The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans, as you might have guessed from the title.
Yes, it’s time for my annual season preview post, in which I give some reasons why the Titans might finish with a better or worse record and eventually end up predicting a particular record. Sometimes this goes okay, and sometimes it doesn’t. Last year, I predicted 8-8, felt like I had missed high in the middle of the season, and ended up missing low by a game. The previous season, I correctly forecasted a 9-7 record and a return trip to the playoffs. The year before that, not so well. The two seasons before that, well, my season predictions got Ken Whisenhunt’d almost like they were a Titans quarterback.
Anyway, what to think about this year’s Tennessee Titans? I was back to covering them for Football Outsiders Almanac, so those of you who read the 2019 version knew I took their idea of “good to great” and tried to look at the team through the prism of Jim Collins’ classic business book of the same title. But my original conception for how I was going to write this post was as an extended riff on the possible Straussian readings of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. I eventually decided (a) even for me, that would be a little too much and (b) to really do justice to the conceit, I’d have to re-read the book and I didn’t have time for that, so I abandoned that idea. But for purposes of my FOA chapter, I just accepted the premise that the Titans were going from good to great. For this post, I’ll start in a different place than the Titans’ three consecutive season records of 9-7.
|Pt Diff||Pyth Wins||Est Wins||DVOA|
What this table says is that the Titans trying to good to great are starting in the wrong place. By any sort of more sophisticated measure, it’s hard to say the Titans have been anything other than very average the past three seasons. They haven’t outscored their opponents on net. They haven’t performed that well in the key facets of the game that lead to victory (Est. Wins is Football Outsiders’ Estimated Wins, which predicts record based on performance in those particular facets like red zone play that lead more directly to wins than overall DVOA) (I write for FO perma-disclaimer). They haven’t played that well overall. The Titans are instead trying to go from average to somewhere better than that.
The second key aspect of the Titans season is that they’re trying to go from average to somewhere else with, by NFL standards, pretty much the same team. Compare the 2018 Tennessee Titans to the 2019 Tennessee Titans, and where are they different? Ryan Tannehill is a significant upgrade at backup quarterback, but as lousy as Blaine Gabbert was, he only played 211 snaps. Who did the Titans lose that played as many as 300 snaps, and who might they have added this offseason that should play at least 300 snaps? Here’s a rough approximation:
Lost: Josh Kline (975), Derrick Morgan (534), Brian Orakpo (575), Quinton Spain (858), Luke Stocker (476), Taywan Taylor (446)
Added: A.J. Brown, Nate Davis (maybe), Amani Hooker (very doubtful IMO), Adam Humphries, Rodger Saffold, Brent Urban (probably?), Cameron Wake
So outside of wide receiver and guard, the Titans are basically the same team they were last year. I know, “where’s Delanie Walker? Where’s Kevin Pamphile?” They were both on the team last year, but both missed the snap threshold due to injury. But I’m reluctant to count injured players because there will always be injuries. It’s not “adding Delanie Walker” but rather “Delanie Walker missed last year but somebody else will probably get hurt this year.” Mike Vrabel talks a lot about injuries, and his habit of giving players established and not maintenance days was a big highlight of pre-regular season coverage. By FO’s Adjusted Games Lost stat, the Titans were more injured on both offense and defense than they were in either of Mike Mularkey’s two seasons as head coach. The expected number of injuries is not zero.
Back to my point, Jon Robinson highlighted wide receiver and guard (and backup QB) as positions that needed to be changed. And one of the players there, Spain, was actually pretty good at his job, it’s just that Saffold is better at one thing they view as a key aspect for what they’re trying to do (make second-level blocks). Wide receiver, coming into the season, the depth was in my view clearly inadequate so he was just making up for a mistake. That’s an actual upgrade, but unless Brown is a great player after missing most of the pre-season process, it’s hard to see this unit being better than league average at best. And that’s the external case for the Titans being a whole lot different than the team they were last year.
The “good to great” mantra then, as wrongly-conceived as it is, gets at the point that whether the Titans are a better team than the average squad they’ve been for the past couple years depends on internal improvement. With teams hardly trying at all during the preseason, and gameplanning even less, judging internal improvement off what I as a guy not in Nashville am able to see is a fool’s exercise. I’m excited about the things I’ve heard about how Harold Landry looks better and has developed an inside counter move, but I haven’t seen him at all this preseason. I saw ESPN beat writer Turron Davenport describe the improvement in Corey Davis’ game, but preseason isn’t the place to judge whether he has taken the next step from a player who may play extremely well one week and virtually disappear the next (NE-IND last year, for example) to a consistent 16-game threat. At FO, we normally predict offensive coordinator changes to result in some tradition, and Arthur Smith is new. But maybe by keeping the same system it really will be more like a “normal” second year under Matt LaFleur’s system and the offense has a chance to explode. Maybe Dean Pees can get the defense to playing in DVOA how good people think it is by conventional statistics like points and yards allowed (eh). Maybe, maybe, maybe.
What concerns me most, as normal, are the potential disaster areas. A long-term Mariota injury should be survivable, unlike past seasons. Derrick Henry reverting to the back he was the first 2.5 seasons of his career would be trouble, especially with how the Titans want to play. OT depth doesn’t look great during Taylor Lewan’s suspension and will be a constant issue the first four weeks. I don’t know if Arthur Smith will even try to play modern NFL offense or if he’ll listen to Vrabel and the Titans will go as run-heavy as they did last year (why did they abandon the pass game? Marcus? Marcus injury? lack of WRs? philosophy?). I don’t know how they get any pass rush out of the defensive line if Jurrell Casey goes down. The floor at OLB counting on an aging Wake and big jumps by Landry and fellow second-year man Sharif Finch is way lower than it was last year. Will Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson play like their reputations say they can play, or like they did last year?
The probable answer, as is almost always the case, is we’ll get a mixed bag. Some things will go well, others will not. The Titans will try to fix some of the problems and hope some of the others will fix themselves on their own. The schedule gets tougher. Post-Luck retirement, FO playoff odds have them as slight AFC South favorites. My guess is that either Houston or Jacksonville gets their act together enough to have a decent season (both teams have higher ceilings and lower floors than the Titans do IMO) and the Titans probably finish at 8-8 and second in the AFC South.