That sure is an ugly way to begin your season.
Not the score, that is. Losing by one is still a loss, but it’s far from an embarrassment on its face. The nature of this loss was the ugly part. five field goals and no touchdowns, three interceptions each worse than the last, big-play miscues, and untimely penalties defined this one.
Now, as varying levels of panic begin to set in across the NFL, here is your annual reminder that Week 1 is a liar. You really should not believe anything that happens today until we see more. Now is the time for concern, not conclusions.
For reference, last year we saw the 49ers lose to the Bears, the Jaguars lose to the Commanders, and the Cowboys lose to the Bucs. Week 1 is historically notorious for its weird and wacky outcomes. So if you have a particularly strong or definitive take after Week 1 in the NFL, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.
So let’s dive into some concerns with that knowledge in mind. Here are your Titans Winners and Losers from Week 1:
Loser: Ryan Tannehill
Enter the spin zone: Ryan Tannehill realized having your nightmare game in the last game of the season is way worse than having it in your first game of the year, so he flipped them. Chess, not checkers kids.
In seriousness, this appeared to the naked eye to be the worst performance of Ryan Tannehill’s Titans career. The numbers back it up.
This was Tannehill’s first three-interception game since, well, that game against the Bengals in the playoffs. Statistically, this game was even worse. If you go by passer rating, it was the worst game of his entire career. He had a 28.8 rating in the 16-15 loss at New Orleans. In the 41-7 loss at Buffalo last year, he had a 32.7 grade. The Bengals’ playoff game was actually a much larger 66.7 rating overall.
If you look at his EPA (expected point added), it was among the lowest EPA per dropback numbers from the early slate per TruMedia: Ryan Tannehill (-0.47), Kenny Pickett (-0.49), Joe Burrow (-0.65).
The most obvious issue with his play was his clear inability to dial in just how much juice to put on his deeper passes. He went 1/8 on throws of 15+ air yards for 0 TDs and 3 INTs. All three of his picks were hopelessly underthrown: one to DeAndre Hopkins, then to Chris Moore on a deep shot, then to Hopkins again.
He seemingly tried to adjust, but promptly overthrew TE Chig Okonkwo on a trick play that managed to get him screaming up the right sideline wide-open. There was nobody to stop him from reaching the endzone. He followed that up by missing Tyjae Spears on the left sideline, throwing too far to the boundary, and forcing Spears to contort and ultimately fail to catch the ball. A properly placed ball there also certainly turns into seven points.
Here’s the reason why our “concern over conclusions” motto must come into play: This was Ryan Tannehill’s first game of the season in a new offense, with a new offensive coordinator, and a bunch of new offensive weapons. With any team installing a new offense or undergoing a massive personnel overhaul, a period of growing pains is expected. The Titans are managing both. It often doesn’t matter how good your pieces are, time to gel is a required ingredient.
Tannehill seemed uncomfortable out there, and it went beyond the pass rush he was facing. Perhaps his WRs weren’t getting open, but I’m inclined to think he maybe wasn’t seeing the field as well as he’d liked. In addition to making a handful of truly poor throws, he was missing reads badly. New plays with new routes and combinations need to be second nature to a quarterback in order for them to truly command the field. Perhaps that isn’t quite the case yet for him. If he’s still adjusting, one thing is for sure: he better do it quickly.
Winner: Nick Folk
Nick Folk led the Titans in scoring on Sunday. Actually, he did all of the scoring.
In a game that saw eight total field goals made, Folk nailed five of them: from 50, 27, 31, 45, and 29 yards. There was an astonishing 293 yards of total kicks made in New Orleans, and Folk had 182 of them.
The Titans’ offense couldn’t pull their weight on the scoreboard, but Folk did more than his fair share. One tangential element of Folk’s performance that bears paying some attention to is his kickoffs. Folk came into Nashville with his inability to get kickoffs into the endzone red-flagged by some. All five of his kickoffs today were returned, and only 2 of them made it into the Saints endzone for touchbacks. Ultimately this didn’t result in dramatically improved field position for New Orleans, but his reputation for being unable to get the ball far enough downfield to prevent a return is all but confirmed.
Loser: Mike Vrabel
This is the most hotly-contested subject from this game. I’m going to explain why there is a definitively correct side to this debate.
With 2:20 on the clock in the 4th quarter, Mike Vrabel had a decision to make: go for it on 4th & 6 from the New Orleans 11-yard line attempting to score a touchdown to go up 3, or kick the field goal, cut the lead to one and hope your defense can get you the ball back in time to march down and kick the game-winning FG.
He chose to rely on his defense. He was very wrong to do so.
Ultimately, the defense didn’t get off the field and they lost the game. so obviously he was wrong in the literal sense. But his decision to forgo the 4th down conversion attempt was as poor logically as it was analytically.
