Back before the 2017 NFL season started, I had a look through the regular season schedule for the Tennessee Titans with a view to seeing what the chances were that I’d have any loyalty to a team in the playoffs or just be watching games as a neutral. After looking at the fixture I made the following prediction:
“As it stands, I can imagine the Titans getting 10+ wins this season, and think they should be disappointed by anything less than a 9-7 season and a return to the playoffs.”
So how did the Titans fare? Well, they finished 9-7, making it into the playoffs (the first time since 2008) as the 5th seed in the AFC, then beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium 22-21 in the Wildcard Round, only to lose in Foxborough 14-35 in the Divisional Round. And yet while I don’t think the Titans could have really expected to go beyond this stage, I actually feel disappointed with the way the season panned out for the franchise.
The schedule for the AFC South teams was very kind this year – only 6 games were against teams with a winning record, 2 of which were the Jaguars – so this was always going to give the Titans a chance to push for a wildcard spot if they did not win the division. While wins at Jacksonville (who ended 10-6) and at home to the Seahawks (9-7) in the opening 3 weeks suggested this was a team that could go far, they were brought crashing back down to earth in a humbling 14-57 loss at the Texans (4-12) as rookie QB Deshaun Watson ran riot. They then lost to a Dolphins (6-10) team that was led by the less-than-impressive Jay Cutler and in Week 7 were taken to overtime by a Cleveland Browns team that failed to win all season! After their Week 8 bye, they were able to get back on track with close wins over the up-and-down Ravens (9-7) and Bengals (7-9) before another humbling at Heinz Field, where the Steelers (13-3) won 17-40. Their late push for a Divisional title faltered following losses to the Cardinals (8-8), Rams (11-5) and a resurgent 49ers who salvaged a poor start to the season to finish 6-10 with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.
Even while they finished 5-1 in their Divisional games, this must be looked at closer as 3 of these games (both Colts fixtures and Week 13’s game against the Texans) were against backup quarterbacks, while the Texans had also lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus to Injured Reserve by this point in the season. It’s fair to say that they had an easy schedule and an easy division, yet they still only just scraped into the playoff due to their record in the conference.
There were some bright sparks for Tennessee this year. Derrick Henry continued to impress with his increased work load and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is promoted to starter in 2018. The O-Line continued to draw praise from pundits, with Taylor Lewan being selected to the Pro Bowl. With Dick LeBeau in place as Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator, the Titans defense ranked 4th in the league on rushing yards and 13th in overall yards (16th in points). Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey was selected to the Pro Bowl, safety Kevin Byard was the league leader in interceptions (8) and was selected 1st team All Pro, while rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson impressed as a starter and will only improve going forward. Marcus Mariota did not have a great season and arguably regressed a bit this season – though he was hampered by a hamstring injury picked up in Week 4 – but he showed flashes of the quality player we know he is towards the end of the season and is also a clear leader on the team who puts his team before his body (check out the block he threw on the Chiefs’ Frank Zombo to allow Derrick Henry to pick up a game-sealing first down on 3rd & 10 and the reaction of his teammates). I would argue though that his regression was more symptomatic of the Titans offense rather than an issue with him.
The offense as a whole this season was terrible! Despite averaging more yards in both the rushing and passing game, Derrick Henry started only 2 games, while the lead back continued to be DeMarco Murray. First round draft pick Corey Davis showed some real flashes of his potential, especially in the playoffs against New England, but he struggled with injury throughout the season, which limited his effectiveness. The signing of Eric Decker in June really excited me, but though he was probably not on his best form this year, he was also not often used as the Red Zone target that we have seen him excel as being in recent seasons with the Jets. Mike Mularkey had previously described the offensive style as exotic smash mouth. The offense this season was rarely exotic and sometimes not even very smash mouth.
I do not want to put all the blame on Mularkey – while he is the Head Coach, Terry Robiskie is the Offensive Coordinator – but unfortunately if things are not going in the direction the team wants, he will be the one at risk. The offense this season was what stopped them performing as well as they should and a change was clearly needed ahead of next year. I am not overly surprised to see that the Titans and Mularkey have parted ways, Mularkey was the right person to get the franchise back on track but I did not see him as being the person to push them on to the next level.
Looking ahead to 2018
I think that there is plenty to be positive about in 2018. Mike Vrabel has been named as the new Head Coach so it will be interesting to see the effect he can have considering his limited NFL coaching experience (he was the Texans’ linebacker coach 2014-2016 and Defensive Coordinator this season). It will also be interesting to see what changes are made with the offensive coaching staff considering this was where the issues seemed to lie.
Looking at the roster, there is not really much that needs improving if the big pieces can stay in place. The important this is to work on the depth. The Titans offense fell apart following Jack Conklin’s injury against the Pats and the defense was clearly tiring as the Patriots maintained their drives. The AFC South will be much more competitive next year with Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson fit (and who knows what the Jags will do at QB!), but I feel that the Titans should be able to push on from this year and fight for the Divisional title.
Hopefully they are going to do better than this season, as I’m planning to watch them play at Wembley!
All images in the text of this article are from the Tennessee Titans website http://www.titansonline.com