4 downs and a touchdown: Evaluating the state of the Titans heading into the off-season

For a team with such high hopes and optimistic playoff aspirations, addressing the off-season certainly wasn’t something the Titans were expecting to do in late January.

But after a turnover filled free fall, and a collapse like no other by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee is now forced to reminisce about their playoff dreams, and take the early walk of shame with garbage bags full of belongings in hand.

While the players look ahead towards off-season workouts, vacations, and other activities that may interest them, the executive portion of the organization will sail full speed towards important events that aren’t too far away on the league calendar.

You have the East-West Shrine Bowl going down this upcoming Wednesday, and Senior Bowl occurring just two days after the East-West bowl, two free opportunities for NFL teams to get an early in person look at the next crop of potential NFL draftees.

Then you have the NFL scouting combine on March 1st, the marquee NFL event that forces some of football’s most polarizing prospects, to participate in drills while wearing sponsored physical clothing with the entirety of the football world watching.

After that, there’s the usual franchise tag deadline and free agency madness, then the sudden return back to work in April for team activities with rookies and veterans alike.

So while the ending to last Sunday’s game was lethargic and downright deflating, there’s not a lot of time to rest before business starts ramp up once again.

But before you can drop everything and hibernate until something of note occurs, we have to go through a bit of a Titans debriefing. Four downs, and a touchdown, all being questions that face the Titans through the foreseeable future. Along with a quick look to the off-season’s pleasures and treats that are provided with them.

Let’s meet one more time to discuss the 2021 season, and look ahead to sunny pastures in 2022.

But first, a quick word and quote of the day.

Word of the day: resiliency

Quote of the Day: “A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it.” -Ray Davis

1st Down: Saturday’s loss proved one thing

After all of the adversity that plagued the Titans in 2021, the last thing the team wanted was a gut-wrenching loss to effectively end their season.

Injuries, inconsistency, stagnation, all of these things stuck to the Titans like an annoying pimple on your forehead. For almost any other team, all those trials and tribulations would’ve caved down on them, crushing every last bit of optimism and positivity that remained. But the Titans stuck with their identity, found ways to win ball games without their best players, and kept their reputation as a scrappy football team that could beat anyone at anytime and at any place.

But with the Titans losing like they did, it’s clear that this team simply isn’t ready to be mentioned among the upper echelon of contenders around the NFL.

Forget the juggernauts in the NFC, it’s hard to see the Titans keeping up with the strides both Kansas City and Buffalo have made in recent years. Yes yes, they beat them in the regular season, so this shouldn’t be a topic of discussion right?

However, until the Titans find ways to exorcise their postseason demons and impose their will on AFC powerhouses in January, the regular season participation ribbons stand as nothing more than nuisances and annoying reminders of failure.

We might not see how high this Titans team can reach until certain decisions are made, particularly on the personnel side of things. But until that occurs (or doesn’t) it’s foolish to expect anything different from this franchise in terms of playoff success.

Well, that’s unless a specific amount of variables begin to favor the Titans in an unexpected fashion (alas Ryan Tannehill’s postseason failures).

2nd Down: The uncertain future ahead for the Titans

What does the future hold for the Titans after another disappointing playoff result? Well, it’s kind of hard to say.

On one hand, the roster and coaching staff will return largely intact — aside from an unexpected staff change or a big name leaving the team — which is positive for a proven football team that won games in a multitude of ways in 2021.

You should encounter a better injury situation in 2022, after injuries swept through the team like a ten foot tidal wave in 2021. Young contributors — Kristian Fulton, Elijah Molden, David Long Jr., etc — are set to return and improve upon their impressive 2021 campaigns, a development that could make the Titans’ defense more intimidating and technically sound. Finally, the division outlook remains positive for the team, as other contestants in the AFC South’s yearly rollercoaster would have to improve leaps and bounds to compete with the Titans in 2022.

But for every positive there’s a negative, especially for a solid team with so many questions after such a disappointing end to the season.

How can you maximize Ryan Tannehill’s output? The franchise signal caller is coming off one of his worst performances as a Titan, which has some wondering if he has what it takes to help Tennessee reach their impressive potential. And what do you do with Todd Downing? His egregious performance throughout the year — and the Titans’ lone postseason game to represent the cherry on top — has many calling for his removal as offensive coordinator.

Tannehill is for sure going to remain on the roster in 2022, as his cap hit and dead cap number is otherworldly. It feels like the same situation for Downing as well, as Vrabel has shown a willingness to stick with his trusted staff even after a turbulent first year in charge (Shane Bowen after the team’s disastrous defensive play in 2020).

So where does that leave this team, let alone this offense in 2022? It remains to be seen for the most part.

You’ll likely see Jon Robinson add some weapons, primarily in the draft, to help Tannehill and Downing rebound from their underwhelming 2021 performance. But will that help prevent Tannehill from turning the football over? Will that prevent Downing from bombarding this offense with predictable play calls, a lack of true feel for the game, and a tendency to telegraph play calls with personnel?

I honestly doubt that.

The 2022 season will present the next and best chance for Tannehill and Downing to prove their doubters wrong. Until we get to that annual starting point though, the questions and concerns will only continue to rise.

3rd Down: Will Mike Vrabel make any significant staff changes?

