We finish up our 2018 Regular Season Preview of the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans, who after a surprising showing in the Playoffs, will be ushering a new coaching regime with designs on greater things. That’s right folks, ending a decade-long Postseason Drought and pulling off one of the most memorable Playoff Comebacks in recent memory wasn’t enough for Mike Mularkey to keep his job, as the veteran Coach was relieved of his duties after his charges fell in a 35-14 defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Division Round. It was a mostly uneven season for Tennessee, with their body of work responsible for Mularkey’s ousting, leading to a prolonged coaching search that eventually concluded with Mike Vrabel. The former Patriots’ Linebacker and most Recently Houston Texans’ Defensive Coordinator will look to modernize a talented, yet largely untapped, roster, particularly in the form of Heisman Winners Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry, who have each failed to live up the considerable hype after being drafted in successive years. With that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not the Titans made the right decision in revolutionizing their Coaching Staff, or if they bit off bit more than they can chew and slump back into mediocrity.
After a stellar 2016, there is no other way to describe Marcus Mariota’s third season as a Starting Quarterback than disappointing. As a Sophomore, the former Heisman was nothing short of a modicum of efficiency, completing 60.2% of his Attempts for an average of 228.4 Yards per Game on 6.90 Net Yards per Attempt, tossing Twenty-Six Touchdowns to just Nine Interceptions, while posting a 59.4 Quarterback Rating in the process. Unfortunately, he saw that particular campaign end a week premature, suffering a broken fibula that required Offseason Surgery, which would loom rather largely over the duration of the following term. Mariota missed a large part of the Titans’ Offseason Program, showing the injury’s effects throughout much of the 2018 season; he completed 62.0% of his Passes for an average of 215.5 Yards per Contest on 6.37 Net Yards per Attempt, with the biggest disparity from the previous year being Touchdown/Interception Ratio, throwing just Thirteen Touchdowns in comparison to Fifteen Interceptions, which reduced his Quarterback Rating to 55.1. Granted, he still factored heavily into Tennessee’s Rushing Attack (60 CAR, 312 YDS, 5 TD in 2017), but his regression as a passer was readily apparent. Compounding matters was a Receiving Corps that lacked any real tangible threat, though ageless Tight End Delanie Walker (74 REC, 807 YDS, 3 TD in 2017) continued to be one of the most consistently unheralded players at his position. Veterans Eric Decker (54 REC, 563 YDS, 1 TD I 2017) and Harry Douglas (1 REC, 8 YDS in 2017) didn’t bring much to the table, and have both since departed in Free Agency, while Corey Davis (34 REC, 375 YDS in 2017), the Fifth Overall Pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, struggled to stay healthy and make any impact on the field. The new regime did very little to augment this position group, so big things will be expected from Davis, who at 6-3, 209 lbs has excellent size and route-running ability to become Mariota’s preferred target for years to come. Finally, like all Quarterbacks, Mariota should benefit greatly from more consistent play from his Offensive Line, which is rather odd in this case, for the Titans had one of the most impressive young Lines in the league heading into 2017. Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan is about as good as it gets at Left Tackle, though the rest of the unit, particularly both Guards, struggled to gain the traction that they had created beforehand. Further concerns lie in the (healthy) return of Right Tackle Jack Conklin, who tore his ACL in the Playoff Loss to the Patriots, with his availability for Week One in Miami in doubt. The new coaching regime has pledged to get the most out of their young Quarterback, though we’ll have to wait and see if they’re able to make good on their boasts.
Taking the Lead
Another reason for Tennessee’s regression on Offense in 2017 was the play of the Running Game, which after being borderline dominant the year prior, fell back to the middle of the pack. Let’s take a look at the numbers, folks; two years ago, the Titans pummeled opponents on the ground, ranking Third Overall in Rushing Offense (136.7 Y/G), Fourth in Rushing Attempts (29.8 A/G), and Fourth in Yards per Carry (4.6), only to slump to Fifteenth (114.6 Y/G), Fourteenth (27.7 A/G), and Fifteenth (4.1) in those respective categories a year later. So what in the hell happened, you ask? Well, as we touched upon earlier, the Offensive Line wasn’t nearly as solid as it was in 2016. Yes, Lewan was an animal (and he was recently rewarded for it with a lucrative contract extension), and while Conklin was an ideal bookend opposite the Pro Bowler, the interior of the Line underachieved mightily, with Center Ben Jones, and Guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline failing to create the push that was so vital to the attack. However, it certainly didn’t help matters that veteran Tailback DeMarco Murray (184 CAR, 659 YDS, 6 TD in 2017) suddenly hit the wall; the former NFL Rushing Champion led the AFC in Rushing Yards in 2016 (1,287 YDS), but looked like a shell of himself last season, which led to his release from the Roster in the Spring, and eventually to his abrupt retirement a few months later. With the 30-Year Old no longer lining up in the Backfield, the weight of the Running Game will fall on the broad shoulders of yet another former Heisman, Derrick Henry (176 CAR, 744 YDS, 5 TD in 2017). It’s high time for the hulking, 6-3, 247-lb Tailback to live up to his billing, after largely functioning in a tandem role alongside Murray over the past two years. After carrying the football fewer than 200 times in each of his two terms in the league, the Alabama Product is expected to feature far more heavily in the new Coaching Staff’s more wide-open Offense. If he can get some space to operate, few Defensive Backs are going to be able to bring him down in the open field. Just refer back to his huge performance in Tennessee’s epic 22-21 comeback win over the Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card; Henry plowed over Kansas City’s inept Defense to the tune of 156 Yards on just Twenty-Three Carries, punctuated by a momentum-swinging 35-Yard Touchdown Run to begin the Fourth Quarter. Indeed, Vrabel & Co. are hoping that that performance was a portent of things to come, rather than the meager Twenty-Eight Yards he was relegated to the following week at New England.
