How the Titans landed Jadeveon Clowney after missing out on previous big-name free agents

Peyton Manning. Ndamukong Suh. Jadeveon Clowney. Tennessee Titans fans can rejoice because one of these is not like the others.

The Titans finally did it. They pursued a big-time free agent and this time, unlike the others, were able to seal the deal. The signing of Clowney represents success in an area where failure has been all too familiar.

In recent years, the franchise has been unable to attract big-name signings.

Manning’s highly-publicized free-agency tour in 2012 was one of the more public courtships in NFL offseason history, and the Titans were at the forefront of it.

When comparing the pursuit of Clowney to Manning, the franchise took very different approaches in how they made their interest known. With Manning, the chase was incredibly public. The Titans made it painfully obvious that they wanted to bring him back to Tennessee, where Manning became a local hero as one of the greatest college football players in state history. When looking back, their efforts reeked of desperation. That’s the hard truth.

Who can forget the public display of affection from former Titans owner Bud Adams in an attempt to sway Manning to Tennessee? “I want Manning,” Adams told The Tennessean. “I’d love to see him in Titan blue after watching him so many years with the Colts. … I want him. I am ready to do what it takes to get him aboard.”

Part of “whatever it takes” allegedly included a contract “for life.” (via Albert Breer).

We all know how that ended. Manning signed with the Denver Broncos where he would go on to appear in two Super Bowls, winning one of them. The Titans, meanwhile, didn’t do much winning for a long time, and were on the cusp of their darkest years as a franchise.

It’s easy to analyze that era of Titans football now and realize that they didn’t have much going for them. The general manager was Ruston Webster. The head coach was an unproven Mike Munchak. The owner had failed to put a consistent winner on the field for a long time. The Titans didn’t have the right structure in place to convince one of the greatest quarterbacks ever that their franchise could give him the best chance to chase another championship.

In 2018, the Titans took a different approach in pursuing another big-name free agent, though the outcome was the same.

In negotiations with Suh, the Titans held an X-factor in the form of Terrell Williams, Suh’s former defensive line coach with the Miami Dolphins who is still currently the D-line coach of the Titans. But Suh chose to sign with the Los Angeles Rams instead.

Suh was once asked how close he was to signing with Tennessee. Suh, via Jim Wyatt, “I looked at going there heavily. I took a visit there. Terrell Williams is a coach that I super respect, love and enjoyed my time with in Miami was a big part of that. As well as sitting down with coach Vrabel. It was a lot of fun to be able to sit down with them. I just didn’t think it was a better fit than going to LA.”

Again, things didn’t line up for the Titans. Though both failed attempts to land a big free agent fell through for different reasons, the Titans weren’t ultimately ready to lure a player of that magnitude.

Tennessee’s pursuit of Clowney was different, especially when comparing it to the courtship of Manning. Nothing about it was desperate. Although Clowney’s name seemed to come up at every press conference, it was because Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel were constantly asked to comment on him. The signing always made sense, but Robinson and Vrabel offered little more than typical “coach speak” on the topic. It was a whole lot of, “We’ve been in contact, but we’re going to coach the guys that are here” and other jargon. This has been going on since March.

Robinson and Vrabel played their cards close to their vests with a quiet confidence. They knew they represented a destination that made the most sense. They had the money to pay him, a shot at winning and could surround him with a sense of familiarity. Clowney has played in this scheme before and will come across several familiar faces from his time in Houston, both on the coaching staff and on the roster.

Similar to when the Broncos were able to land Manning, the Titans had an X-factor that helped convince Clowney to sign in Tennessee. With Denver, it was general manager and president John Elway. With the Titans, it was Vrabel and his proven history of understanding how to best utilize Clowney’s skillset on the field.

That meant the Titans didn’t have to try so hard to oversell the franchise. So while the New Orleans Saints were flying out their head coach for a private dinner with Clowney, the Titans sat back with confidence that they could offer something New Orleans couldn’t.

When comparing these three free agent situations, it’s pretty clear why the Titans were finally able to land their target. The pursuit of Manning was made with the hope that he could salvage a sinking ship. With Suh, it was perhaps too soon in the Robinson-Vrabel era to sell their vision to a player of that magnitude. Now, the Titans are better positioned to convince a player like Clowney that he could realistically help this team achieve the ultimate goal, one they came close to reaching in 2019.

The Titans are an appealing destination. Four winning seasons in a row will do that. An appearance in the AFC Championship Game further cements that.

By now, you’re aware of why this is such a good marriage between Clowney and the Titans. As our own Mike Herndon noted in his evaluation piece, Clowney should be able to hit the ground running in this defense.

If the Titans had a player like Clowney on their defensive line last season, it’s plausible to think that they could have advanced to the Super Bowl. Perhaps they would have gotten more pressure on Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game and held on to the lead they had built for themselves during the early part of the first half.

Landing Clowney is a massive win for this franchise. They didn’t have the right pieces in place when they tried to lure Manning to Tennessee, and perhaps they were too early in their rebuild to convince Suh.

But the successful pursuit of Clowney is a victory where only failure was the previous outcome.

Robinson and Vrabel will hope it leads to victories on the field as well.

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