Raising the Titan-ic
For the last several years, the Tennessee Titans have been a ship destined to hit the iceberg. While they’ve been kept afloat by a strong roster and weak division, they typically come up just short of success. However, this Tennessee regimen may have raised the Titan-ic.
The 2019 Titans have been somewhat of a Cinderella story. After starting the season 2-4 with Marcus Mariota as their quarterback, the Titans rattled off 7 of 10 victories and made the postseason as the sixth seed. They did so behind a bulldozing running back, aggressive defense, and the arm of former Miami bust Ryan Tannehill.
The Titans knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions on the road in the Wild Card Round, holding Tom Brady to 13 points and rushing for over 200 yards. Many people attributed this victory more to the end of the Patriots dynasty than to the success of Tennessee.
This past week, however, no one could deny the Titans credit. They went into Baltimore as 10-point underdogs and clobbered the best team in the NFL. They held the #1 scoring offense to 12 points, ran for over 200 yards against the fifth ranked rushing defense, and stymied soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson until the game was sealed.
People may attribute this historic underdog tale to a multitude of different factors, but there is one component I believe deserves the most attention. The Titans did something that many unsuccessful sports franchises fail to do whether it be due to fear, remorse, or stubbornness. They admitted when they were wrong and did something about it.
Second year coach Mike Vrabel had a “fine” situation in Tennessee. Coming off a 9-7 season where the team barely missed out on the playoffs, he was secure in his job knowing he did not have high expectations for the upcoming season. He had a ferocious and talented defense, a running back that couldn’t be tackled, and a serviceable quarterback in Marcus Mariota.
In their first game of the 2019 season, the Titans went into Cleveland (who at the time had the 5th highest odds to win the Super Bowl) and defeated the Browns 43-13. The defense picked off Baker Mayfield three times, Derrick Henry accumulated 159 total yards, and Mariota was once again very serviceable. The former second overall pick completed 59% of his passes for 158 yards and 3 TDs. He was “fine.”
Over the next four games, even though the Titans went 1-3, Marcus Mariota didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. He completed 62% of his passes, averaged 217 pass yards per game, and threw four touchdowns and zero interceptions. These weren’t MVP numbers, but passing for over 200 yards per game with a 7:0 TD:INT ratio was impressive. He wasn’t losing any games solely due to his performance. He was “fine.”
In his next game against the Denver Broncos, however, Mariota had a horrific outing. He only completed 7 passes for 63 yards and threw two interceptions through two and a half quarters. While most coaches would stay the course with their QB through the rest of the game, Vrabel had seen enough.
Even though Mariota had committed zero turnovers and scored nearly two touchdowns per game leading up to the Denver game, Vrabel elected to make a change. Down 13-0, he inserted Ryan Tannehill with 4:49 left in the third quarter. While Tannehill did not complete the comeback, he went 13 for 16 passing for 144 yards and one interception. He offered something that Mariota could not up to this point: the potential to win a game on his shoulders. “Fine” was no longer acceptable.
Vrabel’s decision proved to be the right one, as Tannehill went on to have a career year. The former Dolphins’ quarterback went 7-2 as a starter in the regular season, completing 70% of his passes for 2,700 yards, 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Those marks had all surpassed Marcus Mariota’s totals from each of the last two years. Tannehill was better than “fine.” He was extraordinary.
Tannehill helped the Titans claim the sixth seed, beat the Patriots in Foxborough, and upset the 14-2 Ravens in Baltimore. While he hasn’t had impressive stat lines in the playoffs thus far, he made several impressive throws that Marcus Mariota could never make. Whether the Titans win next week versus Kansas City and advance to the Super Bowl or lose in an embarrassing fashion, the outcome will not matter. The precedent has been set that the Titans organization will not stay steadfast if they believe there is an opportunity to achieve better.
Now, this may sound like common sense. You are probably saying to yourself, “C’mon buddy, of course an organization is going to give itself the best chance to win. This is not anything new.” While it may be true that the Titans are not the first organization to abandon “serviceable” for “potential,” there are one of the few that have the guts to do it.
Not Following the Trend
The Chicago Bears are one of the many organizations who fail to admit when they make a mistake and they take too long to correct it. Coming off a 12-4 season behind the number one defense in the league and innovative play calling, the Bears disappointed in 2019 with an 8-8 record. Their quarterback Mitch Turbisky regressed mightily, completing 63% of his passes for 3,138 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
Even though his season was a disappointment, Turbisky didn’t light the league on fire last year either. In 2018, he only completed 66% of his passes for 85 more yards and threw 7 more touchdowns to 2 more interceptions. He ranked 20th among starting quarterbacks in passing yards, 14th in passing touchdowns, and 23rd in QB-rating. He wasn’t winning Chicago games. He just wasn’t losing them any.
Now, at the start of this offseason, Bears’ GM Ryan Pace reaffirmed his commitment to Mitch Turbisky as the starter for the 2020 season. While all press conferences this early in the offseason need to be taken with a grain of salt, the sentiment is still not ideal. Pace is still holding out hope that Turbisky suddenly reinvents himself in Chicago. He’s taking the safe path.
