Lessons we should and shouldn’t learn from the Titans wildcard round playoff exit

The 2020 Titans season ended in both the most predictable and least predictable possible fashion on Sunday. Of course Tennessee was going to lose at home to the Ravens in the playoffs. It’s happened in three of the Titans four division championship seasons since the team moved to Nashville almost 25 years ago. It’s written somewhere deep within the NFL rulebook that all Titans-Ravens games must send the home team’s fans into the pit of misery. Dilly Dilly!

On the other hand, there was no predicting the scenario that saw a Titans defense that had floundered all season finally showing up only to be let down by the best offense in franchise history. The much-maligned pass rush got Lamar Jackson on the ground five times while 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry managed just 40 yards, less than a third of his season average.

The final game of a season like this has a tendency of sticking in the minds of fans and warping the view of the season as a whole. Obviously, a playoff performance should hold more weight than Week 1, it represents where the team ended up rather than where they started, and ultimately, winning in the postseason is how success and failure is judged in the NFL. So we are going to take a look at the lessons that we should and should not learn from the end of the Titans 2020 season.

Lesson #1: “The Titans offense cannot function when Derrick Henry isn’t going crazy.”

The Ravens came out intent on stopping the Titans star running back and not letting him turn them into a national punchline for a second straight postseason. They stuffed the box with eight or more defenders on over 70% of his his 18 carries and run blitzed like crazy on early downs. It was extremely effective as Henry managed just 40 yards and never was able to really get to the second level.

So, of course, that’s led many to make the natural leap to the conclusion that shutting down Henry effectively kneecaps the Titans offense, leaving them helpless to put up their typically remarkable numbers. However, that’s not entirely true.

Henry has rushed for fewer than 100 yards and less than four yards per carry seven times since Ryan Tannehill took over as quarterback last season. The Titans are 3-4 in those games, well off their 20-10 mark when he surpasses at least one of those two thresholds, but they’ve also averaged 26.9 points per game in that stretch. That’s significantly less than their 30 point per game average, but it still would qualify as a borderline top-10 scoring offense.

Obviously, this offense functions better when Henry is cooking, but this was by far the Titans worst offensive performance in games with subpar rushing stats. Overall, Tennessee’s offense has still been good without an elite run game.

Verdict: Lesson that should not be learned.

Lesson #2: “Arthur Smith is not a good offensive coordinator.”

Smith’s game plan left a lot to be desired on Sunday. Going into the Ravens game, I went back and studied the previous two matchups between these teams and this was the conclusion I came to:

The presence of Williams and Campbell could give the Ravens the confidence to try and defend the box with just seven and play more split safety coverages, but their approach in the last two games has shown them to be more likely to stack the box and leave their corners to fend for themselves against A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.

If I could tell that was how the Ravens were going to defend the Titans, I would certainly suspect that the coaching staff had a good idea that this would be Baltimore’s approach. However, instead of attacking the Ravens corners with A.J. Brown and Corey Davis — something the Titans had tremendous success with in the second half of their Week 11 matchup — they stubbornly stuck with the run, allowing Henry to essentially waste 18 snaps slamming into an immovable object.

It was frustrating and disappointing, but it also doesn’t erase everything that Smith did over the past two years. Smith coordinated the best offense this franchise has seen since Warren Moon left for Minnesota in 2020.

Sure, he’s got some calls that can be nitpicked from time to time, and he’s a bit stubborn with the run game — which can sometimes be a good thing — but the job of offensive coordinator is so much more than simply picking plays on gameday. While that’s an important part of the job, the work coordinators do during the offseason and throughout the week is just as critical. That includes, designing plays, studying opponent tendencies, installing game plans, determining what specific adjustments are needed to support the game plan for that week.

Consider what goes into just one single call. Usually, it’s not just one call that goes into a quarterback. There is generally a tag that gives the QB a check at the line of scrimmage in case they get a look that’s unfavorable to the original play call. Each individual play has assignments for each offensive lineman which must be adjusted based on the front they are presented with by the defense. Each receiver has specific instructions for a route to run, but there are adjustments for different coverages or even just the leverage of a defender that can tell them to convert a route to something more advantageous for that look. Then you have adjustments if the defense is showing a blitz… who picks up the extra rusher? Which pass catcher is hot?

All of that information must be carefully considered for each play in the playbook and then — and this is really the tough part in my opinion — communicated to the team in a way that is easily digestible and doesn’t overwhelm players mentally. The most brilliant scheme in the world means nothing if the players cannot execute it while playing fast.

