If Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak is serious about turning his team into contenders, he should jettison his best two players.
Needless to say, getting rid of running back Chris Johnson and receiver Kenny Britt would be a tremendous risk. Johnson is one of the most electrifying players in the league today, and Britt is developing into an elite wideout who can dominate a secondary all day long. However, both have become known more for the headlines they generate off the field than their tremendous accomplishments on the field.
Although Britt has shown the ability to be a top-five receiver in the league, he missed tine last year due to hamstring issues that were the result of poor conditioning. When he reported to training camp this year, he tweaked his hamstring again. Britt may be one of the most talented receivers in the league, but his inability to stay in shape will continue leading to more injuries and missed games.
Another reason the Titans cannot rely on Britt to be available to play a full season is his tendency to run afoul of the law. Britt has been arrested five times since he's been in the league, a statistic NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be sure to look at closely. If Britt continues getting into trouble, he'll end up suspended for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy.
If Britt wasn't so phenomenally talented, his poor conditioning and frequent run-ins with the law would have prompted the Titans to release him already. He's capable of being a huge game-breaker when he plays, but his off-field troubles will make it hard for the Titans to be able to rely on him.
Although Johnson has stayed healthy and arrest-free, he has been equally as difficult as Britt to keep out of offseason headlines. Johnson publicly demanded a new contract with $30 million guaranteed last summer after rushing for over 2,000 yards in his second season in the NFL.
The league's pre-lockout rules prevented team's from increasing a player's salary by more than 30 percent, so the Titans restructured his incentives and bonuses so he'd receive $2 million in 2010 with the understanding they'd renegotiate his contract completely once the lockout ended.
This year, Johnson has held out of training camp, and has said he will not come to the Titans' facilities until he has a new contract. On Nashville's 104.5 The Zone, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said the Titans had "kind of set the parameters of what the deal is going to be" for Johnson and "would like to have him come down here to the Titans facility and work on it."
"He's still got two years left on his deal, and if we are willing to commit those types of dollars it would be a show of good faith," Reinfeldt said. "We are not asking him to go on the practice field. He's not going to get put in harm's way, but he needs to be here to meet the coaches, the new players and learn the offense. That is part of what we are trying to accomplish here."
Johnson's numbers from his first three years in the NFL have been comparable to some of the best backs of all time. He deserves a new contract. However, he is handling it the wrong way. The Titans want Johnson studying the playbook so he can improve his pass protection, an area of the game in which he was underwhelming last year.
For all intents and purposes, Johnson is behaving like a spoiled child who demands dessert but refuses to eat his dinner. In this case, the Titans are telling him he doesn't even need to eat his vegetables or meat, and only needs to eat the pasta on the side. Instead of learning his playbook and familiarizing himself with the offense while his agent handles his contract, Johnson is generating headlines and bringing unnecessary controversy to a team that was derailed by drama last year.
To start his tenure on the right foot, Munchak needs to move away from the Titans' tradition of ignoring off-field issues and waiting for them to blow over. Allowing off-field misconduct and negotiating with holdout players on their terms sets a dangerous precedent. By trading Britt and Johnson, Munchak can send the message that nobody, regardless of skill, is more important than team unity.
Although both players are superstars in the making, the Titans can afford to get rid of Britt and Johnson because of recent offensive personnel changes.
Third-year running back Javon Ringer runs with a low pad level and a quick burst, making him a more effective up-the middle runner than Johnson. While no player in the league is as explosive as Johnson, Ringer is more than capable of bouncing a run to the outside when the situation calls for it, and rookie back Jamie Harper can spell Ringer to keep him fresh.
The signing of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the preseason emergence of second-year receivers Marc Mariani and Damian Williams will allow the Titans to focus their offense less on running the ball and more on short passes to move the chains. While Britt makes the passing offense, Hasselbeck's decision-making and ball placement on short passes allows offenses to get by without a game-breaking wide receiver.
The drafting and coddling of "problem children" led to the locker-room dysfunction that ultimately blew up in former Titans coach Jeff Fisher's face at the end of the 2010 season. The team's biggest on-field stars in Fisher's final years with the team were also often the biggest source of off-field controversy. In order to stand a chance of lasting anywhere near as long as Fisher did with the Titans, Munchak must implement a culture change within the team by sending its two biggest divas packing.
Follow Hank Koebler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HankKoebler