If the Bears want to advance to the next level, beyond just making the playoffs, they need a quarterback who can put the team on his shoulders and win the game when everyone else on the team fails. Assuming that Turbisky can take a leap in his fourth year when he has not shown the potential to be a top-five quarterback is a recipe for failure.
The Cincinnati Bengals have done the same thing with Andy Dalton for the longest time. Dalton has been the Bengals’ quarterback for nine years. In that timespan, he has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards twice, 25 passing touchdowns twice, and a 65% completion percentage once. While he has led his team to the playoffs on multiple occasions, he has not won a playoff game. He was merely “fine.”
Dalton has been a reliable, safe quarterback for most of his career, but he has never been considered a franchise quarterback. When teams game plan against the Bengals, Andy Dalton is not their primary concern. However, due to his consistency and dependability, the Bengals passed up on multiple potential upgrades in the stubborn belief that their pick could suddenly blossom. That is one of the main reasons that Cincinnati is picking first in the 2020 NFL draft.
The Chief Example to Follow
The prime example I go back to every time I hear of a team opting to keep or extend a mediocre quarterback is the Kansas City Chiefs. From 2013-2017 with QB Alex Smith at the helm, the Chiefs made the playoffs four times and had a winning record in all five years. Smith was dependable, as he managed the offense perfectly for Andy Reid. Yet, when the game came down to Smith needing to make a play, he couldn’t get it done.
In his first year with Kansas City, he lost 45-44 to the Indianapolis Colts after blowing a 28-point third quarter lead. His next playoff appearance included a win over the Texans but followed with a 7-point lost to the Patriots. He would lose his next two playoff appearances, including a game where (guess who) Marcus Mariota made an 18-point comeback to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City.
While the Chiefs won 53 games in 5 years, they were never dominant. Alex Smith didn’t possess the talent to do anything other than manage the game. He had great weapons like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt, but he could never elevate the talent around him. The weapons were always masking Smith’s limitations.
Smith’s career arc is eerily similar to that of Marcus Mariota, who went 9-7 in three consecutive seasons as a starter. Both Smith and Mariota were consistently above average; yet, neither team won any accolades of importance. Their floor was high, but their ceiling was capped.
The Chiefs finally decided above average wasn’t good enough. With Alex Smith coming off a 12-4 season and a divisional round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chiefs traded up from Pick 27 to 10 in the 2017 NFL draft to select QB Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs were not satisfied with being just good enough to lose in the first round of the playoffs. Mahomes gave them the chance to be special, and the upside of the rookie was greater than the floor of the incumbent.
Luck favored the bold decision maker, as Mahomes became an MVP. Last week, he led his team to a 24-point comeback and ended up throwing 5 touchdowns in a 51-31 route over the Texans. He will have now made the Conference Championship game more times than Alex Smith has in his career.
The Chiefs and Titans both gambled by benching their safe, winning QB and starting someone who had the potential to carry the team. Marcus Mariota was the Titans’ Alex Smith. He was good enough to guide his team to a winning season, but not good enough to take them anywhere in January. The Titans took a risk in starting Tannehill and it paid dividends.
Will They Ever Learn?
In this league, serviceable isn’t good enough. The Tyrod Taylors and Alex Smiths of the world are likely not going to win a Super Bowl, so why commit to them? Even if there aren’t better options out there, at the end of the day, the teams that go 2-14 end up in the same place as the teams that go 8-8.
Teams like the Bears with Mitch Trubisky, the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, and the Raiders with Derek Carr are not going to achieve so long as they commit to mediocrity. Maybe they will have a winning season and make the playoffs, but that is their ceiling. The teams that consistently make it deep in the playoffs are those with quarterbacks that can carry the team, not those whose roster masks their signal callers’ deficiencies.
Will general managers and coaches learn that doing just enough isn’t enough? It is starting to look that way. In the past few season’s alone, we have seen teams abandon their safe quarterback when there is an opportunity to gamble on potential. The Arizona Cardinals did so by choosing Kyler Murray over Josh Rosen. The Buffalo Bills did so by choosing Josh Allen over Tyrod Taylor. The Baltimore Ravens did so by choosing Lamar Jackson over Joe Flacco. These teams gambled on potential over security. Whether or not it pays off, at least they avoid 8-8 purgatory.
Maybe organizations are learning. Then again, quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum continually get new contracts and find starting jobs. Teams reluctantly give extensions to safe quarterbacks, so they don’t end up at the bottom of the barrel. Yet, this just delays the inevitable.
The Titans are a prime example of what should become a trend in the 2020s for football teams. It’s okay to “give up” on your starter after a couple seasons if there is an opportunity for improvement. If you are not confident your quarterback could win an MVP any given year, then you have the wrong quarterback and need to move on. While there may not be other viable options available, it is better to gamble on the unknown than settle for mediocrity.
If Tennessee wins the Super Bowl, this point should be cemented. If they lose in the Conference Championship, many will likely forget and attribute this run to a string of luck. Nonetheless, it appears Vrabel and the Titans have learned their lesson and they have been rewarded. They have raised the Titan-ic.