Pity Dennis Kelly.
His reward for a healthy and productive summer: Opening the season against one of the league’s best pass rushers of the last decade, on the road, in a sauna.
It had to hurt the Titans to rule out starting right tackle Jack Conklin for Sunday’s season opener against the Dolphins because of a lingering knee issue. Kelly, a veteran backup, is expected to start in Conklin’s place.
Expected to line up opposite Kelly for much of the game?
Cameron Wake, who is about to begin his 10th NFL season. Wake, true to character, did no somersaults to celebrate Friday (even if he could be forgiven for indulging himself).
“I’m pretty consistent on how I look at guys,” Wake said. “I study like anybody else. I see weaknesses and strengths and things like that. You try to line those up with what you’ve got. You line their weakness up with your strengths. At the end of the day, it’s a guy I look at as an opponent. He probably thinks he’s better than me, I think I’m better than him, and on Sunday it’s going to be pass or fail.”
Wake has had far more passing grades than failing ones in his first nine seasons. His 92 sacks are third among all active NFL players, behind just Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs. Peppers and Suggs are both likely headed to the Hall of Fame; Wake probably needs at least two more really good years to be considered.
At 36, that would be asking a lot of most any other player. But Wake has shown a preternatural ability to fight back Father Time.
Can he do it again in 2018? We will begin to find out Sunday.
But on paper, he has never had more help. Robert Quinn is immediately the best pass rusher Wake has played with since Jason Taylor.
“He’s a tremendous asset to the team,” Wake said. “Obviously, he’s a great football player, tremendous pass-rushing force. Anytime you have to make decisions when it comes to the offensive side of the ball … of course, that would probably be a great question to ask one of those guys on the other side, but how are you going to dispense your attention? There’s only so many guys you’ve got to use and hopefully the more that we can occupy, the better it is for the team in its entirety.”
Wake says a lot without being inflammatory. He needs no external motivation; simply looking in the mirror and outperforming the person he sees is enough.
“Being better than him,” Wake said. “I’ve always been a guy I’ve never cared about stats particularly, somebody else, what he did, what he does, what the other guy on the other side of the league is doing. I have a very, very competition in myself and outdoing me, being better, being smarter. All of those things, keep stepping that bar up. That’s kind of the way I make my way across improving and I think if I continue to do that, then hopefully I can help this team. If I can help this team, then we can get more wins, and so on and so on. It’s just going to trickle down and trickle across and be contagious. If that’s not how you approach it and you’re worried about somebody else, what he’s doing, what he’s doing, I think you’re behind the 8-ball already. I just focus on being the best me I can be and I can look in the mirror every day and live with that. I think I’ll be all right.”
Wake has also grown into a leader, and addresses his teammates more than he did early in his career. Much of that, of course, is due to production. But he’s also grown as a leader.
He occasionally gets in front of his teammates and gets what he needs off his chest.
This week’s message?
“It’s just a long offseason. I think April 25th-ish, we came back and pretty much everything we’ve done from that day until now is focusing on Sunday. All the drills, the conditioning, weights, studying, preseason, 9-on-7s, 1-on-1s, all of that stuff has kind of come to this moment. I think everybody kind of is ready. It’s time. All the talk, whatever I’m going to say now, doesn’t mean anything. Whatever I say tomorrow is not going to mean anything. What’s going to mean something is going to be when you put those pads on and you do your job on Sunday.”
“There’s no SportsCenter highlights. There’s no TV shows about it. The majority of what goes on, no one sees. Everybody sees Sunday at one o’clock until 3:30 or four o’clock – whatever – and that’s all they know; but there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes. I think, again, that’s why this is the greatest team sport in the world because there is so much at stake. You don’t get 100 games to figure it out. You have, like you said, 16 chances. You work the rest of the year for those 16 chances. And it’s probably going to come down in the NFL as we saw last night to one play. Just one.
“You don’t know which one. It could have been the third one, the 15th one. Everybody think’s it’s the last play of the game, but it got decided good or bad somewhere along the line of the game. A game of inches. All of those sayings and all of those thing, it’s the reality. It’s heavier than you can probably express to somebody who hasn’t been on this side doing it. It’s some of the greatest highs and some of the lowest lows. That’s why we go through what we go through in order to achieve that six hours of joy and pleasure of winning a game and to avoid those 16 or so hours of sorrow. Again, it’s heavier than I can explain to you until you put some pads on.”
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