Last year the Titans finished 9-7, and have been generating buzz ever since. Since February, I’ve been reading that they’re expected to win the AFC South this season. The offensive linemen became celebrities thanks to a Stanley Cup run by the Predators and catfish fetishists:
Even schedule makers are complicit in the sizzle, giving Tennessee the Week 6 MNF, against the Clots. On Thursday Week 11, the Titans go to Pittsburgh—which even spares casual fans of the annual TNF clásico against the Jags. The NFL is not fond of the Titans, particularly its ownership structure due to ownership crap. So two prime time force-feedings can only mean one thing: the Titans are officially watchable. That is not faint praise.
If “winning” is the goal, then much of the memorable stuff about the Titans falls between unsatisfying and pathetic. That exciting Super Bowl loss in 2000. Jeff Fisher being its most accomplished head coach. A decade-long “rivalry” with the Ravens characterized by them brutally bouncing TEN from the playoffs. Vince Young. Losing every game to Indianapolis since 2011. Season after season of going 1-1 against Jacksonville, no matter who sucked more. Wishing Vince Young was still the QB during the Jake Locker-when-healthy / Charlie Whitehurst / Zach Mettenberger era. The 1-7 at home record in 2014 AND 2015. And then it happened on 2016.
Much like the birth of Jesus Christ, the hiring of GM Jon Robinson in 2016 marks the Common Titans Era. But Robinson, rather than a miracle worker, is more of a savvy Marshall’s or TJ Maxx shopper.
The new GM made a splash right away, trading the 2016 #1 pick to the Rams for a wagon of picks. Then he and head coach Mike Mularkey developed the vision for a run-heavy, physical team. The result was a roster overhaul that included six new offensive starters for 2016:
· Two new running backs – starter DeMarco Murray (swap of 4th Round picks with Philadelphia) and Derrick Henry (2nd Round) off the bench
· Two new wide receivers – Rishard Matthews (released by Miami; 65 for 945 yards, 9 TDs), and Tajae Sharpe (5th Round, 41 for 522 yards, 2 TDs)
· Three new offensive linemen – C Ben Jones (free agent from Houston), RG Josh Kline (released by New England), and rookie RT Jack Conklin (8th overall pick, 2016 first team All Pro).
With holdovers Marcus Mariota, stud TE Delanie Walker, and LT Taylor Lewan and LG Quinton Spain, Tennessee tripled its 2015 win total. But the defense—woof.
In 2016, the Titans gave up 88.3 yards per game rushing (2nd in the NFL), 23.6 points per game (16th), and was putrid in pass defense: 30th in pass yards allowed, besting Green Bay (31st) by only one total yard (4,307 to 4,308; stats via ESPN). What saved the DBs were drops (the Raiders win at TEN comes to mind), or derpier offenses (like the win at Detroit; the Lions had two TDs erased by penalties, and had a third-and-goal at about the 25 yard line). The Titans secondary did excel at giving career games to terrible QBs. Brian Hoyer in 2014. Johnny Manziel in 2015. Cody Kessler in 2016 (thus completing the Browns trifecta), AND Matt Barkley. God that game in Chicago was horrible; I still can’t believe the Titans pulled that one off.
Despite the glowing offseason predictions, I fretted plenty. The Titans missed the playoffs in 2016 because they went 2-4 in the division (to be clear: a shit division). In the end, the Titans were only good enough to have, and lose, a trap game in Week 16 in Jacksonville, with the playoffs on the line. For this franchise, which totaled 5 wins in 2014 and 2015, that was vertigo-inducing progress.
There were a lot of mistakes early in the season. TEN started 1-3, after several turnovers for touchdowns by Mariota. Special teams play caused two additional losses, and the offensive line got owned by the Colts and by JAX on Week 16 (another loss to a new interim coach, like against Miami in 2015). There is no guarantee that the Titans will be better, much less that Mariota will finish the season out of IR for the first time in his career. But this team is objectively better than last year’s edition.
There’s coaching continuity. Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau are on their third year with the team, their second as head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively. Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie and O-Line coach Russ Grimm return for their second year, and are my favorite tandem to beat up any other pair of coaches in the NFL. Personnel has improved as well.
The secondary is better. Safety Jonathan Cyprien (27 y.o) was picked up from the Jags, and two-time Super Bowl winner CB Logan Ryan (26 y.o.) from the Pats (the team’s top tackler in 2016). CB / returner / human highlight film Adoree’ Jackson was drafted in the first round (18th overall). The Titans released several DBs in their 30s, both maligned (Perrish Cox and Michael Griffin), and respected (Jason McCourty). Second year safety Kevin Byard is getting buzz as a chess-queen defender, but no one has yet dared to compare him to former LeBeau freelancers. We’ll see.
