On the morning of September 29th, the Titans were just like any other NFL team. They were 3-0, coming off a third straight narrow win and generally looked like a good team still finding it’s sea legs after a strange and shortened offseason.
Then all hell broke loose. Reports of eight positive COVID tests — five coaches and three players — rolled out followed by news that the team headquarters at Saint Thomas Sports Park was being shut down.
The following two weeks were absolute chaos. Media and fans fell into a depressing routine of waking up, checking for COVID news, finding out how many new cases popped up, and then finding out the names of players headed to the reserve/COVID list in the afternoon when the NFL’s transaction wire came out.
As the positive cases continued to pile up, so did the media reports speculating about — or even outright calling for — massive punishments for the Titans. There were calls for an “unprecedented” hammer that would eclipse BountyGate as the most heavy-handed discipline in league history. Others said that Tennessee should be kicked out of the 2020 season entirely.
Bills and Steelers fans, media, and even players (hi, Eric Ebron) were howling for forfeits and complaining about how inconvenienced they were by having games rescheduled. By the way, it’s pretty rich to hear Bills fans whine about how inconvenienced they were when the Titans had 20% of their roster and about half their coaching staff fighting off a virus and practicing via Zoom over the past 16 days.
The Titans turned into an easy target for cheap jokes for every wannabe Twitter comedian in the football media world. The hot takes — based on almost zero evidence, mind you — were everywhere.
After all, what do we really know about the Titans actual transgressions?
We know that at least two small groups of players organized informal practice sessions at local parks and high schools on September 29th and September 30th. Whether or not those players had been explicitly told not to meet away from the facility — even outside and in small groups — is unclear. A league memo dated October 1st drew a hard line against those types of workouts, but that came after the widely referenced practices.
We also know that the Titans “mask discipline” was “less than 100%” by the admission of Jon Robinson. However, that’s true of 31 other teams. Need evidence? Just look at coaches on the sidelines during games and count how many times you see an assistant pulling his mask down to talk to a player. It’s not hard to find.
Were the workouts a poor decision regardless of whether the league explicitly told them not to do it? Yes. Should the Titans be striving for 100% mask discipline in the facility? Yes. But those two violations are parking tickets, not felonies.
During last night’s CBS broadcast, color commentator Jay Feely noted that Roger Goodell told him that “[Goodell] told me that no one in the Titans organization willingly broke any of the protocol rules. And that was big.” To his credit, when asked about a potential Titans punishment coming down the line during a press conference on Tuesday, Goodell stated that “this is not about discipline. This is about making sure we’re keeping our personnel safe.”
That certainly doesn’t sound like the rogue, out-of-control organization that the national media has painted the Titans to be over the past two weeks.
The way the organization and it’s players have been talked about has not gone unnoticed in the Tennessee locker room.
Nor should it. People weren’t just judging them for being good or bad at football, they were judging character and integrity without knowing the facts or taking a moment to consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, the NFL putting the Titans on a plane after a known positive test the day before a game could have had something to do with the outbreak (a protocol that the league has since changed). Players are used to being criticized for a bad performance on the field, but having their makeup as a human being publicly scrutinized? That’s something different entirely.
All the jokes and hot takes have set the Titans up as unlikely villains in this bizarre COVID-impacted season and it’s created a bunker mentality within the organization.
That mentality was on full display Tuesday night when the Titans looked motivated and lethal in a 42-16 thrashing of the previously undefeated Bills. Now, I’m not saying that being mad at the world is the reason for that beatdown, but I do know that taking slights from the national media and turning them into fuel for elite football performances is something that Michael George Vrabel knows a thing or two about.
Vrabel was a linebacker with the Patriots for the SpyGate scandal of 2007, when New England was caught videotaping signal from Jets coaches from an unauthorized location of the stadium during their season opener. Of course, the Patriots would go on to rip through the league on their way to a 16-0 record before failing to finish the NFL’s second perfect season in the Super Bowl.
Despite their disappointing ending, it still stands as one of the best seasons in NFL history. Their 589 points scored set a record at the time and still stands as the second best mark in league history behind the 2013 Broncos and their +315 point differential remains an NFL record.
Did SpyGate play a role in their ruthless decimation of the competition during the season? According to those directly involved, it did.
Patriots Owner Robert Kraft:
“From the owner to the front office to coaches to the players, it helped bring everyone together even more.”https://oklahoman.com/article/3167249/patriots-acknowledge-spygate-has-helped
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison:
“So it’s not overrated to assume these guys will be motivated, because Bill is very smart. He’s going to give them articles, and he’s going to tell them, ‘Hey, you know what. No one believes you can win. They’re writing you off.’ Trust me. They’ll be highly motivated. They’ll want to prove people wrong.”https://www.bostonherald.com/2015/08/16/guregian-bill-belichick-will-use-deflategate-to-motivate-patriots/
More from Harrison:
“That’s their mentality and it dates back to 2007 and the whole Spygate thing. I know a little something about that locker room; you attack the quarterback and accuse him of doing some cheating and things like that, they’re going to try to put up 50 points and embarrass you. They’re trying to do that every week.”https://www.espn.com/blog/new-england-patriots/post/_/id/4786338/patriots-have-history-of-finding-motivation-in-any-situation
Former Patriots linebacker (and close friend of Mike Vrabel’s) Tedy Bruschi:
“We felt like we were under attack the entire year. The only way we could fight back was to win football games, and win them convincingly. It did provide a lot of motivation.”https://www.espn.com/blog/new-england-patriots/post/_/id/4786338/patriots-have-history-of-finding-motivation-in-any-situation
Former Patriots receiver Donte Stallworth:
“I know the Spygate year, (Belichick) talked to us just once how they were saying we weren’t good enough to win games, and everything in the past was due to us cheating. Players like (Tedy) Bruschi and (Mike) Vrabel and Brady who were there for the Super Bowl years, they took exception to that.”https://larrybrownsports.com/football/donte-stallworth-patriots-embarrass-teams/273227
Finding extra motivation in perceived slights is a hallmark of plenty of all-time great figures in sports history. If you watched the outstanding Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance this spring, one of the biggest running themes was MJ’s ability to find slights in almost any comment from an opposing player, including purposefully torturing LaBradford Smith because he said “nice game, Mike” after a game that Jordan didn’t play particularly well in.
So yes, the Titans are highly paid professional athletes and that “should” be enough motivation, but we know enough about human nature at this point to understand that personal slights have a way of stoking the competitive fires that no amount of money can replicate.
Mike Vrabel understands that, and based on the comments from several Titans players over the last few days, the message has already been sent loud and clear throughout the organization: “we all we got, we all we need”. His football team didn’t need extra motivation, but they’ve got it now.