In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Tennessee Titans were right on schedule when they announced the promotion of tight ends coach Todd Downing to the position of offensive coordinator.
Last week, I posted a tweet about Arthur Smith filling out his staff in Atlanta and how it meant, in the very least, that Keith Carter was likely to stay in Tennessee as offensive line coach or potentially as the new OC. That sparked a weird backlash from the Twitter mob wondering how anyone could think Carter was even in the conversation for a promotion.
While rehashing that weird moment in time is not the point of this article, we did glean two things from the conversation it sparked:
- Paul Kuharsky replied to say he was 95% sure the in-house hire would be Downing
- Turron Davenport said he was interested to see whether or not Downing would continue to lean more on the run, or if the offense would pass more like the 2018 Vikings under offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, when Downing was Minnesota’s tight ends coach.
So what can we expect from Todd Downing? Let’s take a look…
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: a man at age 25 gets his first coaching job as a quality control coach for an NFL team. He then becomes a defensive quality control for another team, and soon after gets a job as an offensive quality control coach.
He works his way up to an assistant position coach with that same team and is then promoted to the actual position coach. Of course, he parlays that into becoming an offensive coordinator at age 34.
If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because Arthur Smith travelled down a similar path, although it took Smith until age 36 to grab the title of OC. While Downing has lately coached tight ends, he was promoted up the ranks mainly because of his work as a quarterbacks coach.
From 2012-2016, Downing was the QB coach for the Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills, and Oakland Raiders. In 2017, he served his only stint as offensive coordinator in Oakland and was fired at the end of the season.
In 2018, he returned to the team where he got his first NFL job, the Minnesota Vikings, taking over as Mike Zimmer’s tight ends coach. Downing coached that position group under offensive coordinators DeFilippo and Kevin Stefanski, who had diametrically opposed offensive philosophies under Zimmer.
In 2019, Downing was hired as the Titans tight ends coach and has held that position for the last two years.
Side note: from 2001-2004, Downing worked in the Minnesota Vikings front office as a research and development intern, a public relations intern, and a football systems analyst.
The Quarterback Coach
2009 was the year the Detroit Lions drafted Matt Stafford and hired Downing as an offensive quality control coach. This allowed Downing to get some first-hand experience developing quarterbacks.
The following two years, Downing served as assistant quarterbacks coach, and in 2012, he was promoted again to quarterbacks coach for the Lions.
He held that role for two seasons, the last two years of the Jim Schwartz era in Detroit. While the offensive philosophy of that Lions team is irrelevant now, what we saw from Stafford under Downing’s direction is not:
- 2012: 4,957 yards, 20 TDs, 17 INTs
- 2013: 4,650 yards, 29 TDs, 19 INTs
This was when the offensive game plan was to just throw it up to Calvin Johnson and pray. Surprisingly enough, Stafford also become the franchise’s all-time leading passer under Downing.
You may think the interception numbers are worrisome, but Stafford has throw double-digit interceptions in every 16-game season he’s ever played. He is very much a gunslinger.
When Schwartz was fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell, Caldwell cleaned house, and so Todd Downing in 2014 found himself as the quarterbacks coach for Doug Marrone’s Buffalo Bills.
That year, the Bills went 9-7 and finished second in the AFC East with a quarterback stable of Kyle Orton and E.J. Manuel.
Out of those two quarterbacks, Downing was able to get a combined 3,856 yards, 23 TDs, and 13 INTs. Marrone was fired, and of course, with a new head coach comes a new staff. Thus, Todd Downing found himself on his second team in as many years.
Downing was hired as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders in 2015, Derek Carr’s sophomore year in the league. Below, we can easily compare Carr’s rookie year to the three years under Downing:
We will expound more on his time as offensive coordinator in the next section, but as a quarterbacks coach, Downing had a hand in Carr avoiding any sophomore slump and then, in his third year, becoming a viable MVP candidate.
All in all, while there were varying degrees of success, Downing proved to be a coach who could develop young quarterbacks and help them succeed in offenses where the signal-callers were ask to throw an average of 598 times per season.
The Titans haven’t asked a quarterback to throw nearly that much since the days of Warren Moon.
The Tight End Coach
There isn’t much to gather from Downing’s stint as tight ends coach with the Vikings. It lasted only one season, but we can take away a few things.
Downing was on DeFilippo’s staff when they were passing — and having success doing so — more than they were running. In fact, Zimmer, a defensive head coach, tried to blame DeFilippo for the team struggling to amass wins, when in fact it was Zimmer’s defense that was struggling.
This also led to a philosophical difference and DeFilippo’s firing, which in turn moved the offense to a run-heavy approach under Stefanski. This resulted in a lower early-down success rate for the offense as a whole.
In 2019, Downing came to the Tennessee Titans in the same role, resulting in Jonnu Smith stacking two successful break-out years and Anthony Firkser being utilized more as a pass catcher.
What happened in Oakland?
Look, I am not trying to make any excuses for Downing right out of the gate, but there are various reasons why he failed as an offensive coordinator. It also may not have been bad as everyone seems to remember.
