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How Did Jeff Fisher Go 13-3 in 2008?

That year’s Titans team was among the best in football—and was also the last time the NFL’s living embodiment of 7-9 posted a winning record

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In football years, one decade might as well be a century. Ten years ago, the wildcat ripped the league in half, Aaron Rodgers made his first start for the Packers, Brett Favre played 16 games for the Jets, the Patriots missed the playoffs, and most shocking of all, Jeff Fisher coached a team that won—you’re really not gonna believe this—13 whole games. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going. So, to better understand what’s ahead in 2018, we’re spending this week looking back on what happened 10 years before. Welcome to 2008 Week!

By the time Jeff Fisher was finished in Tennessee—after the 2010 season—he had overseen so many 8-8 seasons he was known in Nashville as “Coacho Ocho.” After becoming the master of mediocrity with the Titans, Fisher declined further with the Rams, where he went from being synonymous with 8-8 to becoming synonymous with 7-9 (or more accurately, “7-9 bullshit”). St. Louis went 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10, and 7-9 in Fisher’s four full seasons.

Jeff Fisher has become the longhand version of saying 7-9—some corners of Twitter even celebrate July 9 as Jeff Fisher day—but 10 years ago he helmed one of the best teams in football. Under Fisher, the 2008 Tennessee Titans roared to a 13-3 record and the no. 1 seed in the AFC with a backup quarterback and an imposing defense. How the hell did a coach so synonymous with mediocrity field such an impressive team? And how did it all fall apart so quickly?

When Vince Young suffered a knee injury in Tennessee’s Week 1 win over Jacksonville, the Titans turned to a 36-year-old journeyman. Kerry Collins, bless his heart, was not known for his football IQ, nor his athletic ability, and definitely not for his quality of play. Collins had lost 24 of his previous 32 starts and went 2-14 as a starter in the three seasons following 2008, yet under Fisher that season, he made the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1996 (playing across from Drew Brees, who logged nearly twice as many passing yards and almost thrice as many touchdowns that season) and went 12-3 and dethroned Indianapolis in the AFC South. Fisher made sure the team didn’t depend on Collins, who threw 12 touchdowns, seven picks, and attempted just two more passes than Brees completed on the season. Luckily the team had quite the backfield to lean on.

One of the questions entering the 2008 NFL draft was whether Chris Johnson was faster than Bo Jackson. Johnson set the NFL combine 40-yard dash record with a 4.24-second run earlier that year, then the fastest official time in NFL history, but still behind Jackson’s hand-timed 4.13-second mark (40-yard dash times have been automated since 1999). Whether he was faster than Jackson is beside the point; Johnson was the fastest player on any NFL field he stepped onto.

The Titans took Johnson 24th overall and paired him with third-year running back LenDale White, who provided a similar complement to Johnson that he did to Reggie Bush at USC. Behind an offensive line anchored by first-team All-Pros at left tackle (Michael Roos) and center (Kevin Mawae) and a second-team All-Pro at right tackle (David Stewart), White and Johnson’s thunder-and-lightning combo became one of the best one-two punches in the league. In a Week 7 demolition of Kansas City, the two combined for 317 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries. It was a hint of what would come. One year later, Johnson would rush for 2,006 rushing yards, one of seven players in NFL history to crack the 2,000-yard mark.

Johnson is the most memorable piece of those Titans teams, but the defense was the heart and soul and among the least appreciated units of the decade, with elite talent at every level. Fisher and coordinator Jim Schwartz orchestrated a brilliant defense that finished fifth by DVOA in 2008 after finishing first in 2007. The defensive line was anchored by defensive tackles Albert Haynesworth and Tony Brown and defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Haynesworth was in the midst of a two-year run as the most dominant defensive tackle in football, earning first-team All-Pro selections in 2007 and 2008. Pro Football Focus graded him as the second-best interior defender in 2007, and in 2008, he was the fourth-best interior defender (behind Jamal, Kyle, and Kevin Williams) and second among interior defenders in quarterback hits (14) and sacks (8).

