NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – It’s as close to “I told you so” as Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher will ever get.

Fans wanted him fired. His owner wouldn’t give him a vote of confidence. And the once-dominant franchise turned doormat hit its lowest point with suspensions and off-field issues to complement an 0-5 start.

And now?

The Titans (5-7) are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, winners of five of seven, with the last two featuring riveting comebacks. The playoffs, which seemed at least two years away, suddenly are a mathematical possibility, and Fisher’s job couldn’t be more secure.

“I said a long time ago that these guys are working hard, and they trust each other,” Fisher said. “When you have those combinations of good things going on, things eventually will turn around.”

Like this?

The Titans tied for the second-best comeback in NFL history in the final 10 minutes with 24 unanswered points against the New York Giants on Nov. 26. They then rallied from 0-14 in beating two-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning and the Colts with Rob Bironas’ 60-yard field goal in the final seconds.

“It is almost like a statement to let people in our division and people around the league know that we are almost back to where we were,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “So they know what happens when we start rolling.”

Credit for the franchise’s dramatic turnaround goes to Fisher, the coach other teams wish they could steal, and Vince Young, the rookie quarterback the Titans chose to rebuild around.

The franchise that had four playoff berths in five seasons slumped to nine wins combined the past two years, mired in a salary cap mess and forced to build through the draft. Steve McNair, the quarterback for 11 seasons, was too expensive and too old to do the extra work needed, and the Titans botched his departure in their worst move since deciding to play a season in Memphis.

Wanting to save money on a $23.46 million salary cap hit, they had a trainer tell McNair he couldn’t work out in their building anymore and fought his grievance through arbitration. They let his agent negotiate with Baltimore after they drafted his successor in Young, then held off trading McNair until June, infuriating fans.

Publicly, Fisher said McNair gave them the best chance to win. Fisher already had Norm Chow at offensive coordinator, a coach known for developing quarterbacks.

But it was Fisher, only the 12th man in NFL history to coach 200 games with the same team, who changed some of his ways. He took the Titans away for training camp, moved up practice times and pointed out every positive. No bashing that might crush young spirits.

And Fisher started Young in the fourth game; the rookie has responded beyond anyone’s expectations. He is 5-4 as a starter and became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead his team from 14-points down to victory thanks to uncanny poise under pressure.

“Guys just started to believe,” running back Travis Henry said.

That doesn’t include a rally in the Titans’ first victory this season after trailing 14-3 at Washington before winning 25-22, or a pair of one-point losses: 14-13 at Indianapolis and 27-26 to Baltimore after blowing a 19-point lead. Young put them in position to win against the Ravens before a blocked 43-yard field goal.

“To be in a situation like this and make the plays that he makes and win the games that he is winning with just a few games under his belt, I think it says that some big things are down the road,” Titans receiver Drew Bennett said.

The Titans have eased the pressure on Young by running the ball well. That helped them go 26-6 in 1999 and 2000 with Eddie George. Now Young and Henry have the Titans averaging 165.5 yards rushing the past nine weeks, second only to Atlanta.

Young has helped provide the leadership on an offense featuring eight starters in different spots from last year, six of those players selected in the last two drafts. He is close friends with Bulluck and troubled cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, further pulling the team together.

“That’s what you’ve been seeing the last few weeks is our chemistry and team,” Young said. “Everyone is working together and continues to believe and go back out each series and fight until there is no time on the clock.”

Fisher, who was too lenient on Jones last year, has been the needed disciplinarian this season. He has suspended five players for off-field incidents, including Jones.

He also wisely warned defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth he might not be welcomed back after the NFL suspended him five games for stomping on the unprotected face of Dallas center Andre Gurode on Oct. 1. Haynesworth returned in a win at Philadelphia.

Fisher’s contract for a reported $5 million is up after this season, but owner Bud Adams holds the option for 2007. Fisher is a bargain no matter the price as the face of the franchise and for his ability to keep the Titans competitive. He’s only had four losing seasons, some while rebuilding, through his first 11 full seasons.

Talks for an extension shouldn’t take long once the season ends. General manager Floyd Reese’s contract also is up, and he may not return if Fisher wants more personnel control.

For now, the Titans have four games left, with a winning record in reach with this momentum.

“Guys are excited,” Bennett said. “Guys are believing in everything we can do.”

They’re not alone.

AP-ES-12-05-06 1841EST


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