Five unsolved mysteries from Titans’ 2020 season

The Titans’ 2020 season came to a disappointing end on Sunday, which means we have officially entered the offseason in Nashville. Head coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson are notoriously tight-lipped about behind-the-scenes details of the organization, not wanting to create distractions or unfavorable media situations for their players and coaches.

This can include anything from player injuries to staffing questions to processes and decision-making. While we hardly ever receive any solid information while the team is still playing, often times nuggets of great interest will be scooped over the course of the offseason, like when we learned about Corey Davis’ turf toe that had plagued him through most of 2019.

Information like that could come via Taylor Lewan’s podcast Bussin’ with the Boys (no free shoutouts), media members (courtesy of agents attempting to excuse away what could be viewed as subpar play from their clients), or other anonymous “league sources.”

Regardless of where the information originates, these are the five biggest mysteries from the 2020 Titans’ season that I’m hoping to have answered over the coming weeks….

5. Who was impacted by the COVID-19 virus, and will there be any long-term side effects?

Early in the season, the Titans suffered a COVID-19 outbreak at their facility and were forced to shut down. While many teams dealt with COVID problems throughout the season, the Titans were the first team to have a multi-personnel outbreak, totaling 23 positive tests ahead of their postponed game against the Buffalo Bills. Other players were intermittently placed on the Reserve/COVID list throughout the season, some due to close contact and some after testing positive for the virus.

Here is every Titans player that was placed on the Reserve/COVID list at some point this season:

  • OT Isaiah Wilson
  • DL Jack Crawford
  • LB Josh Smith
  • CB Greg Mabin
  • DL DaQuan Jones
  • LS Beau Brinkley
  • TE Tommy Hudson
  • OLB Kamalei Correa (traded away)
  • CB Kristian Fulton
  • WR Adam Humphries
  • WR Cameron Batson
  • DL Jeffery Simmons
  • FB Khari Blasingame
  • WR Corey Davis
  • TE MyCole Pruitt
  • CB Breon Borders
  • LB David Long Jr.
  • CB Chris Jackson
  • P Trevor Daniel
  • WR Kalif Raymond
  • WR Cody Hollister
  • K Stephen Gostkowski
  • P Brett Kern
  • DL Teair Tart
  • G Aaron Brewer

All in all, 25 players, whether on the active roster or practice squad (or traded away like Correa), were placed on the Reserve/COVID list at some point this season. Again, whether that’s because of a positive test or simply a close contact is mostly unknown, except for a few players for whom we received more information.

The concern here is the unknown potential long-term side effects of the novel coronavirus on the human body, particularly on athletes when it comes to conditioning and potential lung damage. Myles Garrett spoke out recently about the lingering challenges after his own positive test, undergoing breathing treatments four times a day.

“It’s bound to affect your lungs, and I feel like I need those to be out there and give my full effort,” said Garrett. “It is hard to make a move or do something that you know is going to expend a lot of energy, knowing that you have to do it again the next play and the next play.”

So which Titans were actually affected by this? I wonder if we’ll ever find out. Simmons is a candidate for someone potentially dealing with side effects, simply given his performance on the field down the stretch. There was some speculation that Simmons may be dealing with an injury, and he did show up on the injury report a few times. It could be that Simmons was dealing with similar breathing troubles to what Garrett experienced after a confirmed positive test.

“I’m not thinking about how tired I’m going to be,” Simmons said after coming off the COVID list in mid October. “If I get tired, oh well. I’m going to push myself every day I step on this field. I’m going to give my all and be the best I can be, no matter how I feel.”

Corey Davis had a fairly disastrous end to the season on the stat sheet. He has been fighting through a lot in his personal life, but I wonder if some of the strain came from COVID treatments, as well. An honorable mention for biggest mysteries also pertains to Davis, who was mysteriously withheld from the final quarter of Sunday’s loss with a possible injury or other issue.

You also have to wonder if Isaiah Wilson was somewhat demotivated by his long stint on the COVID list and how that affected his horrendous disaster of a season (more on that below).

How much information we get about who may or may not have had COVID and any side effects they experienced throughout the season will be a very interesting storyline to track.

4. How significant were the injuries to Dennis Kelly, Rodger Saffold, and Ben Jones?

The Titans lost Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan early in the year to a season-ending ACL injury. No real mystery there.

Three other starting members of the Titans offensive line showed up on the injury report early in the year and never left. Dennis Kelly was working through a “knee” all season, while Ben Jones had his own knee issues throughout the year, and also showed up with a hamstring.

