|Mark Humphrey / Associated Press|
|Alge Crumpler joined the Titans after spending his first seven NFL seasons in Atlanta.|
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nobody had to tell Alge Crumpler what the Falcons' Dec. 30 season finale with the Seattle Seahawks was. It was his finale in Atlanta. So he went out with a big bang and a bigger trash bag.
"I did know it was my last game," the Tennessee Titans' new tight end said after an overheated joint practice with the St. Louis Rams on Wednesday. "I gave my jersey to a little girl I'd seen after every game for seven years. I took all my pictures down, cleaned out my locker and left without anyone telling me I'd be released. I knew the way things were falling. Just from the communication breakdown I knew there wouldn't be a role for me.
"That was a sad day. Oh, yeah. I could see it in the eyes of the equipment guys who used to shoot balls at me after practice. I could see it in the eyes of the groundskeeper who used to give me fertilizer to help me win lawn of the month. It was all done."
It was, but Crumpler is not. That was a point he made clear by scoring two touchdowns in that game, scorching Lofa Tatupu on one of them with a 55-yard catch-and-run in which he caromed off the Pro Bowl linebacker after he'd taken a 5-yard run at Crumpler in the open field, arriving just as Crumpler was catching the ball. Crumpler bounced sideways and was gone, leaving Tatupu crumpled on the turf like a pile of soiled linen.
"To be fair, if Lofa hadn't hit me I never would have scored," Crumpler said with a wry smile. "He shot me right passed their other guy. It was perfect."
The Titans feel the same way about his acquisition, coincidentally signing him after a battle with the Seahawks over his services once the Falcons officially released him on Feb. 15. For a time it appeared Crumpler was the answer to Tatupu's dreams (or perhaps his nightmares). But in the end Crumpler chose to come to Nashville, where in many ways he finds himself at the center of the Titans' renewed hopes for an offense that a year ago was ranked last in the league in red-zone scoring, delivering only 20 touchdowns in 55 possessions inside the 20.
Emblematic of those struggles was a 38-36 win over the Houston Texans in which Titans kicker Rob Bironas set a league record with eight field goals because the offense scored only two touchdowns on nine trips into the red zone. That inability to score inside the 20 isn't the only reason the four-time Pro Bowl tight end is a Titan. But it's one of them. A big one.
"The day I was released I was ready, willing and able," Crumpler said. "If it had been in Atlanta I'd have been ready for it but I feel very blessed to get this opportunity.
"I spent two days in Seattle really pondering this decision. I still can't figure out what kept me from signing out there, but this place feels very right. There's a clear role and a stable head coach.
"I don't feel it's a burden to come here being expected to score touchdowns. That's what I do. I've always had a knack for the red zone, especially in an offense that's not heavily receiver-oriented.
"The passing game has always been very natural for me. Making tough catches. Drawing traffic. I can do that. I told Vince (Young, the Titans' young quarterback), 'Thread the needle. Throw it high. I'll get blown up (to score). I don't care.' That excitement, that feeling from scoring, it's different every time."
Crumpler should know. In seven seasons in Atlanta he made those four trips to the Pro Bowl, primarily for scoring 35 touchdowns on 316 receptions. At 6-foot-2, 262 pounds, he is what is effectively called "a load" when he's blocking and when he's the target of a quarterback wise enough to get the ball to him.
Despite dealing with a balky knee early last season that had plagued him for several years, Crumpler still had 42 catches for 444 yards (the lowest total since his rookie season) and five scores. Although those numbers were below his norm, they came despite playing in only 14 games and limping through the first half of the season.
At 30 years old and with a troublesome knee and a dropoff in production, whispering predictably began. Too old. Too slow. Too close to the downside of a career. To all that, Crumpler says, too bad you think that way. You'll see.
"I started training in Arizona the day after the Super Bowl," he said. "I had a full offseason. No surgeries. I made all the workouts. I feel great. People talk about my knees but I was a guy with bad knees in four Pro Bowls. This is not new.
|Chris Graythen / Getty Images|
|Alge Crumpler scored two touchdowns in the Falcons' 2007 season finale.|
"A year ago I had my right knee scoped. It was the same procedure I'd had two years before so I felt I'd be on the same timetable. The team told me four to six weeks, same as last time, but I never felt good.
"By the time we got into the season I was just miserable. I couldn't move. I finally went to see Dr. (James) Andrews (one of the world's most renowned orthopedic surgeons) and I got one word from the team and another from him. He said it should have been a six-month rehab.
"They sat me down for two weeks plus the bye week. I still wasn't 100 percent, but I scored the winning touchdown the next game back."
That 30-yard scoring catch, which came with 20 seconds left against the Carolina Panthers, gave him over 4,000 career yards and reaffirmed to his satisfaction at least that given the right circumstances he could still do what he'd always done. He could still get his feet and the football into the end zone, which happened three times in the season's final two games, a sign to the Titans that, when healthy, Crumpler was the same guy he'd always been.
Each day, the seven-year veteran tries to remind Young of that. The mercurial quarterback is 17-11 career as a starter but threw for fewer than 200 yards in 11 of 15 starts last season and had only nine touchdown passes, just one to a tight end.
That's why the Titans replaced offensive coordinator Norm Chow with the man who so effectively tutored Steve McNair, and it's why Mike Heimerdinger is happy to have Crumpler as a weapon for Young to exploit.
Heimerdinger's coaching helped McNair become not only a Pro Bowl passer, but also the league's co-MVP in 2003. He's also part of the reason why a pass-catching tight end named Frank Wycheck put up some grand numbers.
Now Heimerdinger is back for a second tour of duty and is expected to have a positive impact on Young and teach him the proper use of a weapon like Crumpler, who stands next to his third-year quarterback each day at training camp stretching with him and preaching to him.
"He calls me Big Brother," Crumpler said. "Every day when we stretch I'm next to him. I tell him, 'Have a great one, not a good one.' I never take anything for granted. I'm always trying to figure things out.
"When we're on the field, whether he throws to me or not, he's always asking 'Where were you at? What did you see?' The young tight ends ask me a lot of questions about how I've done it. That's the kind of team we have here. It's different from last year."
Last year was a circus for everyone in Atlanta. It was a season of broken hearts and broken dreams and one he'd like to forget but really hasn't, instead using it to push himself in a new place to return to his old self.
"It was a difficult time for everybody in that building," Crumpler said of the soap opera in Atlanta that centered around fallen quarterback Michael Vick and disloyal head coach Bobby Petrino, who left the team in less than a year for a return to college football. "From the owner to the players to the secretaries, it was a miserable, miserable experience. But it's behind me now. I've moved on to a place where the coaches like Dinger actually talk to the players. Wow."
Soon enough, the Titans believe, Crumpler will be moving behind opposing secondaries and into familiar territory. Back into the end zone, a place he's become a lot more familiar with than the Titans have lately.
"We got stubborn coordinators here," Crumpler said. "Our offense is going to do what our offense is going to do. I'm very comfortable with it in terms how we're going to do it. They like to use two tight ends here. That's primarily where I excelled. When they run it here, I'll make plays."
That's what everyone in Nashville is counting on, most especially a young quarterback who spends every day standing next to his new big brother, listening and learning.