We’ve heard it a million times already, but this NFL season is going to present some unique challenges as the league prepares to play in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID opt-outs, monitoring the COVID/reserve list, and no open training camp practices are some of the earliest tangible differences for fans.
Behind the scenes, teams are being forced to prepare differently as well. Based on some of the responses from player press conferences early in training camp, it’s clear that Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and his staff are hammering home the message that teams who find ways to remain healthy and get their work done most effectively will be the teams who find success on the field this fall.
Besides doing everything they can to stay healthy, teams are also building contingency plans. What happens if your starting quarterback tests positive the Friday before a game? What about your punter? Kicker? Longsnapper? An entire position group? How do you keep a whole position group from potentially spreading the disease to each other if one player gets COVID?
The short answer to all of those questions is no different than what would happen if a player was a get hurt in warmups or early in a game: “next man up”. One contingency that gets less attention, however, is what happens if a coach tests positive?
Mike Vrabel answered that question — at least part of it — during yesterday’s Zoom press conference, when he told the media that special teams coach Craig Aukerman led the team meetings while he was out of town dropping off his son, Carter, at college.
Why Aukerman and not Jim Haslett, the only other member of the staff with NFL head coaching experience, or Arthur Smith, who many see as a not-so-distant-future head coaching candidate? I think it comes down to a few factors:
- Haslett’s experience as a head coach is helpful, but he’s also the newest member of the staff and likely still learning and building relationships within the facility. It’s hard to lead a team when you barely know them. Besides, outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen has been confirmed as Vrabel’s top defensive lieutenant, not Haslett.
- Smith may make a great head coach one day — and if his offense performs like it did last year, the chance to prove that will come very soon — but right now he’s a second year offensive coordinator who is responsible for calling plays on gameday, arguably the most important in-game job on the entire staff. Taking his focus off that crucial task is counterproductive.
- That brings us to Aukerman. Among the three coordinator positions, he’s the only one who has been in that role all three seasons. He’s also the only coach on the staff that works with both offensive and defensive players, let alone the specialists. Finally, Aukerman’s role on gamedays is far less hectic than Smith’s (and Bowen’s, who would almost certainly be the defensive playcaller if a Vrabel were unavailable). Letting Aukerman pass off the task of having the special teams units ready to his assistant, Ryan Crow, is unlikely to completely disrupt a game like a change at offensive coordinator would.
So if Aukerman is Vrabel’s “substitute” head coach, who might be poised to backup other coaches on the roster in the event of a COVID test within their ranks?
Current Coach: Arthur Smith
Possible Backup: Todd Downing
The only other coach with offensive playcalling experience at the NFL level, Downing served as offensive coordinator for the Raiders in 2017 before coaching tight ends for the Vikings and Titans in 2018 and 2019, respectively. He also manages one of the smaller position groups on the team from a numbers standpoint, so pulling him away from his position coaching duties on gameday would be less worrisome than doing the same with offensive line coach Keith Carter.
The other option here would be quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara. O’Hara has at least called plays before, first at the high school level — where he happened to be the offensive coordinator for former Titans star Chris Johnson — and then during a decade spent coaching in the Arena Football League. Obviously, neither of those stops are remotely close to the NFL level, but playcalling is playcalling.
Current Coach: Pat O’Hara
Possible Backup: Todd Downing
In addition to his background as a playcaller, Downing also has served as quarterbacks coach at the NFL level at several previous stops. He worked with Matthew Stafford in Detroit from 2011 to 2013, Kyle Orton in Buffalo in 2014, and Derek Carr in 2015 and 2016. Should the Titans need a short term fill-in to work with Ryan Tannehill this season, Downing is well-positioned to handle that role.
Another good option here would be offensive assistant Luke Steckel, who worked primarily with the Titans quarterbacks during the regular season last year under O’Hara.
Running Backs Coach
Current Coach: Tony Dews
Possible Backup: Keith Carter
While the majority of Carter’s coaching career has been spent working with the offensive line, his first NFL position coaching job was with running backs, working with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta in 2017. He would be a natural choice to lead the Titans backs if Dews were unavailable.
Another option could be quality control assistant Zak Kuhr. Kuhr is new to the Titans staff in 2020, but has spent much of the past five seasons working with running backs on the college level at James Madison, Rutgers, Texas State, and Texas.