Now it wasn’t good, don’t get me wrong, and coming off a year in 2016 when the Raiders offense was flying high, I can understand and empathize with the fanbase for having a sour taste in their mouths. But there should be no fanbase that can relate more to the Raiders’ 2017 struggles than the Titans’.
Let’s start off with how Downing got the job. In 2016, Bill Musgrave had Oakland’s offense humming. As mentioned, Carr was an MVP candidate, and the Raiders finished 12-4 that year. As any Titans fan knows, Christmas Eve in 2016 was one of the darkest days in the recent NFL world.
The same day Marcus Mariota broke his fibula against the Jaguars, Carr broke his fibula as well. But from there, the Raiders’ offseason got even worse.
Oakland’s head coach at the time, Jack Del Rio, still hasn’t shared the why behind the firing of Musgrave, but most reports tend to think he just wanted him out of the building. Even Del Rio himself took to Twitter in 2019 to say this in response to a fan:
If the rumors are true, offensive line coach Mike Tice and Musgrave did not get along. Egos were flaring up everywhere, and it escalated so much so that Del Rio went on to publicly criticize Musgrave’s play calling in press conferences.
Tice and Del Rio even allegedly spread false rumors about other teams’ interest in Downing as a potential OC to try and get Musgrave out while promoting someone (Downing) they thought they could control.
This kind of backstabbing of course backfired, as Downing was in way over his head as a first-time play caller, leading an offensive style utilizing less of what was successful with Musgrave and more of what Del Rio and Tice wanted.
Despite the offense’s regression and struggles, Del Rio never once publicly criticized Downing like he did Musgrave. So, Todd Downing got promoted in part due to locker room politics before he was ready.
Then there was the drama surrounding the coaching staff and turning on their own quarterback. According to the Raiders’ longtime play-by-play announcer, Greg Papa, the staff turned on Derek Carr after a Kansas City game.
“This coaching staff turned on Derek Carr,” Papa said this week on 95.7 The Game in the Bay Area. “After the Kansas City game they called him out in front of a whole team meeting. It wasn’t just the offense or the quarterbacks, (or) a segment of the team. It was the whole team. And they ripped him in front of everybody and Derek’s a prideful guy.”
As we know from the events surrounding Musgrave’s firing, I think it’s safe to say that Del Rio is a guy who blames everyone else around him. Even Papa alluded to such, saying that Del Rio wasn’t always willing to take his share of responsibility when things went wrong.
“When you have a head coach that’s not designing the play (and) calling the play and then second-guessing the play and the quarterback’s play on a certain play, it doesn’t go well,” Papa said.
I do not know Del Rio personally, but from everything we’ve mentioned above, it sounds like he and his bud Tice were the problem in 2017, not necessarily Downing. Downing was just a scapegoat caught in the crossfire.
On top of that, Miko Grimes (the wife of cornerback Brent Grimes, who Ryan Tannehill knows all too well) went on the Breakfast Club and made bold claims that the Raiders offensive line purposefully let Carr get sacked and hit. I won’t spend too much time on this story, which you can read here, but usually, where there’s smoke, there is fire, and this is just more drama that can be linked to a dumpster fire 2017 for this Raiders team.
Then you have the Carr regression. A lot of people will tell you that Carr under Downing was a dink-and-dunk guy. Well, Carr’s yards per attempt only dropped by 0.2 yards, so he was never some deep-threat gunslinger like Downing had with Stafford in Detroit.
However, a lot of Carr’s struggles can be explained by three elements: (1) a very inexperienced play caller who was not ready for a promotion, (2) an offense lacking the best aspects of the Musgrave era, and of course, (3) injuries.
Nashville experienced this in 2017. Mariota was having that magical season in 2016, when the Titans offense was on fire under Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie. Then, the injury happened, and we saw Mariota struggle under that same offense the following year. He just never looked the same after that broken fibula.
While Carr’s later years look different than Mariota’s, in 2017, it was the same story. Not to mention in the middle of the 2017 season, Carr suffered a back vertebral fracture. So Carr played with a broken back less than one year removed from a broken fibula.
Just to reiterate, Carr broke his back. His back!
What was Todd Downing to do with a quarterback that was as physically broken as Carr was in 2017? Again, deep down, more of the backlash you hear about Downing from Raiders fans is misplaced, because it really is more Del Rio’s fault that Downing’s first year as an offensive coordinator was a disaster covered in drama and politics.
The 2017 Raiders offense by the numbers
I am not going to talk about #QBWinz and bore you with generic offensive numbers that boxscore scouts will use to explain how bad the 2017 Raiders were on offense. Instead, let’s move pass that lazy approach and get into more telling and advanced metrics.
It wasn’t all bad in Oakland. While the numbers don’t look good on paper, the offense still finished 14th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders. That’s not bad with an aging Marshawn Lynch and a broken Carr.
Also, the Raiders’ wide receivers did Downing no favors. Through 13 games in 2017, that receiving corps was leading the league in receiver drops and air yards left on the field.
