NASHVILLE — Exhibiting arguably his biggest smile since he was drafted with the eighth overall pick out of the University of Washington three years ago, Jake Locker sprinted toward the end zone Sunday afternoon, his right index finger pointed toward the heavens.
In a dramatic sequence of events, the Tennessee Titans quarterback managed something he had never accomplished in his brief stint in the NFL.
With 2:05 remaining in the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers at LP Stadium, Locker manufactured some late-game heroics Titans coach Mike Munchak hopes are signs of things to come after a year in which his team limped to a 6-10 finish.
Locker drove the Titans 94 yards in 10 plays, a drive that was culminated with him tossing a 34-yard touchdown pass rookie Justin Hunter, who outleaped San Diego cornerback Crezdon Butler in the right corner of the end zone and hauled in what proved to be the game-winning score with just 21 seconds showing on the clock.
In what Munchak deemed his quarterback’s best game of his career, Locker not only engineered the Titans to an impressive 20-17 come-from-behind win before 69,143 witnesses here but, most importantly, he demonstrated why many media pundits believe he is starting to blossom into one of the NFL’s up-and-coming signal callers.
On a day in which the Titans found it difficult to establish any sort of offensive rhythm, it was Locker who set the tone in the early going. On a day in which Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers undoubtedly was the featured superstar, was as good as advertised in completing 20-of-24 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown, and showed time and again why he is among the most prolific game managers in the league, it was Locker’s scintillating performance in the waning moments that sent Rivers and Co. to a 1-2 mark and resulted in the 25-year-old quarterback running toward the West end zone, looking for someone to embrace after his only touchdown pass of the game put Tennessee ahead to stay.
“I think there was a calm feeling, there was no panic on the 6-yard line,” Locker told reporters after finishing with 23-of-37 attempts for 299 yards and one score. “There was a feeling that, ‘Hey, if there’s enough time to go down the field and make things happen, then let’s do it.”
For the Titans (2-1), who running back Chris Johnson said could easily be 3-0 after allowing a winnable game at Houston to slip away in overtime a week ago, Sunday’s win was a huge confidence-builder for a team that began its longest home stand of the season. Most importantly, though, Locker’s latest outing, he said, was a testament of the tireless work he put in during an offseason in which the Titans allowed him to assume every rep, most notably during their organized team activities.
Having undergone successful shoulder surgery in January, Locker showed no signs of rust Sunday against a Chargers team the Titans hadn’t beaten since September 1992 when the franchise was housed in Houston.
For instance, when the Titans struggled to generate any offense after falling behind, 7-0, it was Locker who eluded a slew of defenders and scrambled his way for Tennessee’s longest run of the game, a 39-yard gain that set up a Rob Bironas 20-yard field goal at the 13:05 mark of the second. Then, after San Diego (1-2) had extended its lead to 10-3 on Nick Novak’s 44-yard field goal with 4:53 left, Locker, operating in the no huddle offense, led the Titans on 2:56 drive that ended with him reaching the end zone virtually untouched on a 7-yard scamper that produced the game’s only tie at 10.
“Jake, I thought from the very beginning, played extremely well,” Munchak said. “He led us on a two-minute drive before the half and he led us on a two-minute drive to end the game. I didn’t say much to him (before the game-winning drive). He’s confident. It was just one of these games where he flowed right. He took numerous shots down the field and, obviously, at the end, he made the biggest one of all.”
Indeed he did.
Trailing, 17-13, with 2:05 remaining in regulation, the Titans began their final possession at their own
six yard line in what was Locker’s first game-winning drive of his career.
He began the drive by tossing a 9-yard pass to Kendall Wright, then dumped a short pass to tight end Delanie Walker in the right flat that covered 11 yards. To his credit, Locker completed 7-of-10 attempts for 84 yards on the Titans’ final drive, a sequence that was highlighted by arguably the game’s grandest play, a 34-yard scoring strike to Hunter, who soared above Butler, his defender, and came down with the game-winner.
“Honestly, when I threw it and saw them both jump to go up for it, (Hunter) was much higher than the guy guarding him…and I started celebrating.”
With his right index finger pointed toward the heavens.