Wide Receivers Coach
Current Coach: Rob Moore
Possible Backup: Tony Dews
There is no more versatile coach on the current staff than Dews, who has coached special teams, defensive line, defensive backs, offensive line, tight ends, linebackers, wide receivers, and running backs over more than two decades of experience. He could potentially fill in almost anywhere if called upon, but wide receiver is a spot he is especially qualified to handle. From 2007 to 2016, Dews served primarily as a wide receivers coach for West Virginia, Michigan, Pittsburgh, and Arizona.
Other options on the staff include Steckel, who is entering his eighth season with the Titans and worked primarily as an assistant wide receivers coach prior to joining the quarterback room last season.
Tight Ends Coach
Current Coach: Todd Downing
Possible Backup: Tony Dews
As mentioned above, Dews is uniquely suited to filling in multiple spots along the Titans staff thanks to his diverse background. He worked with tight ends on three separate occasions at the college level so there is some familiarity there.
Another choice could be quality contol coach Chandler Henley. Prior to joining the Titans staff in 2018, he served as tight ends coach for Yale — his alma mater — for three seasons.
Offensive Line Coach
Current Coach: Keith Carter
Possible Backup: Mike Sullivan
This one is a slam dunk. Offensive line is the one position on offense with a dedicated assistant under the lead position coach (due to the large number of players in this group) and Sullivan has more than enough experience to step into the top job here. He’s worked as the assistant offensive line coach in Tennessee since 2014 and had been the lead offensive line coach for the Browns and Chargers for a combined seven years prior to that.
Special teams assistant Ryan Crow also has some offensive line experience from previous stops if the team wished to continue to have two coaches dedicated to this group.
Current Coach: Mike Vrabel (?)
Possible Backup: Shane Bowen
We don’t really know who is going to be acting as the Titans primary defensive playcaller in 2020. It’s possible, in fact, that there isn’t just one coach filling the role vacated by Dean Pees’ retirement. The team could choose to split up playcalling based on field position or game situation.
We do know that there are two primary candidates to call the defense: head coach Mike Vrabel and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen. Vrabel has consistently pointed to Bowen as his second in command on the defensive side of the ball this offseason and it’s entirely possible that he will actually get gameday playcalling duties.
However, the Titans split up this role, you can expect Vrabel and Bowen to be the top two choices. Beyond that, inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett has a lot of NFL experience as a defensive playcaller and could serve as another option behind Vrabel and Bowen.
Defensive Line Coach
Current Coach: Terrell Williams
Possible Backup: Matt Edwards
Edwards is currently listed as a defensive assistant for the Titans after spending two seasons as a special teams assistant in 2018 and 2019. Prior to joining the NFL ranks with Tennessee, he worked as a defensive line coach for seven years over stops at Kent State, Miami (Ohio), and Florida Atlantic before serving as defensive coordinator at Tiffin for four seasons.
Outside Linebackers Coach
Current Coach: Shane Bowen
Possible Backup: Jim Haslett
Haslett is entering his 25th year as a coach in the NFL and 18 of those years were as either a defensive coordinator or head coach. Adding the outside linebackers to his plate wouldn’t be a big issue for the veteran coach.
Matt Edwards would also be a potential fit here if the team wanted to avoid disrupting two position groups.
Inside Linebackers Coach
Current Coach: Jim Haslett
Possible Backup: Shane Bowen
Bowen is a natural candidate to slide over here given the commonality between the outside linebacker and inside linebacker groups. He’s worked as a linebackers coach at previous stops so bringing Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, and company under his watch would not be out of the question.
Other options here include Matt Edwards and special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman, both of whom have experience working with linebackers on their resume.
Current Coach: Anthony Midget
Possible Backup: Scott Booker
The way the Titans split up their defensive backs coaching responsibility is a little different than most position groups. Anthony Midget, who came over earlier this offseason after six years with the Texans, is the lead secondary coach handling both corners and safeties. However, the safeties have their own position coach in Scott Booker. It’s safe to say that Booker and Midget will work closely together and work as each other’s backups.
Current Coach: Scott Booker
Possible Backup: Anthony Midget
Special Teams Coordinator
Current Coach: Craig Aukerman
Possible Backup: Ryan Crow
This is another easy one. Crow is Aukerman’s assistant and would be the obvious choice to replace him if something were to happen. That something could include a situation where Aukerman is called up to replace Vrabel as well. Chances are that the team would prefer for Aukerman’s focus to be entirely on the head job, leaving Crow to manage the special teams units.