At the midpoint of the year, Amari Cooper had 17 drops. With three games left in the season, the Raiders had 35 drops total and had left 380 yards on the field because of those drops. That’s about 11 yards per drop.
Over their remaining three games, the Raiders only dropped 3 more passes, and they finished tied for second in the league in dropped passes. However, the drops got really bad for Cooper specifically.
So much so that after the midpoint, Cooper only saw 17 targets, catching eight, and was constantly battling an ankle injury. With Cooper and Carr fighting through injuries, the wide receivers dropping everything, and the ghost of Marshawn Lynch running between the tackles, it’s a wonder Downing even managed the 14th-ranked offense in term of DVOA.
Surprisingly enough, the offense was pretty successful given all the above. Here is where the Raiders offense ranked that season according to Sharp Football Stats:
- 13th in offensive efficiency
- 12th in passing offense efficiency
- 11th in 3rd down offense
- 11th in rushing offense efficiency
- 21st in explosive pass plays
- 19th in explosive run plays
- 27th in red zone offense
It’s a mixed bag for sure, but one can be encouraged to know that even with everything I listed above — the drama, the injuries, the wide receivers — a first-year play caller thrust into the position with dubious intent was still able to produce an efficient offense.
So what about his play calling tendencies? I am about to hit you with a lot of data, so I apologize in advance.
Downing was all about passing. He called pass plays 61% of the time, which ranked 9th in the NFL, and rush plays came in at a lowly 39%, good for 24th in the NFL.
When the game was within one score, Downing went with a pass 57% of the time and a run 43% of the time. However, surprisingly enough, when the Raiders had the lead, they would still pass more.
With a lead, Downing’s offense passed 52% of the time for eighth-most in the NFL. When they fell behind, they passed on 70% of plays, the second-highest mark in the league.
In 2017, the NFL average of plays ran under center was 37% and plays ran from shotgun was 63%. The Raiders bucked both of those trends by only calling 32% of plays under center, while calling shotgun plays at a rate of 68%.
These numbers are because they called 80% of pass plays from shotgun. At the same time, they ran the ball 78% of the time from under center.
Short-yardage situation were more of the same: more passing, less running. This one I will use a table to explain, as it could get a little wordy if I don’t.
|Frequency||NFL Avg.||Rank||1D Rate||1D NFL Avg.|
Downing called passing plays on second-and-short at a higher rate than the NFL average, and also converted those passes into first downs at a higher rate than average. We will dive into this run/pass ratio here soon and why this may have been, as well as what this means for the Titans’ 2021 offense, but first let’s look at the personnel groupings.
|Personnel||Raiders %||NFL||Succ. %|
|Personnel||Pass Rate||Pass Succ.||Run Succ.|
Passing reigned supreme in all of the personnel packages, which is no surprise given that we now know they passed 61% of the time. Of course, the passing success rate was lower due to what we already talked about with the issues at quarterback and wide receiver.
For the final set of numbers showing what Downing did in 2017, we are going to focus on the early down target/success rate in the passing game.
|Raiders Target Rate||24%||19%||56%|
|Raiders NFL Rank||13th||11th||21st|
So again, what does all of this mean?
So, what does all of this mean?
We will see a lot of the same offensive concepts but with Downing’s own spin, much like how Smith took Matt LaFleur’s offensive system and added his own personal touch.
Let’s not worry about the use and success of the Raiders running game back in 2017. They had no player close to Derrick Henry in their backfield, and ultimately this Titans team — pun intended — runs through Derrick Henry.
The Titans will run the ball, because that is the identity of Mike Vrabel’s team. However, I do think this offense will improve in some areas that were lacking in 2019 and 2020.
As seen above, running backs were heavily targeted in the passing game during Downing’s time as OC, especially Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington. The running backs totaled 119 targets, and if you include Cordarrelle Patterson, that number jumps to 161.
This is good news for a team that needs to add this extra dimension to its offense. As long as Darrynton Evans stays healthy, we should see him utilized more in this regard.
As we know from his college tape and his limited opportunities, Evans is comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield, and can even line up as a wide receiver. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Titans brought in free agent DeAndre Washington during training camp.
We can also surmise that we will see a lot of plays called out of shotgun, and more importantly, more passing plays called in general. I think the overall usage of the shotgun formation will see a major uptick. In 2020, the Titans ran plays out of shotgun a measly 41% of the time, well below the league average of 65%.
One could also expect a major uptick in 11 personnel being used. The Titans only called plays from 11 personnel 39% of the time in 2020. Also, a lot more passing on early downs should be expected.
Ultimately, while there is a chance that the offense could slightly regress, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that without Del Rio and Tice, Downing could keep this Titans’ offense humming like it has been.
I also think it’s possible the offense could see an uptick in passing across the board. Downing has been around both Tannehill and Smith. He’s seen what has worked, and there’s really no reason the offense shouldn’t continue it’s near-elite level of production.
Also, Todd Downing is a way better looking man than Art “The Thumb” Smith. He even has the Sean McVay genius haircut. So obviously, the Titans offense will break NFL records next year.
What are your thoughts on new offensive coordinator Todd Downing? Let us know in the comments below!