This is a question that’s been marinating among different minds ever since the Titans’ season came to an end this past Saturday.

The obvious candidates to be slashed from the staff are of course Downing, and even special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman. We’ve already discussed why Downing being canned would make sense. But what about Aukerman.

Ever since Aukerman took over as special teams coordinator in 2018, the Titans have always appeared average, especially in the explosive area on punt and kickoff returns. But if you truly want to get a sense of how average the Titans have been on special teams under Aukerman’s watchful eye, take a look at the team’s standing in Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings since 2018.

And if you want to know what Gosselin’s rankings present for the football world, read this explanation courtesy of seahawks.com.

For more than four decades, football writer Rick Gosselin has compiled a detailed, comprehensive list of the NFL’s top special teams units using a criteria of more than 20 categories like kickoff and punt return yardage, field goal percentages, opponent starting field position, and much, much more. Teams are assigned points for their standing in each category — one for best, 32 for worst. 

Basically, the more points you have, the worse your ranking is going to be.

Since 2018, the Titans have finished 16th, 18th, 24th, and 19th in Gosselin’s special teams rankings. That means a whole lot of mediocrity in an area the Titans need to be stout in, especially if they want take pressure off their main offensive and defensive units.

Some of the lack of impact on special teams can be attributed to personnel deficiencies. Chester Rogers, Adoree’ Jackson, Kalif Raymond, Cameron Batson, and many others haven’t been the best of options in terms of explosiveness in the return game. But when you constantly fall in the middle of the pack — maybe even below that — in categories such as return average and other key stats associated with special teams, then attention has to turn towards the man in charge and whether he’s a problem or not.

If the Titans were to move on from Aukerman, and even Downing — which are still unlikely moves — replacements wouldn’t come easy.

4th Down: If he does, where will he turn?

As for who could replace Aukerman — which again, Aukerman being canned is still unlikely — I don’t have a clue as to who would be a potential candidate.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that well versed within the special teams staffing world, so I couldn’t even begin to give you an answer as to who are candidates around the league, and if the Titans would look into them.

But if you asked me about potential offensive coordinator replacements, then I could give you a slightly better answer. The most obvious candidate to slide in as coordinator if Downing gets fired, is none other than former Houston Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.

Kelly was in Houston throughout the entirety of Vrabel’s time in Houston. First as a quality control coach, then as an assistant to then Texans offensive line coach Mike Devlin, next as tight ends coach in 2017, before finally being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2019.

Kelly is a free agent of sorts now, as he was fired by the Texans earlier this season. But Vrabel has remained in touch with Kelly over the years, so much so that the Titans requested to interview Kelly for the Titans’ then vacant offensive coordinator job in January of 2021.

If Vrabel wants to go down this route, it’d be unconventional according to his standards. But it’d be a powerful statement regarding the state of this organization and how high the sense of urgency is within the building during a window to contend.

Aside from Kelly though, I can’t give any concrete answers. The Titans haven’t been afraid to approach the college ranks either — the Titans had interest in Ohio State’s current head Ryan Day becoming the team’s offensive coordinator immediately after Vrabel became the team’s head coach in 2018, and Virginia head coach Tony Elliott when he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator in January of 2021 — so that’s certainly another route that could be taken.

But with how obsessed the Titans are with simply getting over the hump, targeting a coordinator in the college ranks seems extremely unlikely.

All of this is under the assumption that Downing gets fired , which I said before looks very unlikely at this point in time. But if Downing does get the boot after just one season in charge of the offense, the search might start with Tim Kelly and expand further than that.

Touchdown: A look ahead to the off-season

It looks like Jon Robinson will have a busy spring and summer ahead.

Not only with draft related activities, but with free agency and the constant roster shuffling throughout spring OTA’s, minicamp, and eventually training camp. But before he can even think about those things, he has to figure out what he wants to do with the impending free agents on his own team, and think about which players could be cut to free up all important cap room.

Harold Landry is coming off his most productive season as a professional, and he’ll likely attract some attention from other teams on the market. Ben Jones is an aging, but vital piece of the offensive line, and it remains to be seen if he’ll return. Jayon Brown won’t be a starter with the Titans next season — if he actually returns — but he could come back as a third down linebacker with the likely departure of Rashaan Evans on tap.

There’s so many situations Robinson has to address at home, that it feels wrong to even look at which non-Titans names are scheduled to hit the market once the new league year begins.

Then you have the draft, a period in which the Titans could look to add more young, speedier weapons to help bring more big play ability to an offense that certainly needs it.

Finally, you have veteran cut candidates. Janoris Jenkins, Rodger Saffold (pay cut candidate), and Taylor Lewan (pay cut candidate) are just a few veterans that could be handed the pink slip to help open up valuable cap space. You hate to go through with these sort of things with veterans, especially if Saffold and/or Lewan end up being the sacrificial lambs. You’d have to find replacements, and that wouldn’t be easy at all considering how productive the left side of the offensive line has been when both Lewan and Saffold have been healthy.

Either way, this off-season is going to be one full of tasks for Robinson. How he addresses each one of them will be key, as this team will need to hit on most of their off-season moves to drastically change their direction as a good but not great team, and to finally move this team over the hump into the realm of the true elite quality contenders.

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