Finally, the cynics have their answer: The Tennessee Titans can win a game on the strength of Kerry Collins' passing arm.
When offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger told reporters after the game that he and the rest of the Titans' coaching staff "have all the faith in the world in Kerry," he wasn't just offering a trite compliment to make his quarterback feel better. They know they have a superb veteran passer who can, if necessary, consistently win games through the air. They know they have someone with outstanding field vision, with the skill to throw accurately on deep and short routes, and with the poise to handle the pressure of delivering big plays at crunch time.
But by running their way to an 8-0 start (not to mention an 11-game winning streak dating back to last season), the Titans created a perception that they only could move the ball on the ground. In the process, they reinforced the false notion that Collins is little more than a game-managing quarterback who stays out of the way while the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack and fifth-ranked defense do all of the heavy lifting.
Soldier Field served as a perfect laboratory because it provided Collins and the Titans a hostile atmosphere to overcome and is home to one of the NFL's best run defenses. By putting eight and sometimes nine men at the line of scrimmage, the Bears eliminated what was presumably the Titans' greatest offensive asset by holding LenDale White and Chris Johnson to a combined 22 yards on 24 carries. There was nowhere for White to go inside and no corners for Johnson to turn and utilize his incredible speed in the open field.
It was up to Collins to make the difference with his right arm, and he did. He threw 41 times, something your basic "game manager" would never be permitted to do if he didn't have the trust of his coaches. The fact he completed 30 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns reflected every bit as well on him as it did on the Titans' much-maligned receiving corps.
No, Tennessee doesn't have a classic game-breaker on the outside. It does, however, have the capacity to exploit the middle of the field when opponents overload to stop the run and opposing cornerbacks are able to prevent Justin McCareins and Justin Gage from shaking free on the perimeter. Just as they have done in most of their recent games, the Titans made tight end Bo Scaife the focus of their passing attack against the Bears, and Collins connected with him 10 times for 78 yards and a score. Collins also worked the middle in completing eight passes to Brandon Jones for 82 yards.
In all, he hooked up with seven different receivers, a clear sign that the Titans are comfortable with using a balanced passing game to take the place of a power-oriented scheme when needed. As stubborn as he might often seem when it comes to running the ball, Heimerdinger is always willing to adjust each game plan depending on the opponent. Working with a quarterback who usually delivers throws on target and on time according to the designed play, the receivers trust that all they have to do is get to the right place when they're supposed to and make the catch.
And it has a chance of coming into play several more times through the final seven weeks of the regular season.
One is Sunday, when the Titans travel to Jacksonville, which overcame plenty of internal turmoil to give an inspired showing against Detroit on Sunday and only lost by a touchdown in the season-opener at Tennessee. Another is in Week 12, when the Jets and massive nose tackle Kris Jenkins visit LP Field. Yet another is on Dec. 21, when the Steelers bring the No. 2 run defense to Nashville. Then, of course, there's the season finale against the Colts, at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts hardly are known for having a run-stuffing defense, but they did an excellent job of slamming the door on Pittsburgh's ground game Sunday.
Somewhere in those games -- or perhaps at other times when it is unexpected -- the Titans will need Collins to carry them with his passing arm.
There is every reason to believe he will.
Monday night musings
» Since when did Mike Martz ever believe that, with one play to win a game, the best choice would be to run the ball?
For that matter, since when, in the waning seconds of a game that was there for the taking, did he ever think that an off-tackle run and then a run up the middle -- the 49ers' final two plays from the doorstep of the Arizona end zone -- would get the job done? That's not Martz, but for some reason, that was what the Niners' offensive coordinator apparently thought would be the best approach to beat a Cardinal team that had done everything in its power to give away a victory.
The confusion involving Shaun Hill's ability to get the team to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball -- a process that cost the 49ers about a dozen seconds from the time they reached the Arizona 1 to the time the spike actually took place with 20 seconds left -- was bad enough. Hill is not an accomplished enough quarterback to be expected to handle such a situation flawlessly.
But somewhere in those frantic moments, Martz should have been able to think far enough ahead for the right play to call at the moment of truth. Believing that, as coach Mike Singletary explained, some sort of "cavity" would open in the middle of the Cards' defense seemed misguided at best. If it wasn't a case of Martz outsmarting himself, then it sure seemed as if he didn't trust his quarterback to try to do something with his arm while moving in the pocket. Who knows? Given how many yellow flags the Cardinals had drawn during the game, maybe the 49ers would have drawn a pass-interference penalty and had yet another shot?
» I'm aboard with the Kurt Warner-for-MVP talk. My hope is that voters don't hold it against him that the Cardinals' likely NFC West crown will be viewed more as a function of being the best team in a terrible division than truly having what it takes to compete with the NFL's elite.
Still, Warner is a tremendous story. He has done much more than yank the starting job away from the youngster who was supposed to nail it down for many years to come. He has been every bit as prolific a passer as he was in his glory days with the Rams, taking full advantage of the league's most talented corps of receivers.
The fact is, if the award had to go to a passer right now, Warner would be the best choice. But compelling arguments also can be made for a defensive tackle, Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth, and a running back, Washington's Clinton Portis.
Fewer 'wow' plays from LT
At 29 years old, LaDainian Tomlinson isn't the same running back he was in his prime. It does not mean he is washed up. It just means he is not what he was when he often made everyone who watched him run say, "Wow!"
The season-opening injury to his big toe that slowed him through the first several weeks of the season has healed, yet he still isn't consistently performing at the spectacular level that once made him universally regarded as one of the greatest backs in league history. He isn't getting a whole lot of help from his offensive line, but that doesn't explain everything.
Great backs find places to run, and Tomlinson has done plenty of that through a glorious career. The fact is great backs become older backs. It doesn't mean they aren't effective, and the Chiefs certainly respected Tomlinson enough Sunday to crowd the line of scrimmage. However, in LT's case, it certainly can mean a reduction in those "wow" plays that once were a routine part of his game.
No need for Panthers to panic over Delhomme
The natural reaction when a quarterback who is coming back from major surgery on the elbow of his throwing arm has an atrocious passing day is to panic.
The Panthers, and especially their fans, could not have avoided thinking the worst after watching Jake Delhomme throw four interceptions while completing a mere seven of 27 throws for 72 yards in Sunday's victory over the Raiders. Something certainly had to be wrong with Delhomme physically ... or mentally ... or something, right? And Delhomme's profuse apology to his teammates after the game did nothing to minimize the focus on one of the worst performances of his career.
Yet, I tend to agree with coach John Fox, who stressed that there was plenty of blame to share for Delhomme's poor showing. A closer look at the game does reveal that some of his passes were dropped, some routes needed to be run crisper, and the pass protection could have been tighter at times. When Delhomme did throw the ball, it didn't seem as if it was any sort of burden.
Is that going to be enough to prevent any future panic if Delhomme struggles again? Probably not. That just goes with the process of attempting to write what still holds up as the greatest comeback story of the season.