Many folks stuck in the dark ages will scoff at what the analytics tell you to do in this situation, but I implore you to at least consider the sheer magnitude of this number. There are a handful of win percentage models out there, but I’ll reference one of the best in ESPN’s model. Theirs showed the decision to kick the field goal here yielding a nearly 10% decrease in win percentage.
Now, no analytics model is without its flaws. A lot goes into these decisions, and it’s fair to say that there are simply some variables a computer cannot account for. but for reference, the “tricky” decisions this model judges are typically in the 0-5% win percentage discrepancy range. For a choice to have a whopping 10% win percentage delta, it’s reasonable to assume the correct decision according to the computer is the objectively correct decision. This simply was an analytically unforgivable error.
But perhaps you’re somebody who scoffs at the very notion of analytics telling a football coach what they should do. Fine, let’s reason this out ourselves.
“It makes no sense trusting the guy who threw three interceptions with the game there!” according to some on social media. To that, I say the options were trusting him then, or maybe getting to trust him in a few minutes. Not trusting him at all wasn’t on the menu.
“Let the defense bail the offense out again, they’d been doing it all game” seems to be another popular sentiment. However, when you actually go back and look, the Titans D hadn’t forced a 3 & out once in the 2nd half to that point. They hadn’t allowed a drive of less than 26 yards in the half. On 11 total Saints drives in the game, New Orleans only went 3 & out twice, both early in the match.
But the strongest counterpoint is this: Folks arguing Vrabel made the right decision because of the Titans’ offensive woes are conveniently ignoring the fact that in the best-case scenario, they were going to be needing that very same offense to march 40-50 yards into field goal range with about 100 seconds to play with. Did you have more faith in the defense getting the perfect stop and the offense doing all of that? When the alternative was them converting a single 4th and 6? I believe that’s insanity.
Here is a final way of thinking about it. If you make the field goal, you have to get a stop and score another field goal after a 40+ yard drive. If you fail to convert, you must stop the Saints’ offense and score a touchdown on a 40+ yard drive. But if you managed to convert, you needed to score a touchdown and then at the very least keep the Saints’ offense from going the length of the field and scoring a touchdown.
Converting and scoring was the only scenario that resulted in you truly being in control, and the requirements for kicking the FG or going for it on 4th down were very similar tasks. The key difference, of course, is that only one of them gave you the opportunity to take the lead and hop into the driver’s seat.
Winner: Defensive Line
Perhaps the only thing that is reliably obvious about this team is that their defensive front is really good. They wasted no time causing havoc in the Superdome.
The group came away with 4 sacks and 8 QB hits, and it was the usual suspects pulling their weight. The perpetually underrated Denico Autry managed 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss (TFL), 4 QB hits, and 5 total tackles. His interior running mate Jeffery Simmons got himself 1 sack and 2 TFLs, a QB hit, and 5 total tackles as well.
Newcomer Arden Key stole the show though, getting the Titans’ first sack of the day in a big spot. Anybody who paid attention to his training camp wasn’t surprised by this, as it became a running bit at one point to get a total sacks report from Arden after each practice. By the end of the day, he’d managed 1.5 sacks, 1 TFL, 1 pass defended, 2 QB hits, and 4 total tackles.
The one nitpick of this group’s performance in Week 1 was the lopsided nature of their production. They came out of the gates strong in the first half, laying waste to the Saints offensive line with regularity. But come the 2nd half New Orleans seemed to find its level in keeping Derek Carr clean for the most part, and as the pass rush grew quiet, the passing game heated up.
Loser: Kristian Fulton
On The Hot Read Podcast last week, I half-jokingly brought up this possibility: After all of the positive progress and reporting on Kristian Fulton throughout camp, his contract year would ultimately be more of the same frustration and underwhelming impact.
Well, I’m not saying that’s certain to become the case… but I’m afraid he’s not off to a great start.
It’s pretty cut and dry with Fulton. When he’s healthy, he’s Tennessee’s best cornerback. He just cannot stay healthy, and in particular, he can’t stop suffering soft tissue injuries. It was just a few minutes into the 2nd quarter when he was tended to by training staff on the field, helped off, and deemed questionable to return. This hamstring injury is just one of a couple now that have piled up over his short career.
The silver lining is that he did ultimately return, though it wasn’t triumphant. On what appeared to be his first play back in the game, he got cooked on a critical first down conversion up the sideline.
It remains to be seen just how big of a deal his hamstring injury will be going forward.
Winner: Amani Hooker
It’s odd to begin a “winner” with bad news, but here I must do so; Hooker went into concussion protocol after a particularly hard hit in the second half.
You could easily argue his presence was missed once he left the game because before getting hurt he was making plays left and right. On the opening kickoff, he opened the season with a statement by making the solo tackle, punching the ball out of the returner’s hand in the process, and securing the ball before tumbling out of bounds. His heroics stole the opening possession from the Saints and gave the Titans fantastic field position inside enemy territory.