Despite his dominance, Haynesworth had become more famous for what he did between plays, and later between seasons. In 2006, he stomped on Cowboys center Andre Gurode’s face, forcing Gurode to get 30 stitches and earning Haynesworth a five-game suspension. But Haynesworth’s 2008 season was so good that Washington overlooked that incident and signed him to a contract with $41 million guaranteed and worth as much as $115 million. Haynesworth’s play plummeted off of a cliff, and he later said he regretted his decision to leave Tennessee.

The linebacker unit included Keith Bulluck, perhaps the most anonymous person to earn a 97 overall Madden rating in NFL history (his rating was higher than Ray Lewis’s and Patrick Willis’s that year), plus David Thornton and Stephen Tulloch, the latter of whom was an excellent linebacker who later became famous for tearing his ACL while celebrating a sack. In the secondary was cornerback Cortland Finnegan, a seventh-round pick out of an FCS school who became a first-team All-Pro, and also a caricature of the trash-talking cornerback with a chip on his shoulder.

The Titans, whose preseason over/under win total was 8, roared to a 10-0 start. In Week 16, the 12-2 Titans hosted the 11-3 Steelers with the no. 1 seed in the AFC on the line.

“So you know how big of a game it is, huh?” a mic’d up Finnegan, charged with covering Santonio Holmes, said to the refs before the game.

“Yes we do, absolutely” the ref said.

“Let us play it all,” Finnegan said. “Let us play it to the full.”

Play it to the full Tennessee did. With a 17-14 lead, the Titans scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to give themselves a 10-point lead, and safety Michael Griffin intercepted Ben Roethlisberger with less than 30 seconds left and returned the ball 83 yards for a touchdown to seal the game, a first-round bye, and AFC supremacy.

The Titans didn’t celebrate quietly. After Griffin’s interception return, Titans players including White and Bulluck began stomping on Terrible Towels. A photo circulated of Kearse wiping his nose with one.

After the game, CBS analyst and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher was furious. White and Bulluck refused to apologize, saying they meant no disrespect to the fans but, as Bulluck said, “It’s just the attitude you have to take.”

Fisher said his players may not have known the importance of the towel to the Steelers fan base but wasn’t overly concerned.

”I mean, I know we weren’t happy to have 10,000 people in our stadium waving those yellow towels,” Fisher said at the time. “But this isn’t a big deal to me.”

It was a big deal. The Titans became the latest team to be afflicted by “The Curse of the Terrible Towel,” which was first unveiled after Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his feet with one in 2005 and the Bengals later faltered against the Steelers in the postseason. The Titans lost to the Ravens in the divisional round, wasting their 1-seed, and started the 2009 season 0-6. Meanwhile the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl against Arizona. (Notably, the mayor of Phoenix wiped his nose with a Terrible Towel the week of the game, exposing the lovably innocent God and Puppies Cardinals team to the curse.) The curse is real, and it took hold of Tennessee and Fisher.

Introducing division rival Colts head coach Tony Dungy at a nonprofit fundraiser during the 2009 season in the midst of the 0-6 slump, Fisher took off his shirt onstage to reveal a Peyton Manning jersey.

“I just want to feel like a winner,” Fisher said.

Fisher asked Dungy to perform a football exorcism.

“You are close to the Steeler family and the Rooneys and everything,” Fisher says to Dungy at the 6:45 mark. “I need to know about the mystery of this Terrible Towel. Because last December a couple of my knuckleheads stomped on it and we haven’t won since. Will you tell the Rooneys I have one enshrined in my office, I have one hanging in my house. I’ll do anything I need to do with that towel.”

After that penance, the Titans were no longer terrible. Tennessee won its next five games and salvaged an 8-8 season, but now were sentenced to a different curse—mediocrity. Fisher went 14-18 his final two years in Tennessee—an average of 7-9. Ten years, one stint with the Rams, and zero winning seasons later, Fisher is out of football.

He’ll reportedly announce the Jets vs. Jaguars game on September 30 to begin a potential broadcasting career. Perhaps he realized that, like Sisyphus condemned to roll his rock forever, he’ll never rise above 8-8 for the rest of his coaching career. Instead of mocking him when he takes the booth, remember that he’s not a bad coach. He’s just cursed.