You’d think it would be easier to peg what Tennessee’s hiring of Ken Whisenhunt as their new head coach means for the Titans, and specifically their offensive players and their fantasy prospects.
Then you check out his track record, which reveals he’s overseen offenses that led the league in rushing attempts (2004 and 2005 Steelers)… and finished dead last in that category (the Cardinals in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012). And conversely, his offenses have ranked among the top three in pass attempts (Arizona in 2007-2009)… and landed at the bottom of the league as well (2004 and 2005 Steelers).
So rather than pigeonhole Whisenhunt as a system guy, it’s more accurate to say he’ll adapt his offense to the talent at hand. In Pittsburgh that meant banging away with Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley, and Willie Parker while protecting a young Ben Roethlisberger. In Arizona, Kurt Warner threw to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin while the ground game cobbled together touches for Tim Hightower, J.J. Arrington, and a running-on-fumes Edgerrin James.
“We’ve tried to do things in the past that’s the least impactful on the players about them trying to learn,” Whisenhunt said in his introductory press conference with the Titans.
To that end, Whisenhunt has retained the Titans’ running back and wide receiver coaches from last season. Whether or not Tennessee also retains running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Jake Locker, however, remains to be seen.
Locker has a $13 million contract option for 2015 the Titans must decided on by this May. And while Whisenhunt can claim some of the credit for developing Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, his success rejuvenating Kurt Warner in Arizona and Philip Rivers in San Diego is due more to their ability—and specifically their accuracy in Whisenhunt’s short passing game—than any coaching or scheme.
And accuracy has never been Locker’s strong suit; his 60% completion rate this season was a career high after he posted marks of 51% and 56% in his first two campaigns.
At least Locker’s—or, if the Titans pass on his option, whomever they tab to play quarterback—receiving corps has a Whisenhunt flavor. The typical Whiz offense—even the run-heavy Steelers version—likes to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically. Rising star Kendall Wright has many of the same qualities as Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El and should be a PPR monster—assuming Locker’s accuracy continues its ascent—and does enough down the field to warrant comparisons to what Keenan Allen offered Whisenhunt’s Chargers last season. 2013 second-rounder Justin Hunter provides a deep threat a la Santonio Holmes, giving Whiz the vertical element he desires.
And over the past couple of seasons Whisenhunt has rediscovered his roots as a tight ends coach. When he started with the Steelers in that capacity, Whiz worked with blockers like Mark Bruener and Jay Riemersma. Later he helped with Heath Miller’s development, but in Arizona Whiz ran primarily three-receiver sets and it wasn’t until his last season with the Cardinals that he had a tight end post a 40-catch season.
Then last year, Whisenhunt rekindled Antonio Gates to the tune of 70-plus catches while Ladarius Green showed flashes of becoming the next great Chargers tight end. So if you liked Delanie Walker last season in Tennessee, you should really like him in the Whisenhunt offense.
Another reason Walker’s numbers should be solid: assuming the Titans give Chris Johnson his walking papers, this offense lacks a pass-catching back like Danny Woodhead (also 70-plus grabs last year) or Tim Hightower (a 63-catch campaign for Whiz in 2009).
Whisenhunt’s ground games have been power-based (see Bettis in Pittsburgh, and to a lesser extent Beanie Wells in Arizona), but they’ve also included a complimentary speed back (Willie Parker)—often times one with pass-catching skills like Woodhead, Hightower, or Arrington.
Shonn Greene fits the power back mode; he’s certainly capable of those yards-per-carry averages in the high threes Bettis achieved in Pittsburgh. A talented, experienced offensive line and the addition of offensive line coach Bob Bostad, whose last two stops have been Tampa Bay and the University of Wisconsin, should help as well. However, it’s unlikely Tennessee pays CJ?K to be a complementary back, so they’ll need to fill that role via free agency or the draft. Rashard Mendenhall is a free agent, but even Whiz probably won’t return to that well once again.
Whisenhunt has already indicated he’ll call the plays, but he’ll get an assist from offensive coordinator Jason Michael. The Chargers’ tight ends coach the past three seasons, Michael worked under Whiz last season and collaborated on some of the game planning. His voice will be heard, and his tight end experience will come into play with Walker’s development as well.
Michael will also be charged with helping Locker, who is on his third pro offensive coordinator as he enters his fourth NFL season. A quarterback in college, Michael played for Jack Harbaugh and led Western Kentucky to the I-AA national championship in 2002.
Ultimately, Tennessee’s offense—and the success of Whisenhunt’s tenure—hinge on Locker. If he’s able to stay healthy and live up to his first-round status, Whiz’s reputation as an offensive guru will remain intact. If not… well, no one was calling Whiz a genius when John Skelton, Max Hall, and Ryan Lindley were running his offense.