Around Week 10, Rodger Saffold started showing up with a shoulder injury. Weeks 11 through 14, it was an ankle for Saffold. Weeks 15 through 17 he was listed with a toe, and on the season’s final injury report ahead of the Wild Card game, it was back to an ankle. Saffold confirmed that he’d had a procedure done on his toe while also discussing his other issues.

“Everything had been going well for me, and then I get a hiccup with an ankle,” Saffold said. “Though it’s frustrating, I just kind of treat it like we’ve been treating the season, just adapting to the change and trying to make the best of the situation.”

It will be interesting to see what kind of laundry lists of injuries we hear about these guys playing through now that the offseason has arrived.

3. How did Isaiah Wilson fail so miserably?

A couple weeks back, Broadway’s John Glennon wrote about Isaiah Wilson, exploring the possibilities of missed “red flags” by the Titans’ brass concerning Wilson’s off-field exploits. The rookie first-round pick spent weeks on the Reserve/COVID list — the only Titans player to go on the list twice — and he was nearly arrested for trespassing by Tennessee State University police while attending an off-campus party in August, charged with DUI in September, crashed his car in a separate incident a few weeks later, eventually suspended for a violation of team rules, then added to the reserve non-football illness list, and was last seen posting videos from what appeared to be a strip club less than two weeks ago.

There have been other disaster first-round picks throughout NFL history, but seemingly none with the rap sheet Wilson has accumulated in his short time in the league. Guys like Justin Blackmon were expelled for drug use, but at least he got on the field and made an impact in his short time. Others like Johnny Manziel never seemed to take the game seriously, the JaMarcus Russell’s were flat-out terrible, Pacman Jones had a number of off-the-field and attitude problems, Vince Young and Ryan Leaf flamed out after being high draft picks, and on and on… but all of these guys made it onto the field to at least show why they did or didn’t deserve to be drafted where they were. Other high-profile busts who never took the field mostly missed because of injuries. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a player reach Wilson’s level of self-destructive behavior before even taking a snap.

And most of those other “busts” had serious red flags heading into the draft (Blackmon, for instance, was suspended at Oklahoma State for a DUI charge) — whether or not their teams overlooked those warning signs is a different discussion.

But Isaiah Wilson did not have those red flags. Georgia coaches raved about their behemoth right tackle. Overall, Wilson had a fairly attractive background as a prospect. As Broadway’s Mike Herndon wrote shortly after the draft:

“Wilson reportedly fielded more than 80 scholarship offers before choosing Georgia over Alabama and Michigan despite playing at the prestigious Poly Prep Day School, a private school in New York that sends far more students to the Ivy League than the SEC.

“Wilson also competed in wrestling, losing just three matches — his first match and two against the eventual state champion who was three years older than him — before exceeding the weight limit by his sophomore year. Later in his high school career, he would take up lacrosse as an offseason activity to help him stay in shape for football

“Wilson has a gregarious personality and a strong work ethic instilled in him by his parents and long days of bus rides to and from Poly Prep. He’s highly intelligent — a sneaky critical aspect of being a great offensive lineman — and has talked about modeling his game after Raiders Pro Bowl right tackle Trent Brown, a similarly gargantuan player who checked in at 6’-8” and 355 pounds at the combine five years ago.

And finally, said D’Andre Swift of his former Bulldog teammate:

“I remember when Zay came in as a freshman, had to lose weight, and he was working. That’s probably one of the hardest working people I’ve seen. Just for him to move the way he moves and how he carries his weight, he’s a great athlete. Whatever team gets him is going to love him to death and they’re going to get a great player and a great leader.”

All of this paints the picture of a dedicated, intelligent, and driven athlete. So… what on earth happened? How did he go from promising but raw talent to worst-case nightmare between April’s draft and the start of training camp, when he reported out of shape?

Some of the early mishaps were brushed aside, explained as a young kid finding his way in a new world of money, stress and expectations. But as the behavior grew more and more concerning, the excuses started to dry up. There were reports via callers to local Nashville radio that Wilson would spend his afternoons and evenings in bars and clubs consuming rampant amounts of alcohol. Speculation ran wild that Wilson arrived to team meetings late and hungover after he was disciplined by the team, rumors aided by Wilson’s aforementioned DUI.

It’s been the most troubling start imaginable for a young man entering the NFL, but it’s also concerning from the perspective of the team’s ability to see these problems coming. Was Wilson truly a one-of-a-kind time bomb set to go off when he reached the professional game? Or should the Titans have been able to dodge this train wreck — whether by avoiding the selection in the first place or taking a different approach to his discipline?

How will Robinson hold himself accountable for the selection? Missing on a first-round pick can set the team back simply when a player doesn’t perform up to expectation (see: Rashaan Evans). But not even having that player available on the roster? That’s an utter catastrophe.