The point is that the job of the offensive coordinator is far bigger than just deciding between an outside zone run or a play action boot levels concept on 2nd and 8. Smith did an excellent job in his two years as the Titans OC. If he leaves, those will be big shoes to fill.

Put it this way… if you think one bad performance makes Arthur Smith a bad coordinator, then I have great news for you! The pass rush is fixed since they got five sacks against Baltimore! If you aren’t willing to buy the idea that the pass rush is actually good, then you also shouldn’t be buying this “Arthur Smith is bad” nonsense.

Verdict: Lesson that should not be learned.

Lesson #3: “Mike Vrabel should trust his defense less and trust analytics more.”

Vrabel’s reasoning behind his decision to punt on 4th and 2 at the Ravens 40 yard line with 10:02 remaining and his team trailing 17-13 was that he “trusted his defense to get a stop” and get his offense the ball back with good field position. What followed was a bad punt, gaining just 25 yards of field position, and a 52-yard drive for the Ravens that resulted in a field goal and ate nearly six minutes off the clock, leaving the Titans with just one shot to go score the game-tying touchdown.

I would understand — to some degree at least — if a team like the Rams chose to punt in that type of situation. They have an elite defense that just spent the entire season making stops. The Titans defense had played well in this game for the most part, but they had given up at least 40 yards on four of the Ravens previous five drives (excluding the two plays at the end of the first half) and had spent the entire 2020 season floundering.

On the other hand, his offense was a top-five unit all season, and while they were struggling on Sunday, they had come through in the clutch in situations like this all season long. The Titans didn’t attempt a 4th and 2 this season, but NFL teams converted them at a 66% rate. It’s not like this was a 4th and 11, like the one the Titans attempted against Houston in a similar spot last week, which makes this decision that much more baffling.

And for the record… the call in Houston was — narrowly — the right decision based on analytics. The call to punt against Baltimore will go down as one of the worst analytics decisions that we’ve seen in the past decade. By some estimates, Vrabel cost the Titans almost 14% in “game-winning chance”.

I understand that analytics can sometimes miss context that a coach understands. For example, maybe Vrabel didn’t feel great about going for it there because David Quessenberry had been getting worked by Yannick Ngakoue on recent snaps. Or maybe another key guy had been dealing with an injury and couldn’t be out there for that play. There are small things that can influence decision making that are tough to capture in a model.

However… this is one of those decisions that doesn’t require analytics to confirm that it was, in fact, a horrible call. It was obvious, painfully obvious even, that the Titans needed to give their offense as many cracks at breaking through as possible, especially when they already had the ball on the Ravens side of the field.

The irony here is that Vrabel has proven to be a tremendous game manager as a head coach outside of decisions like this. He is great with his timeouts and nobody manipulates the clock and end of half situations better than him outside of maybe Bill Belichick. It’s time for Vrabel to embrace analytics to a greater degree and avoid unforced errors like this one, which may very well have cost his team a playoff win.

Verdict: Lesson that should be learned.

Lesson #4: “The Titans aren’t a come from behind team with Ryan Tannehill.”

I think this one is hilarious. Ryan Tannehill literally leads the entire NFL in fourth quarter comebacks and game winning drives since the start of the 2019 season (and he didn’t even start until Week 7 of that season). I’m not sure what else he can do to prove his ability to play from behind besides doing it over and over and over again.

If you want to criticize Tannehill, it should be directed at his playoff performances. He’s averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt in four postseason starts over the last two years — well off his 8.6 YPA in regular season contests — and has yet to really have one of his big statistical games on that stage.

Part of that is, of course, related to game flow and playcalling. Tennessee threw just 15 passes against the Patriots and 14 passes against the Ravens in last year’s playoff wins. Tannehill didn’t play poorly in those games, he just wasn’t frequently used thanks to Derrick Henry going absolutely crazy on the ground.

I don’t think Tannehill was bad in performances in losses against the Chiefs or Ravens either, but he’s also not reaching the same highs that he has in the regular season. We aren’t in “can Lamar Jackson win in the playoff” territory from a narrative standpoint, but I think it’s at least fair to say that the Titans are going to need to have some big Tannehill games in the playoffs if they’re going to get where they ultimately want to go in the next few years.

Verdict: Lesson that should not be learned, though Tannehill’s playoff record is fair to question at this point.

Lesson #5: “Adoree’ Jackson should be cut.”

