NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans competed has hard as any one football team wearing three different colors of jerseys and no pads could be expected to do on a cool Friday in June.
And they loved every minute of the mid-day practice at Baptist Sports Park that marked the third session of a series of organized team activities that will resume next week.
Players have been participating in a voluntary offseason program since April 23, but this week marked the first time that offense could line up against defense. The offense wore white, the defense wore blue, and the quarterbacks wore red, no-contact practice jerseys as coaches took players through position drills, seven-on-seven passing drills and 11-on-11 contests.
"I think it's always fun to get out here and compete, offense versus defense," veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "There's a lot of good-natured trash talking, whooping and hollering, just sort of all in good fun. It's fun to compete and be competitive, and the way our receivers are running routes right now, it makes it a little more fun because those guys have been working hard. They're ready to compete, and as a quarterback, when receivers are getting open, it's a lot easier for you."
Hasselbeck, who is entering his 14th season in the NFL and second with the Titans, said the three OTA practices this week provided a "little bit of an advantage for the offense because the defense is taking care of us by laying off the quarterback and taking a few steps on the pass rush, letting the ball's get completed."
Hasselbeck threw for 3,571 yards (fourth best in Titans/Oilers franchise history) on 319-of-518 passing last year and started all 16 games for the Titans. He also spent time last season mentoring 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker at the position. Locker played significant minutes in three games last year when injuries sidelined Hasselbeck, and second-year coach Mike Munchak credited the good relationship and mentorship for helping Locker play at a high level in the relief role.
Munchak has declared the competition for the starting job to be open for 2012 and repeatedly stated how good he feels about both quarterbacks. Hasselbeck said competition exists every year, but that doesn't mean he and Locker can't have a good relationship.
"I'm going to approach this year like I do every year, and the advice I give to guys over the years is you're not really competing with the guys at your position," Hasselbeck said. "You're really, at this level, competing with everyone in the world that (a team's management staff) can find to replace you, whether they're here yet or not. That's just reality. Nothing is changing in my mind and preparation and the way I approach things. Am I competing? Absolutely. I'm competing for my job every year, but that won't change relationships on the field or how I try to help another guy next to me."
Because of last year's lockout, Munchak and the Titans were denied an offseason to install a new offense and defense last season. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray went with some of their basics, and are both adding to their schemes this offseason, which started with a voluntary workout program on April 23. The additions on both sides of the ball are going to make practices better with the purpose of building on the foundational 9-7 record that barely missed the playoffs a year ago.
"We're six weeks into the offseason program, and I think we're off to a great start," Munchak said. "The energy has been great. The attendance has been great. Then finally (we're) getting into some OTA days where we can compete a little bit offense vs. defense. I think it was a good three days for us. I know these guys are excited. They're enjoying themselves. This, to me, is where you build your camaraderie and your chemistry, and I think we're doing a good job doing that."
When asked about the new offensive elements, Hasselbeck joked that he "was just learning the old plays and they added new ones. I've got to learn new plays again," but said some change is to be expected in every offseason.
"We did that every year, everywhere I've been," Hasselbeck said. "(Coaches) say we know we can do A, B, C and D, let's try some other wrinkles that can help us. Some of it is stuff they've done in the past. Some of it is stuff that teams that were successful last year did and some of it is things that might compliment what we're good at and our personnel group. I'm sure they're just kicking the tires on some of this stuff."
Second-year middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who started seven games as a rookie, said the defense is looking forward to installing more of Gray's scheme. McCarthy was one of four Titans defensive rookies who combined for 39 starts in 2011 and demonstrated poise in what many refer to as quarterback of the defense. McCarthy said he liked what he saw from the Titans' defense this week.
"Guys were confident out there," McCarthy said. "We spent two or three weeks beforehand understanding the defense, and now it's just a matter of going out there and making plays, running around. Going against the offense gives you an opportunity to do that."
McCarthy said the defense has been studying to learn the system, but it was great to demonstrate the understanding on the practice field.
"I think the biggest thing is putting confidence in the coaches, being comfortable in calling certain blitzes, putting in different packages to confuse the offense," McCarthy said. "That will be huge, and we're building on that now. We've been working on it this whole offseason, and with the additions that we've had, it will be a great opportunity to put them in."
WRIGHT A WAY: Rookie receiver Kendall Wright, whom the Titans drafted from the 20th overall spot in April, is quickly delivering plays that Titans scouts and executives anticipated.
Wright hauled in a pass against extremely tight coverage with a diving grab and later executed a double move to free him up for a long gain.
"He's been great. He's been as advertised," Hasselbeck said. "He's explosive. He's a great kid, he's a competitor. He's not a big guy, but he's been fun to have around. The rookie class in general, they've just been really hungry, going to work, humble. Kendall, because of the injury (to Kenny Britt), and Nate (Washington) have had great practices so far. It's great to see."
Britt is coming back off knee surgery for a torn ACL and MCL he suffered in Week 3 in 2011, and is targeting late preseason or the season opener for his return. Wright has been playing at the "X" position in the offense, which is where Britt plays, and may shift to other spots when Britt returns.
Wright said the past three days of going against the defense have accelerated the learning process.
"Against the air, you don't get to see the real picture and when you get the defense out there, it gets easier because you can see what the coaches have been talking about, or what Nate or Kenny has been telling me to do," Wright said. "You can see it when the defense gets out there. It becomes easier when you do it — reading the defense and learning the routes you're supposed to run."
Wright said Washington, who posted career bests of 74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven receiving touchdowns in 2011, has been the receiver that he has peppered with the most questions but he also has received guidance from other Titans receivers.
"If I have a question, the first person I'm going to right now is Nate," Wright said. "I'm learning from Nate. He told me, 'If you need me to coach you up or help you, I'm going to do it hard.' I told him that's what I need, so I'm just trying to learn from him."
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH: Only eight of the 90 Titans on the roster are 30 or older. Hasselbeck, the oldest, will turn 37 in September.
He said it's funny to think about what he was doing when some of the Titans were born, but he believes the influx of young players helps him remain youthful in his approach.
"Whenever you get a new class of rookies, you can tell they look at you like, 'Oh, my gosh. That's the old guy I used to watch when I was in seventh grade,' and there's some of that," Hasselbeck said. "Zach Brown, our rookie linebacker, was born in '89. I went 8-0 on my freshman football team in '89. So it keeps you young, it keeps you fresh. Working out with these guys in the weight room, is healthy for you."