I wonder how much Robinson will reveal over the coming months about the process that led to the selection of Wilson. Will he take full responsibility and attempt to remedy the situation a la Kevin Dodd? Or will the team continue to try to salvage the hopes they once had for making Wilson a franchise cornerstone player?

2. Who deserves primary blame for the defensive struggles?

After defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired last January, many wondered where Vrabel would turn for his replacement. Would he reach back out to the college ranks to pluck an up-and-comer from a respectable program? Would he find an old colleague from NFL circles to call plays? Or would he continue the longtime New England tradition of promoting from within?

As it turned out, Vrabel decided the team could move forward without a defensive coordinator. Not long into the season it was revealed that outside linebacker’s coach Shane Bowen was the team’s primary defensive playcaller. We only found this out because Bowen missed the Week 3 game against the Vikings due to COVID protocols.

From there, we never really had a true sense of who was responsible for the defense. We heard from various sources, including Pees, what Mike Vrabel was like while Pees was with the team, often moving from offensive to defensive to special teams meetings and frequently leaving Pees to handle the defense mostly on his own.

Did Vrabel take the same approach this year with the inexperienced Bowen left in charge? Did Jim Haslett, the newly hired inside linebacker’s coach with head coach and defensive coordinating experience, play a role?

The Titans defense struggled mightily all season and frankly looked like a team with no coordinator. Many key players took step backwards in their development, including former All Pro safety Kevin Byard, who had his worst season to date, and former first-round pick Rashaan Evans. The team’s pass rush was nonexistent all season, tying the NFL record for fewest sacks by a playoff team with just 19 on the year.

So who’s to blame? Is Evans’ apparent regression Haslett’s fault? Is new secondary coach Anthony Midget — a buddy of Vrabel’s from his time in Houston — responsible for Byard’s regression? Is it on Vrabel and Bowen for failing to put defensive players in a position to play fast and aggressive? Who deserves the most blame?

The changes Vrabel makes to his defensive staff — if any — over the next few weeks could reveal a lot about who the head coach thinks is to blame. Vrabel often speaks about holding people accountable. He needs to hold himself and his staff members accountable for the horrendous defense this year, which surrendered a league-worst third-down conversion percentage of 51.9 percent. Excluding the 1982 strike season, that’s the worst percentage by any defense in NFL history since the league began tracking the stat in 1972.

Will a defensive coordinator be brought in? Will one be named from the current staff? Will any other coaching changes be made?

We may not ever hear first-hand that any particular person is to blame (aside from Vrabel himself, who deserves to take the brunt of the criticism), but any moves will be an indication of how the team feels about who deserves the most fault for this debacle.

1. What happened to Adoree Jackson?

This is the most intriguing mystery to me: what happened to Adoree Jackson? The fifth-year cornerback was all set to play this season until the week leading up to the first game. He didn’t appear on the first injury report of that week but showed up on Friday’s and Saturday’s (the Titans opened the year on Monday night). The day before the game, Jackson was placed on Injured Reserve in a surprising move.

Jackson was designated to return from IR just a few weeks later and even returned to practice. But then, he stopped practicing again… for weeks! He finally made his season debut in Week 15 and did not play particularly well in his four games back.

Vrabel gave an extremely vague response about Jackson’s status around midseason, saying that some days were better than others and denying that Jackson had suffered a setback in whatever “knee” injury was ailing him.

We never heard anything more than that. After his first game back, Jackson hit the virtual postgame podium and was directly asked about the knee injury. He dodged the question like an expert witness.

The Zoom call is available here via the team’s YouTube page. In it, Paul Kuharsky first asks Jackson what happened that day in practice where he was first added to the injury report. Jackson answers:

“It was just one of those things where a crazy thing happened to me, and I was just fortunate enough that everyone was positive and kept me positive and kept me upbeat.”

PK follows up asking if it was a contact or non-contact injury. Before Jackson responds, a Titans staffer can be heard in the background jumping in to say, “We are running out of time.” A bit fishy if you ask me, like they didn’t want Jackson to answer the question. Afterwards, Jackson says:

“It’s just one of those things where the Lord, he did something, and it just hindered me from going out there.”

Uhhh… okay then!

I expect this to be a scoop that someone like PK or Buck Reising can get ahold of, or maybe it’ll be another injury revealed on Bussin’ with the Boys. It’s the mystery I’m most fascinated in uncovering as I believe it could tell us a lot about what to expect from Jackson going forward with the Titans as he enters the last year of his contact, set to play on his fifth-year option as a former first-round pick.

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