HAMPTON — Playoffs or bust.
Traveling with the 14th annual Titans Caravan, Mike Keith, the ‘Voice of the Titans’ knows those are the expectations of Tennessee fans. He also knows it’s a goal second-year head coach Mike Munchak doesn’t shy away from.
“Hearing his insight talking to fans was fascinating,” Keith said Wednesday at Hampton Elementary School. “People will ask you questions straight out, and what stood out to me was how fans expect to go to the playoffs this year. They told him that he did better than anybody thought and his response was, ‘Good. I expect to go to the playoffs.’ I see his comfort with the job now that he knows what the job is. The comfort he has, gives him the ability to take the next step. He expects us to be a playoff team and that’s exciting.”
Munchak went 9-7 in his first year at the Tennessee helm, in contention for the playoffs until the final week of the regular season. Keith has seen improvements in the team since then, the most important ones internal.
“We’ve added talent through free agency and through the draft,” Keith said. “But, we have several guys who are ready to blossom into bigger roles like (outside linebacker) Akeem Ayers, (defensive end) Derrick Morgan and (quarterback) Jake Locker. Hopefully, (wide receiver) Kenny Britt can stay healthy for a whole year. There are several players who are ready to take on bigger roles as they take on leadership roles. Your improvement comes from the development within your own team, and I think we have the guys capable of making those moves of helping us with that development.”
The easiest way to make the NFL playoffs is to win your division. Keith sees a real opportunity this season with a major departure in the AFC South, while the defending champion Houston Texans also suffered key losses.
“Peyton Manning is out of the division,” Keith said. “Let’s face it, the Colts had a stranglehold on the division and that’s over. The Texans are champions so they’re the team to beat. But, we feel like we have an opportunity to get after them. We feel like we’ve gotten better, while they’ve had to let some guys go with the salary-cap situation. They’ve lost some guys like Mario Williams, Dimeco Ryans and Jacolby Jones. I won’t say the division is wide-open, but it’s more than it has been, largely because Peyton Manning isn’t in the division anymore.”
For a while, it looked like Manning might become a Titan. The rumor mill was a major part of the offseason with Titans owner Bud Adams openly pursuing the four-time MVP quarterback, and Titans coach Mike Munchak rumored to be interested in coaching at Penn State, his alma mater.
Keith allows the rumor mill is part of every offseason, and how you deal with it is the key.
“The two situations we dealt with head-on,” Keith said. “Coach Munchak came out immediately and discussed the situation at Penn State. The Manning thing was the most unusual circumstance I’ve seen in 15 years with the ballclub. They pursued him for eight straight days and then moved on because we knew we were happy with the two quarterbacks we had. It was just an unusual opportunity and we took a shot. You deal with those things head-on and then they’re over with.”
Tennessee deals with its fans every season with its annual caravan, which included stops on Wednesday at schools in Blountville, Hampton and Mosheim. Keith believes the caravan is crucial to the Titans’ following, especialy in this Northeast corner of the state. Besides Keith, other team representatives including quarterback Jake Locker and the team’s mascot, T-Rac, greeted fans.
“When we say we’re a regional team, that’s the proof that we come here with our star of the future and give these kids a chance to meet him,” Keith said. “We do the (NFL’s) Play-60 program, and bring T-Rac. We hope the kids at Hampton, Holston and in Mosheim will all remember this the rest of their lives.
“We can’t go everywhere, but we have 50 stops to try to create moments for fans and that bond with the team. We didn’t invent the caravan, but nobody does what we do in terms of the players we have and coach Munchak. It’s really a commitment from the organization, but it’s vital.”
Keith, a native Tennesseean who grew up in Franklin, compared the caravan to a political campaign where votes are exchanged for shaking hands and kissing babies. He called the method old-fashioned, but added the fans’ response to it is a deep appreciation for making themselves available to the communities.
On a larger scale, Keith added the caravan is about understanding this part of the country and embracing what it’s about. He has a longtime connection with the state, serving with the Vol Network from 1986-98, working with the legendary University of Tennessee announcer John Ward. Keith said it’s no accident he sounds more like a college broadcaster than a NFL announcer.
“I’m a college guy,” Keith said. “In this part of the country, it’s helped me because you grow up, listening to John Ward and working with John for 11 years. Listening to the various teams, the great announcers like Jim Fyffe at Auburn and Larry Munson at Georgia, there’s a different feel about the announcers in this part of the country. I’m much more of that style than the pro style.”