"And you may ask yourself: Well....How did I get here?"
-David Byrne and Brian Eno
Nothing about the Titans season has gone as planned. A team that most people expected to at least be among the 10 or 12 best teams in the league sits at 0-3. On the bench, one of the most respected coaches of the last two decades holds in his hand a roster that returned all the crucial, marquee players, save one, from a team that went 13-3 last year. It's a roster full of Pro-Bowlers and other assorted veterans, some of whom have rings on their fingers from their previous destinations. The rookies on that roster belong to a highly regarded draft class that provided much to be optimistic about during the preseason.
The Titans lost a coordinator, but promoted from within in hopes of maintaining a great system. They lost an All-Pro, but put trust in the best in the business, Jim Washburn, to turn another nobody into a somebody, yet again, as he has done so regularly throughout his tenure in Tennessee. The players were steaming mad and itching to complete some unfinished business after squandering one of the easier roads to a Super Bowl one will ever see last season with the fiasco at home against Baltimore in early January. This was a team that had absolutely every reason to come storming out of the gates, tough schedule or not, and assert themselves as a contender early on.
And they now sit at 0-3.
The Titans have problems, big problems in all three phases of the game. Some are personnel based, some are errors in execution, and still others are coaching related. After the jump, my take on the State of the Titans and what must happen, starting on Sunday with Jacksonville.
Special teams is by far the worst unit on this football team this season. It is basically impossible to find anything good to say about special teams, as their dead last DVOA ranking would suggest. The Titans have allowed a blocked kick, missed a kick, and done worse than nothing on both kick and punt returns. Football Outsiders gives separate values for each phase of special teams, and an examination of each phase tells you exactly what you already know if you have been paying attention. The best parts of the Titans special teams are the kick and punt coverage units, which both rank near the middle of the league. On field goals and extra point kicks, only 5 teams have done worse so far this season. On kick returns only the hapless Rams are worse and no team in the league is below the Titans on punt returns.
Plenty has already been written about the Titans decision to go without an experienced return man this season. The decision to let Chris Carr walk was, I believe, justifiable based upon his insistence that he have a regular role on defense in the secondary-a role he simply wasn't that good at. But Chris Carr signed with the Ravens on March 18th. There is no excuse whatsoever for not using the next 5 months between losing Carr and the beginning of the season to find a guy who can return kicks and punts. There simply isn't. This is the first of two massive blunders that the front office made this offseason that should have never been allowed to happen. The Titans recently went crawling back to return specialist Mark Jones, whom they cut after an injury plagued training camp, but how effective he is going to be remains to be seen, considering he failed a physical in Carolina less than a month ago. It must be said, however, as long as he doesn't fumble away touchdowns for the other team, he's an upgrade.
The Titans pass defense, which has been infuriatingly inept, is currently ranked 29th in terms of raw yardage and 26th by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. From where I sit there are two causes, one schematic, one personnel. In terms of scheme, the Titans are trying their hardest to stick with the Schwartz system of only rushing four lineman 90% of the time. While I have no problem with this being our core philosophy, Defensive Coordinator Chuck Cecil has to do a much, much better job of recognizing when our four-man rush simply isn't getting the job done and blitzing more accordingly. When Roethlisberger was getting all day on every single play in the second half against Pittsburgh, Cecil's failure to adapt and do what was necessary to get more pressure was a huge part of why the Titans lost that game. It should be noted that our four man line ranks 10th by DVOA against the pass and is towards the top end of the league with 7 sacks this season. It is not the case that our line can't get pressure on the QB, it's that they cannot do it consistently and they cannot do it late in games when they have spent the majority of the game on the field. The line misses Albert Haynesworth, no question, because he made everyone better, but I still think this defense can be just as nasty as last season with a little more imagination in regards to how they bring pressure.