The front line still features criminally underexposed Jurrell Casey, and the linebackers are a solid group, headed by unimpeachable pro Brian Orakpo. Him and Derrick Morgan combined for 19.5 sacks last year, and I can’t complain about inside LBs Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson. Second year LB Kevin Dodd (33rd overall pick) was maligned some by the coaching staff last year, for lack of effort. Turns out he had yet to fully recover from a stress fracture in his foot and two subsequent surgeries. He’s played this preseason, but has not generated much praise.
On the offensive side, the Titans improved. Their top wide receivers last year were Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe. This unit now also includes Erick Decker, who looked great, until he twisted his ankle in practice (he’s questionable for the 3rd preseason game). On the draft, TEN picked WRs Corey Davis (5th pick) and Taywan Taylor (3rd Round). Davis has not played yet (hurt hamstring in practice), but is expected to appear in the fourth preseason game. Taylor has gotten praise (yeah yeah, will any be good? I dunno; I hate college football, and your Ouija board’s as good as mine). The team hasn’t given up on Tre McBride (who looked good until a drop in the second preseason game); he might be in the bubble to make the team, together with coach favorite Harry Douglas, Sharpe, and mostly special teamer Erick Weems previously of the Falcons. All newcomers bring upside, so this unit definitely improved.
Running backs are DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and practice-squadder David Fluellen. Last year I called for Henry to get more touches, but Murray was the team’s MVP—easily. DeMarco injured his hamstring but will see his first action in the third preseason game. I expect him to be top dog this year, but Henry will get his touches. It’s hard to see a better RB duo in the NFL at present.
The team still has stud TE Delanie Walker (just turned 33), and added Jonnu Smith (3rd Round). Walker said Smith will be better than him, but Smith is now listed third on the depth chart, behind Phillip Supernaw. In Fantasy terms, Delanie is the Keeper, Smith the Sleeper, and Supernaw the Comatose (Five years, 10 receptions, 124 yards).
As to Mariota, he’s 23 and freakin’ great. I hate repeating myself, so here’s the summary: he’s even keeled, can throw every pass, rarely gambles, clutch in the 4th quarter, knows when to run (and slide, and throw the ball away), and is damn near perfect in the Red Zone. A bone for nitpickers: Marcus Mariota doesn’t drink. In fact, the only time he’s had alcohol was after his grandfather’s funeral–a margarita, gramp’s favorite. I’ll say this: if you’re gonna have alcohol for the first time, don’t go for that salt on the rim or other fussy stuff. Have a “normal” mixed drink—you know, rum & Coke, 7 & 7, gin / vodka and juice. Makes sense, is all.
It’s also sensible that the Titans are a better team this year than in 2016. But the bar is been set: it’s win the division, or at least grab a playoff spot. The schedule is front loaded: the first six games alternate between 2016 playoff teams and division opponents (Raiders on Week 1, Seahawks on Week 3, at Miami on Week 5). Then the Browns 2.0 on Week 7, the bye on Week 8, and then the old AFC Central folks: Ravens (🖕🏽), Bengals, and the TNF at Pittsburgh. Finally, at Colts on 10-days rest, Texans, two late afternoon Sunday games (hooray!) at Arizona and SF, then a Rams – Jax homestand.
Yep, I can see the playoffs this year—and, if allowed to dream, the Week 1 OAK@TEN is as good as any alt-AFC Championship. But, honestly, I don’t think I’d be much disappointed if the Titans regress to 8-8 or worse.
TEN, as an organization, has been progressing since 2015. While majority ownership is not concentrated on a single person, Amy Adams-Strunk (1/3 owner) is the evident face of the franchise. Her involvement and visibility have steadily grown ever since she fired Ken Whisenhunt in 2015, for grounding Mariota into dust. She’s the owner, period.
Jon Robinson has cleared the roster of ballast and malcontents, and the team is pretty much diva- and fuckhead-free. The only notable offseason incident was a bar fight involving Tajae Sharpe and reserve OL Sebastian Tretola for, allegedly, beating up a rando for talking shit about Sharpe getting cut after Corey Davis was drafted. Also, Derrick Henry was the only Titan who failed to show up for voluntary OTAs. The reason: he was taking classes at Alabama.
The team is being run like a meritocracy and people are held accountable—players and coaches. Mularkey fired his special teams coach Bobby April, a longtime buddy, because the unit sucked. Flash back to 2014, when head coach Mike Munchak resigned because he refused to fire his underperforming staff.
This team is being run competently. That has never generated buzz for the Titans—which makes sense, because this is a very recent development. Win or lose the division, or making the playoffs this year, are not end-all benchmarks. This is a young team, whose potential may take a while to realize. That sure as shit ain’t chic, but is hella satisfying.
Unless otherwise stated, stats and player transaction info via Wikipedia.com.