Then on the final lengthy drive before halftime, Hooker came up big again with an interception of Derek Carr on the Tennessee 12-yard line. The Saints had been driving the length of the field, and Hooker’s ability to spy on the coverage and jump the pass saved the Titans from losing the lead heading into the break.
Hooker is a phenomenal element of the Titans’ defense who they desperately need to stay healthy. The severity of his concussion and subsequent time missed could prove very costly for Tennessee…
The Titans’ secondary was among the easiest to pass against in 2022, and although they made personnel improvements over the offseason, they weren’t able to reap the benefits in the Superdome.
In total, Tennessee’s secondary allowed five plays of 20+ yards, all of which were through the air. That doesn’t include a 19-yard Carr touchdown pass, the only time either team found the endzone on Sunday. too often you’d see DBs seemingly getting lost or easily shaken on routes, and the communication seemed to be poor at times.
Of the Saints 351 total yards in the game, 305 of them were passing. Carr went 23/33 at a 9.2 yards per completion clip. A big passing day is much easier to excuse against a great passer, but I don’t believe anybody would be willing to deem Derek Carr “great”. Especially not on a brand new team, with a brand new coordinator, in a brand new offense, in his first game. Tennessee’s secondary has some serious cleaning up to do.
Winner: Derrick Henry
You could argue that Derrick Henry was the only offensive player wearing blue on Sunday who had a really good game.
Rushing 15 times for 63 yards and a respectable 4.2 yards per carry, Henry seemed ahead of his typically sluggish September schedule on the ground. As a receiving threat, Henry was even better: 2 receptions on 3 targets for 56 yards, a blistering 28 yards per reception.
With Henry clearly being the elite variable on offense for the Titans in Week 1, it’s reasonable to wonder why he only touched the ball just 17 times. After all, this is the bellcow back we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing get 20-30 touches each and every game. Most of Henry’s sub-20 touch games in his recent career have come on total blowouts, but this wasn’t one of those. So why?
In this regard, you could actually spin Henry as a loser in today’s article. New Titans Coordinator Tim Kelly’s offense raised plenty of questions this offseason about how different it might be, particularly if it would still feature Henry as its prized jewel. The draft selection of Tyjae Spears further complicated the situation, causing some to question if Henry would be given less of a (back-breakingly) demanding role in the new Titans offense.
Now, perhaps this week’s lack of Henry focus was part of an effort to save his legs as much as possible early in the season. Or maybe Tim Kelly took Titans fans’ cries for creativity to heart a little too much and overdid it, accidentally neglecting the old-school Henry game.
Whatever the case, what Kelly said earlier in the summer to the media stood out while watching him work on Sunday. He said he’d be foolish to get away from what the Titans do best when asked if he planned on still revolving the offense around Derrick Henry. At no point in New Orleans did he let his actions dictate that.
Loser: Referee Eyesight
I’m rarely a “blame the refs” guy. Nobody likes the “blame the refs” guy. And that isn’t the case today. The Titans have themselves to blame for this loss.
But the officiating was a massive problem nonetheless.
Head official Ronald Torbert and crew made several bad calls throughout the game, and on the whole, they certainly hurt the Titans the most. Ryan Tannehill’s second interception came on a deep shot to WR Chris Moore, who was being held and interfered with on the play. There was no flag for either infraction. On the Saints’ first drive of the game, their biggest pass-and-catch seemed clean. But upon inspection of the replay, the receiver’s second foot was clearly on the sideline and out of bounds.
Now, not every one of these more minor calls went against Tennessee. They got a “make-up” call or two, such as a lack of interference called on a deep shot targeting Elijah Molden in the second half. There was one play, however, that arguably swung the very outcome of the game.
This of course was the Derek Carr “incomplete pass” fumble.
The first issue here is the inexplicable decision to blow this play dead upon the defensive return. S Kevin Byard scoops up the fumbled ball and has a clear lane to the endzone, where he runs and lays the ball down long after the premature whistle. Referees in the NFL are explicitly instructed to let these instances play out. I cannot tell you why these officials chose to ignore that lesson from Ref-101, but they did, and it took an almost certain touchdown away from the Titans.
The decision to blow the play dead on the return was absurd, but the decision to double down on their wrongness was even more ridiculous. Not only was this a by-the-book clear example of a fumble, but the call was completely inconsistent with what we saw from the end of the Titans season in 2022 (a call that quite literally ended their campaign) as well as a call we saw just moments later elsewhere in the AFC South, a Trevor Lawrence forward-propelled fumble that turned into a DeForest Buckner scoop-and-score. It simply cannot be explained how the officials managed to get this play wrong when given the chance to review it. It’s unacceptable and is absolutely something Titans fans should take vocal issue with.
Did it solely cost the Titans the game? No way. But is it a massive error that potentially changed the outcome of the game? Yes, it clearly is.