Adoree’ Jackson’s 2020 went just about as bad as it possibly could have. He hurt his knee in the second to last practice prior to the season opener against Denver. After several weeks on IR, Jackson appeared to be poised to return, turning in five straight practices after being moved to the “designated to return” list. However, he then disappeared again, only finally getting activated for a game in Week 15 against the Lions.

What we did see from Jackson after he returned was mostly bad. It looked like he didn’t trust his knee, didn’t have the speed and quickness that we are used to seeing, and generally looked like a guy who hadn’t played football all season. His practice schedule was littered with off days, indicating that whatever issue he was dealing with hadn’t gone away, it was simply being managed.

Against Baltimore, Jackson drew the tough assignment of following Hollywood Brown, the Ravens top receiver and one of the fastest players in the league. Jackson struggled again, getting beat frequently and missing several tackles. He just didn’t look like he was anywhere close to the guy that we saw turn in a brilliant performance against these same Ravens in last year’s playoffs.

Jackson’s injury issues over the past two seasons are unfortunate. They have interrupted the development of a player that appeared to be ascending towards the upper ranks of the position. Obviously, the Titans will need to sort out what those injury issues mean for Jackson moving forward, but he’s still a 25-year old corner who is just entering his prime.

There is nothing to be learned from this season for Jackson in my opinion. It’s an unfortunate year with some poorly timed injuries. I also don’t think it’s quite fair to slap the “injury prone” label on him. During his first two and a half years in the NFL, Jackson didn’t miss a single game. A non-season ending injury last year and another one this year looks more like a run of bad luck than a sustained pattern of problems.

Verdict: Lesson that should not be learned.

Lesson #6: “Jon Robinson’s terrible offseason spoiled what could have been a special year.”

There is zero doubt that Robinson’s 2020 was, uhhh, suboptimal. From whiffing on his edge rush fixes in Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley to a draft class that produced almost nothing in their rookie year (highlighted, of course, by the continuing Isaiah Wilson trainwreck), this is a year that the Titans GM will want to put behind him quickly.

The way the season ended — with five sacks from the Titans defense — doesn’t change the failure that was Robinson’s attempt to address the single most glaring weakness that Tennessee entered last offseason with. Heading into an offseason with the same problems that you had heading into last offseason is frustrating.

However, the issues don’t stop there. The Titans got next to nothing from their rookie class. Seventh round pick Chris Jackson led all Tennessee rookies with just 239 snaps on defense and you could make a real argument that UDFA defensive lineman Teair Tart was the guy who flashed the most out of this group. To be clear, this doesn’t disqualify Kristian Fulton or Darrynton Evans from becoming major contributors and good draft picks, but you’d like to have at least some immediate returns from a draft class in year one and the Titans got none.

What could the Titans have gotten with those picks instead? Well, you may sleep easier at night knowing that Yetur Gross-Matos — the next edge rusher off the board after pick 29 — netted just 2.5 sacks as a rookie. That still would have been an upgrade over what Tennessee fielded over the back half of the season, but not by much. However, anyone would have helped more than what they got from Wilson.

Would a rookie wide receiver like Tee Higgins providing depth behind A.J. Brown and Corey Davis have made the difference between a first round exit and a long playoff run? Maybe, maybe not, but there is little doubt that he would have nudged them upwards to some degree.

What Robinson can’t afford is to let the mistakes of 2020 repeat themselves in 2021. His 2019 draft class has already produced three full time starters (and damn good ones at that) and by the start of next season that number could climb to five depending on what Tennessee chooses to do at the safety and inside linebacker spots. He needs another big class in 2021 to help patch the hole that Wilson is currently leaving in their long term plans.

The free agency whiffs were arguably even worse when it comes to their impact on the 2020 season. Generally, you sign veterans for instant impact and draft for long term value. As it turns out, the Titans may have struck out no matter which direction they went on the free agent edge market. Among the players who actually changed teams last offseason, only Emmanuel Ogbah really produced at a high level. All the others — Robert Quinn, Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler, Shaq Lawson, Vic Beasley — ended their seasons with fewer than five sacks, proving that it’s not always easy to just grab a guy off the street and plug him in for instant results.

That doesn’t excuse Robinson’s terrible offseason, but it’s important context to provide and consider when looking back at what they could have done in addition to what they should do moving forward. Ultimately, I think it’s pretty clear that getting zero help from players who weren’t on the roster in 2019 contributed to the struggles on defense and the failure to repeat their playoff success from a year ago.

Verdict: Lesson that should be learned.

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