The personnel aspect of our passing defense woes begins and ends with Nick Harper. When you have a cornerback averaging almost 9 tackles per game and who has no pass defenses in 3 games, you have big problems. It has become obvious that Nick Harper simply does not have enough left in his legs to be effective. The pass rush may not be as potent this season, and I do think that is part of the problem, but Nick Harper is leaving receivers open early and often, so it's hard to imagine that he would be serviceable even with more QB pressure. In fact, several times when the Titans have blitzed, it has been Nick Harper's man that served as the safety valve on a quick slant. Through the first three games, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that Harper, at 35 years old, simply cannot play corner effectively in the NFL anymore.
The decision to let all of the experienced back up corners walk this offseason, when they knew they had a starter who was going to be that old, was, in my opinion, the biggest blunder made by the front office this offseason. It is no secret that once a corner loses his legs he is next to worthless in this league. Wide receivers are just too fast. By letting our depth at that position walk, especially Eric King, and only adding rookie replacements, the front office went "all in" on the bet that Harper would be fine this season. It looked like a sucker bet during the offseason, but the events of the first 3 weeks have cemented the choice to not pursue another quality, experienced cornerback as an unmitigated disaster.
While there have certainly been other scheme and execution problems in the secondary, such as Michael Griffin and Chris Hope simply not living up to their Pro-Bowl performances from last year and simply not being as good when asked to cover longer than last year, not having a good 2nd string option with which to replace Harper has been, and may continue to be, a fatal error. Now that Vincent Fuller and Cortland Finnegan are both banged up, this blunder will only become more and more costly, as replacing Harper will not be possible if the Titans are too busy dealing with injuries to other players at the same position. If the Titans go quietly into the night the season, this will be as much the reason as anything else.
There are always plenty of opinions about the merits of having a "game manager" at quarterback and even more opinions about what, exactly constitutes a "games manager". Well, Titans fans, the answer is simple. Last year Kerry Collins was a game manager. This year, he is not. The distinction basically centers on how many and what kinds of throws the quarterback is asked to make every game. Last year, Kerry made very few passes deep down field, and got the majority of his completions through tight ends and running backs. As a result, Kerry was among the best at protecting the ball last year and not taking sacks. He made quick, precise throws to short and mid-range targets and it was exactly what a team with a dynamic rushing attack and a bruising defense needed: a game manager.
This year Kerry Collins is no longer being asked to be a game manager. Last season he attempted roughly 26 passes per game. Through three games this season he has attempted 35, 33, and 37 passes, on average 9 more passes per game than last season. Last season, 150 of the team's 265 completions went to people who didn't play receiver, or 56.6%. So far this season the count is 30 to 28 in favor of receivers, or 51.7% in the other direction, a swing of over 7%. Going forward, the Titans need to reestablish their low risk brand of passing game, and getting Bo Scaife and Jared Cook into the game plan after injuries will be key.
Simply put, Collins is being asked to make more plays in the passing game, and make plays he has-both good and bad. Kerry only threw 12 TDs all of last season but is on pace for 21.3 TD passes this season. Last season he averaged 167 yards passing per game. This year he is averaging over 40 more yards per game with 210 yards per game. It becomes clear that when you ask Kerry to do more, he can do more. But what has not yet been said and what most people have probably been thinking while watching the games is that Kerry is also making a lot of mistakes. Kerry was only intercepted 7 times all last season, roughly 1.7% of his passes. This season he has already been picked off 4 times at a rate of 3.8%--more than twice as often as last season. The other big change has been in the sack department. When you make more throws to wide receivers down field, the quarterback is asked to hold the ball longer. Kerry has already been sacked 5 times after being sacked just 8 times last season.
So the situation seems clear. When we ask Kerry to throw the ball more often, especially down field to wide receivers, we get a lot more production of every sort: more yards, more TDs, more critical mistakes. The Titans have seemingly forgotten what made Collins so successful last season and are currently asking him to do more than he is capable of doing without significantly increasing the number of negative plays he makes. Last season, Collins threw less than 11 incompletions per game. This season he is up to almost 16. The Titans have lost the time of possession battle, a crucial stat for a Jeff Fisher team, in every game this season. Adding 5 clock-stopping incompletions per game is part of that. The other part of that is what we aren't doing when we are busy throwing the ball too much.