One of the more underrated coaching changes in the Offseason was Tennessee’s, largely due to the fact that they were coming off what was certainly a successful season culminating in their first Playoff Appearance since 2008 and that aforementioned comeback at Arrowhead. However, from the moment the season began, the writing had been on the wall for former Head Coach Mike Mularkey, who was very nearly replaced after the previous term, and clearly wasn’t in General Manager Jon Robinson’s plans moving forward. And if it wasn’t clear at that point, then it absolutely was when the news broke that the veteran skipper’s services would not be retained shortly before the AFC Wild Card Kickoff (awkward….). It’s rare that coaching changes happen after such a season, but at the end of the day, the regression on Offense (particularly in regards to Mariota) coupled with Mularkey’s perceived dated philosophy, was enough for Robinson to institute considerable change, eventually choosing to go with familiarity in the form of Mike Vrabel. Of course, both Robinson and Vrabel have deep ties to the New England Patriots, Robinson, a longtime Scout for the Pats from 2002 to 2013, and Vrabel, a Three-Time Super Bowl Champion Linebacker for New England from 2001 to 2008. The latter spent had spent the previous four years coaching Linebackers for a pair of ex-Patriots in Houston, Bill O’Brien and Romeo Crennel, most recently serving as Defensive Coordinator in 2017. This will be the 43-Year Old’s first stab at being a Head Coach, and it should be interesting to see how he approaches tweaking what worked and what didn’t work for a team that was a surprise Postseason Participant. Joining him is Matt LaFleur (39-Years Old), who will serve as Offensive Coordinator, and will be calling plays for the first time in his coaching career. LaFleur has a wealth of experience coaching primarily Quarterbacks, including last year in Los Angeles where he helped develop Jared Goff into a Pro Bowl Passer after a dreadful Rookie Season. If he can effect Mariota in a similar manner, then the transition to this Coaching Staff will be worth it’s weight in gold. But hey, you know that Tennessee needs at least one wily, old veteran to keep these young coaches in line, right? Look no further than new Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees, who after retiring with the Baltimore Ravens, quickly turned around and took the same role with the Titans. The 68-Year Old should bring some sorely needed balance and experience to this youthful Staff, which looks to emulate the successful New England Model, though they have a long way to go before we’re going to start referring to them as New England South just yet.
2018 Outlook: 7-9
The Tennessee Titans are a bit of an enigma heading into 2018. After sneaking into the Playoffs for the first time in a decade and pulling off one of the most memorable Postseason Comebacks in recent memory, they decided to completely overhaul their Coaching Staff, as Jon Robinson looks to ensure that this team continues to grow into the future. Despite making the Playoffs, the Offense rarely looked consistent, with it’s most important piece, Marcus Mariota, struggling mightily in his return from Offseason Surgery. However, the Tians do not lack talent on either side of the football, and with the addition of some intriguing Free Agents (I.E. ex-Patriot Hero Malcolm Butler) and a promising (though sparse) Draft Class, they could certainly improve upon last year’s uneven showing. However, we’re not necessarily sold on the hiring of Vrabel, who apart from enjoying a stellar playing career, possesses just four years of coaching experience on the professional level, including one year as Defensive Coordinator in which the Texans’ Defense yielded the most points in the NFL (though a rash of injuries certainly played a part). No doubt, he’ll benefit from the presence of LaFleur, who should be in line for a Head Coaching position at some point, and Peesas well, but there’s a bit of a history when it comes to former Bill Belichick Assistants/Players following in the footsteps of the Hooded Emperor. Either way, we expect Vrabel and the Titans to suffer some growing pains, and with the rest of the AFC South figuring to be far more competitive in 2018, we think that they’ll once again be hovering around .500, just barely on the outside looking in on the Playoffs.