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Great Unkowns

Brown began preparing for this season as soon as last one ended. If he avoids injury, the bruising runner could help make the Titans an AFC force.

September 07, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Four days after Tennessee was knocked out of the NFL playoffs in January, Titan running back Chris Brown was knocking out sets on the squat rack.

When most of his teammates were on vacation, Brown was on a mission.

He showed up unannounced at team headquarters, walked into the weight room, picked up some dumbbells and quietly, without fanfare, officially began his quest to unseat an institution. Oh, Brown never actually said he wanted to take the starting tailback job from Eddie George -- in fact, Brown said all along he wanted George to stay -- but it was clear to coaches that Brown had the dedication it took to step from the shadows.

"I thought he was coming back in March," said Steve Watterson, the Titans' strength and conditioning coach. "I had no idea he'd be back here the week we lost in the playoffs."

Brown's coaches were thrilled to hear the news.

"We loved that," said Mike Heimerdinger, Tennessee's offensive coordinator, who has watched the second-year running back go from a talented but injury-hampered understudy to the Titans' every-down back and one of the most promising players of this exhibition season.

"We thought he'd be as good as he is," Heimerdinger said of Brown, who led the AFC this summer with 240 yards rushing in 32 carries. "He showed flashes of it last year."

Problem was, Brown couldn't stay healthy enough to get established last season. Hamstring injuries sidelined him for five games, something that never happened to him at Colorado, where he rushed for 2,787 yards and 35 touchdowns in two seasons. He was drafted in the third round in 2003 by the Titans, who hoped he might one day replace George, perhaps the biggest star in the franchise's brief -- post-Houston Oiler -- history.

"We have a talented young prospect with some unknowns in Chris Brown," Coach Jeff Fisher said in July after George was released. "The question with Chris is he is still an unknown quantity because he hasn't been there a whole year."

Because of a hamstring injury he sustained early in training camp last summer, Brown didn't get his first carry in 2003 until the fourth game of the regular season. He sat out two more games a few weeks later when the injury flared up again.

Working with Watterson this off-season, Brown strengthened his hamstring and added 12 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame, bulking up to 227 pounds.

"It only took about three or four plays in mini-camp for people to notice the difference," Watterson said. "On the third or fourth play, he busted one right up the middle and almost tore off one of our linebacker's arms when the guy tried to arm-tackle him. Everybody realized that, no, things are a little bit different."

Now, after a strong exhibition season, the Titans think Brown has a bright future, as long as he can stay healthy. When they released George, and he promptly was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, they turned their eyes to their back of the future.

"The transition has been easy because Chris is letting his play take care of it," Heimerdinger said. "His running ability has taken care of the transition."

That was obvious last week, when Brown reversed his field in an exhibition game against Dallas and scored on an 18-yard run that he punctuated by stiff-arming Cowboy safety Roy Williams at the five-yard line.

"I was just worried about getting into the end zone and keeping him off," said Brown, whose quotes are as flat as his running is dynamic. "But I know he's a great safety who was trying to make the tackle."

For many of his former Tennessee teammates, seeing George in a Cowboy jersey was downright bizarre. It was for Rocky Boiman, who tackled George for a two-yard loss on his first carry.

"When you're in the heat of the game, and things are happening so fast, you don't really think, 'Oh my God, there's Eddie George,' " Boiman told reporters. "But after the play, you look, and it was a little weird to see him getting up off the pile for another team."

Brown, meanwhile, has separated himself from the pack -- even though it was only during the exhibition season.

"Chris has done everything and then some," tackle Brad Hopkins told the Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper. "He's far exceeded my expectations as a running back, especially so quickly. I can't get enough of the dude."

Antowain Smith, who won two Super Bowls with New England, understands how high expectations can only increase the load on Brown's shoulders.

"There's a lot of pressure on Chris right now," said Smith, signed as an insurance policy to back up Brown. "People want him to be replacing Eddie George. He needs to line up and play like Chris Brown, and I think he's done a good job of that so far."

And that's not just with his running. Heimerdinger said Brown has done a good job of picking up blitzes and protecting quarterback Steve McNair, the league's co-most valuable player. A lot of that goes unnoticed by all but the most informed observers, the coach said.

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