Last season, Chris Johnson and Lendale White combined to average just over 28 carries per game (remember, Collins averaged 26 passes per game). That number is down over 3 carries per game this season, and it's Lendale's carries that are really suffering. He is down to only 7 carries per game from his average of 12.5 carries per game last year. So not only is the increased load on Collins' shoulders causing him to create turnovers that we cannot afford, it is also contributing to the marginalization of Lendale White, and is thus neutering the vaunted 1-2 punch in the running game.
Lendale is in a contract season, lost all that weight and now we are choosing to pass the ball 35 times a game instead of milking our running game like we ought to. Lendale has NEVER been this good, and the Titans have never used him less. In a word: stupid. Our mediocre at best run blocking (a dark secret about this team that is rarely talked about) has been less than effective much of the time, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that Chris Johnson can't move the pile or wear down defenses. Astute ESPN columnist Paul Kuharsky pointed out how almost half of CJ's touches have gone for a yard or less. Chris Johnson is that fastest man alive in football pads, but Lendale, slimmed down though he may be, delivers a load that Johnson cannot begin to simulate. The Titans desperately need to get him more touches, especially early on, in order to keep the ball moving forward on the ground and to put a strangle hold on time of possession. Lendale's touchdown run against the Jets was an absolute thing of beauty, showcasing an incredible mixture of strength and agility. A big part of the reason why we are losing games late instead of winning them is because we aren't pounding the rock on offense, milking the clock and wearing down the other team. For someone who has watched the Titans ever since they existed, this seems like Jeff Fisher Football 101, but astoundingly this version of the Titans have seemingly forgotten that lesson.
Coaching and Management
As someone who generally regards Jeff Fisher as the best coach in football without a ring, this final section is particularly difficult to write and think about. The simple fact is that, besides the draft, the coaching and player personnel staffs have done a borderline awful job since the end of last season. From a coaching standpoint, this team has been terrible at making in game adjustments. Beyond that, this team has lost its identity.
On offense, the smash mouth, run first philosophy that defined this franchise has gone out the window in favor of a near 60/40 split in favor of the passing game. The Titans have trailed this season, but never to a large enough margin to justify abandoning the run. Offensive Coach Mike Heimerdinger needs to get his head back on straight and remember what it is that this team does well. Yes, the Titans have upgraded their wide receiver corps substantially, but none of those additions comes close to justifying this kind of swing in philosophy.
On defense, the coaches should have realized that losing Albert Haynesworth would hurt our pass rush, at least to some degree. If you know there is a pretty good chance that there will be a decline in quarterback pressure, leaving a 35 year old out there at corner with no quality backup is foolish. I don't think Albert's departure has to be such a big deal, but if the coaching staff continues to use the exact same scheme as if he were still on the roster, the impact of his departure will continue to be magnified.
From Here on Out
As far as I am concerned, last year was a blueprint for exactly what this team needs to be about: clock control (via a run first attack and a safe passing game), winning the turnover battle, stuffing the run and not giving up big plays. The Titans, through three games have failed at three of those four key tenets. Looking at it that way, it should be no surprise that this team finds themselves exactly where they are at this point of the season- on life support. There is simply no way to be successful when you combine a team straying from its identity with the killer lapses in execution on the field. If these Tennessee Titans expect to right the ship and make something of this season, it is imperative that they take a good long look in the mirror and remember what made them tick last season. It is by no means too late to turn things around, but it has to start Sunday against the Jaguars. Stop asking Kerry to be something he is not, reintegrate Lendale into the offense, figure out how to bring more pressure through blitzing, and hope that Mark Jones can get the job done.