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Titans Players Rally Around Offensive Coordinator

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans practice concluded Wednesday with a huddle.

The meeting wasn't to discuss a play. It was to pray for offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who was diagnosed with cancer Wednesday morning.

Nine-year NFL veteran linebacker David Thornton led teammates and coaches in prayer for Heimerdinger, who was not at practice and is expected to undergo chemotherapy treatments soon.

Thornton believes faith can pilot people through adversity. He said his own faith kept his spirits up as he rehabbed multiple injuries that put him on the physically unable to perform list in 2009. Thornton returned to the 53-man roster this week.

Players knew that Heimerdinger had been sick the past couple of weeks, but said the bad news was a shock Wednesday morning.

"We didn't know until (Wednesday) morning exactly what was going on, but we're all just with him," 16-year veteran quarterback Kerry Collins said. "Whatever he needs, we'll do for him. It's such shocking news, I think, for anybody to get. It's hard to know what to say all the time. The biggest thing is we want him to know we're behind him and with him and he has our support."

The heartfelt huddle lasted several moments. The thoughts and prayers will last longer than that.

"That's sad," 13-year pro Randy Moss said. "We said a prayer for him and I'm not really good at saying and talking about things like that, so thoughts and prayers go out to his family and hopefully his chemo goes good and we'll see him back as soon as he's ready."

Coach Jeff Fisher said Heimerdinger had been feeling bad for several weeks but kept working as hard as possible. It is unclear when Heimerdinger might be able to rejoin the team or if he will make the trip to Houston this weekend where the Titans (5-5) will face the Texans (4-6). Tennessee is trying to snap a three game losing streak, and Houston will try to end its four-game losing streak. Indianapolis (6-4) and Jacksonville (6-4) lead the AFC South.

"We have to deal with it and move on," Fisher said. "Not that we're moving on from Mike. Mike is in our heart. He's been in our heart for weeks. What he's done over the last couple of weeks, considering how he's felt, is absolutely remarkable."

The mid-field unification of players and coaches occurred in the middle of a week in which the team's solidarity has been questioned by some media outlets with regard to quarterback Vince Young leaving the locker room Sunday while coach Jeff Fisher was addressing the team.

Young suffered a season-ending injury to his right thumb in the third quarter of a 19-16 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins. Fisher said Young's postgame actions would lead to Young's demotion from the starting job, injury or not. Young, who was placed on injured reserve this week, sent Fisher an apology in a text message, but the coach told reporters Wednesday that he prefers face-to-face communication.

Collins, who is expected to be out for the second straight week with a calf injury, said the news about Heimerdinger made the Titans' recent struggles much smaller, but that "Dinger" wants the Titans to focus on success on the field.

"There's been a lot of stuff going on here the last couple of days in football and whatever else," Collins said. "When something like this hits, it kind of puts everything back in perspective.

"I know 'Dinger' wouldn't want us to do anything besides prepare as hard as we can for this weekend," Collins added. "I know, regardless of what's going on with him, he wants us to be in here, prepared and try to go to Houston to get a win. He's a fighter. He's a tough guy. I know that he's going to be alright. He's going to get through this thing."

Wide receiver Nate Washington, who has a chance to record his third 100-yard performance in four games, said his thoughts and prayers with Heimerdinger and that the news about the coach is that much more of a motivator.

"That's the reason we need to push ourselves in order to come out on top," Washington said. "Everything that we're going through as a team, every guy on here is going through something, and we just have to stay together. This is an important time in our locker room and a lot of the guys are staying together. I think that's the most important thing."

Injuries have elevated rookie Rusty Smith to his first career start. Fisher said the team was glad to get back on the practice field Wednesday, and that Smith had a solid practice.

"We're in (contention for) the division, we're a game out of first place and we're going to go to Houston and play a good football team," Fisher said. "That's what their focus is. (Smith) made plays. He made good decisions and was very accurate with the deep ball. He has a good feel for the check system. Considering (Wednesday was) the first day of installation, I thought he did a really good job."

Collins said he would advise Smith to "just go play, try and control your emotions as much as you can, focus on what you need to do" and execute one play at a time.

"I think he's going to be fine. He's been in this offense. He knows what to do," Collins said. "One thing about Rusty, you're not going to have to worry about how he prepares. He's going to prepare very well this week. It goes along with the position. If you're the starting quarterback, there's pressure. That's when you've got to focus on what you need to do."

Smith relieved Young against Washington Sunday and went 3-for-9 passing for 62 yards with one interception. Smith arrived at the Titans' practice facility at Baptist Sports Park at 7 a.m. Monday to begin this week's preparations. He said he has confidence in his teammates that will help him, but he might encounter a butterfly or two.

"I've heard someone say, 'If you're not nervous, you're not ready.' It's something that I've played before. It's really no different," Smith said. "The guys out there are just playing, having fun. That's what I'm going to try and do.

"There's some really good playmakers that are on the offensive side of the ball," Smith added, "and if something happens where I make a mistake, because I'm sure I'm going to make my mistakes, we have an excellent defense that I'm sure will bail me out."

Fifth-year pro tight end Bo Scaife, who was a college teammate of Young and has one of the closest relationships with the quarterback, said the Titans will coalesce in support of Heimerdinger. Scaife said the team must also unite with Smith to resume winning ways.

"Our backs are against the wall right now," Scaife said. "We had such a good start and everything was looking so good for us, and things are getting a little tough around here now but I think everyone's getting it together. We're going to go out there and play our hearts out for (Smith) and for each other. We're all in this together. We're going to do everything we can to make sure he's successful."

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