the door in a short period of time.

"Eddie is going to be missed, both on and off the field," McNair said. "He's a good friend of mine. We communicated together. We shared different things. We had leadership roles. If I wasn't going right, he'd save me.

"This is a tough business. You make friends over the course of your career. You remember all the stuff we went through in Houston and in Memphis. It's a hard pill to swallow. I'm probably the third oldest guy on this team. I'm the veteran leader. Now, you wonder when it's my time."

McNair looks around a locker room and sees a new generation of Titans. He's 31 going on 40. The environment is different. In at least three parts of the locker room, computerized DVDs were playing every kind of movie -- from comedy to drama. Third- and fourth-year veterans were shouting and hollering as they shaved ugly haircuts on the top of heads of rookies. Innocent child's play, no less, compared to what McNair lost this spring and summer.

He lost his peers. His Airness stands almost alone as the man in charge of carrying the franchise. George offered toughness and was a model for professionalism and conditioning. Kearse was the flashy defender, able to make the incredible plays when least expected. Wycheck was Mr. Dependable. Without them, McNair had to broaden the shoulders he uses to carry the team.

"I'm a little bigger in my upper body," McNair said. "I needed to beef up to handle the beating of 16 games. I'm up to 238 to 240 so I can take a little more beating."

In the Titans press guide, the team lists McNair's injuries through the years. From 1997 to present, 30 different injuries were listed. Included were five surgeries (back, big toe, shoulder and ankle bone spurs.). Yet, he's missed only eight games during that stretch. Only Brett Favre has started more games during that stretch.

Can the Titans replace George, Kearse and Wycheck?

"The approach we have at halfback is kind of like the approach we're taking with Jevon at defensive end," coach Jeff Fisher said. "It's difficult to replace him with one player. You have to put a couple guys in there and keep them fresh."

Though George's productivity dipped in the past three years, he was still a dependable commodity. He didn't miss a game in eight seasons. Fisher could bang him into the line of scrimmage 20 to 30 times a game and maintain their formula for winning.

Chris Brown is an interesting replacement for George. First of all, he's deceptive in many ways. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Brown surprises you with his speed. His running style is that of Eric Dickerson because of his high leg kick. His knees go high as he approaches the line.

Using Brown, it's a reasonable expectation that the days of sub-4.0 yard per carry averages are over. George averaged 3.3 yards a carry or less for three seasons. Brown averaged 3.9 yards a carry last year and gained 96 yards and had a 5.3 yard average during the playoffs.

"I think my running style goes back to high school when I used to be a hurdler," Brown said. "It's natural for me. It keeps the legs moving. My knees are always coming up high. That's deceptive. When defenders try to come up on me and I'm moving fast, the safety will take a bad angle. They won't know how fast you are really moving."

A 4-yard plus average might be easier than guessing how many carries Brown can handle in a game. Durability has been an issue for him. Last season, he suffered a freakish hamstring injury in training camp that took him until mid-season to shake. It probably didn't bode well the Titans rested him during the first day of a three-day scrimmage against the Falcons because a hamstring was a little tight.

Fisher isn't worried. Brown worked hard this offseason on flexibility. He stretched and stretched and stretched. He used a big ball to further stretch the hamstrings.

"Chris Brown and Antowain Smith can carry the load for us," Fisher said. "Both are unselfish players. We need 24 carries a game from them. That's where you want to be. The average per carry or yards rushing are not as important as being able to carry the ball that often. That means you're close in games. The stats have shown when we've had 24 plus carries, we've won the ball game.''

The organization designated almost half of its draft to filling in the void for departed defensive linemen Kearse and Robaire Smith. No doubt, the Titans are a defensive line factory. They've made Kearse, Smith, Kenny Holmes, Jason Fisk and John Thornton multi-millionaires on contracts from other teams.

There are a few givens in the NFL. Mike Shanahan can find 1,000-yard running backs. Because of the cap money devoted to offensive players, the Colts produce linebackers other teams pluck after four seasons. And the Titans produce defensive linemen.

Imagine the free agent class of 2008 if they do it right. The Titans drafted three of the top five defensive ends on their board -- Antwan Odom, Travis LaBoy and Bo Schobel. Defensive tackle Randy Starks was the sixth-rated tackle on their board. In their eyes, they landed roughly four of the 10 best defensive linemen in the draft.

The problem is getting them to replace the most talented defensive end ever to wear a Titans uniform -- Kearse.

"We've got to get some play out of younger players," Fisher said. "They are going to have to be in there 35 to 38 plays a game. You know Jevon didn't play 60 plays a game. He was in 40 to 45 plays a game."

But Kearse was a threat who put fear in offensive linemen. Offensive coordinators always had to account for him. Odom, LaBoy and Starks have to make names for themselves. Schobel is lost until mid-season with a foot fracture.

One player who must come through is Carlos Hall, who replaces Kearse in the starting lineup. Hall caught everyone by surprise during his rookie season, A seventh-round choice, the 261-pound Hall had eight sacks in 13 games filling in for an injured Kearse. He had three in four starts last year as blockers adjusted to him.

Hall entered this camp knowing he needed to add to his arsenal of moves to beat blockers if he's going to succeed.

"A lot of critics don't think I can get the job done," Hall said. "I just have to add more things to my game. I was basically a speed rusher from the edge when I first got here. The game has changed. Quarterbacks set up at six yards. To get around the tackle at the edge is nine yards."

So Hall is working on his power moves inside. He feels he is a pretty good bull rusher. He's working on the Reggie White hump move in which he clubs a blocker inside and tries to lift him to throw him off balance.

Yes, these Titans are going to be different. Brown will try to copy the Eric Dickerson style. Hall is studying Reggie White and Kearse moves. And in some cases, two or three bodies are taking over for one.

"This is going to be a different, new style of running back for us," McNair said. "It will be a lot quicker and a lot faster. Chris can come out and use his quickness. We can run a lot of screens with Chris to slow down pass rushes. We can put him in the passing game and get him the ball at five yards and let him use his quickness to gain 10 more."

But will those young players achieve those goals? It's going to be different.

Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.