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WALKER ON FOOTBALL: Titans' plan to avoid rebuilding is unraveling

Six hours before kickoff, doctors removed Shad Meier's appendix, leaving the Tennessee Titans with only one healthy tight end: rookie Ben Troupe.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Six hours before kickoff, doctors removed Shad Meier's appendix, leaving the Tennessee Titans with only one healthy tight end: rookie Ben Troupe.

That forced coaches to scrap all plays with two tight ends, a staple of the offense, and drop plays specially designed for Troupe to use his physical skills and minimize his inexperience.

After the last-minute changes, the Titans lost for the first time to the team that replaced them in Houston, the Texans.

``Every week, there's something wrong injury-wise, and it's very frustrating,'' Steve McNair said.

The Titans thought they could sneak under the salary cap this year, rely on the draft to restock the roster and avoid the rebuilding other teams in similar situations faced.

So much for those plans.

Now the franchise that entered 2004 tied for most wins since 1999 is trying to salvage a season that started with Super Bowl dreams and is being undermined by injuries and inexperience.

``It's kind of a new situation for us,'' coach Jeff Fisher admitted.

General manager Floyd Reese took over this franchise in 1994, forced to rebuild a playoff team torn apart by the NFL's new salary cap. He watched his Houston Oilers go 2-14 that season.

Since 1995, Reese and Fisher have worked with a simple philosophy: build through the draft, identify a core of top players each season, let pricey veterans leave and rely on the coaching staff to teach the youngsters.

The strategy led to a 56-24 record from 1999 to 2003, with an AFC championship and playoff berths in four of the five seasons.

But the Titans, crunched by the cap, made too many wrong moves this offseason, and they are paying for it.

They let Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith leave for big money in Philadelphia and Houston, respectively, and tried to replace them by drafting five defensive linemen.

Kearse now has four sacks in Philadelphia and has been a defensive catalyst in the Eagles' 6-0 start. His Tennessee replacements have been so ineffective Fisher had to switch Kevin Carter back from tackle to end.

The Titans also traded receiver Justin McCareins to the New York Jets for a second-round draft pick. But that pick, defensive end Travis LaBoy, sat out the first three games with injuries before getting two sacks last weekend in a 20-3 loss at Minnesota.

Reese did replace retiring tight end Frank Wycheck by re-signing Erron Kinney and Meier. But the Titans released their all-time leading rusher, Eddie George, leaving a leadership vacuum that has yet to be filled.

George's replacement, Chris Brown, has been the only bright spot on offense, but now opponents are game-planning to stop him.

And there's all the injuries.

Outside linebacker Peter Sirmon tore left knee ligaments on the third day of training camp, becoming one of four Titans lost for the season. Four others have missed at least one start. They had 14 players on the injury report last week, forcing them to play two rookies on the offensive line _ with McNair already banged up.

They also can't stop hurting themselves.

The Titans have the second most penalties in the NFL, 53, and only Oakland has more yards in penalties (462-432). Pro Bowl receiver Derrick Mason yanked off his helmet in anger after a late incompletion in the Oct. 17 loss to Houston. Right tackle Fred Miller wiped out a key fourth-down conversion at the Minnesota 2 by pushing Kenechi Udeze for what he thought was a late hit last Sunday.

But even then, Tennessee might not be 2-5 for the first time since Fisher's first full season in 1995 if McNair was healthy enough to carry the offense.

Hobbled by a bruised chest that put him in the hospital last month and has forced him out of three games, McNair has only shown flashes of the quarterback who was the NFL's most accurate passer in 2003. McCareins has been missed, and McNair hasn't been able to stretch the field with 6-foot-4 speedster Tyrone Calico out for the year (left knee). That leaves defenses double-teaming Mason and the remaining receivers either running the wrong route or dropping the ball.

McNair just wants to rest and heal up, and the Titans should let him do just that with their bye sandwiched between home games with Cincinnati (2-4) and Chicago (1-5).

When the Titans started 1-4 in 2002, Fisher ordered some veterans to answer questions from the media during his weekly news conference. That team rebounded and played in the AFC championship game.

This year, Fisher hasn't publicly criticized anyone, staying busy keeping players from pointing fingers. He is the picture of optimism.

``I don't think you can do them justice by having a different expectation,'' he said.

Well, maybe. But the team's scouts might want to get ready for the Titans' highest draft pick in a decade.

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