The national media has officially bailed on the 2017 Tennessee Titans.
Some were off the train already, but for some reason, the Titans 24-13 win over the Texans on Sunday seems to have pushed the rest over the edge. The Washington Post ran an article on why the Titans’ record is a “mirage” and then more piled on using words like “fraud”, “stink”, “terrible”.
The Titans' 8-4 record is a total mirage https://t.co/9qBULU9VVD pic.twitter.com/17TfMYyr5P— Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) December 5, 2017
Absolutely. Thought they'd be good this year & they do have good record but still taking the L. They stink despite "8-4." https://t.co/6IZHtHFUVr— Evan Silva (@evansilva) December 6, 2017
An absolute fraud. I was entirely wrong on them. I laughed a couple weeks ago when people insisted they were roughly equal to Jacksonville. Night and day. https://t.co/ljZpc3MmQp— Frank Schwab (@YahooSchwab) December 7, 2017
I kind of got a chuckle out of that last one. Frank must have selectively forgotten that 37-16 beatdown in Jacksonville from earlier in the season that was every bit as lopsided as the final score indicates. I guess that game didn’t count because it didn’t fit his narrative.
I understand where they are coming from though. This Titans team can sometimes be maddening. They are a pretty talented group, but have been doing just enough to get by against some bad teams and have just recently been embarrassed on national TV by the Steelers.
They’ve played an easy schedule. They don’t win with style. They don’t dominate games. They often trail early and are forced to come from behind late. Those are all facts. I won’t argue that they aren’t. However do those facts mean that the Titans are a bad football team? Lets take a look at some of these arguments one by one.
“They are only 8-4 because of their super easy schedule”
I will readily admit that this team has been pretty fortunate with regards to their strength of schedule. The part of the schedule the Titans have played to date is currently rated as the 5th easiest schedule in the NFL per DVOA. Playing a Jacoby Brissett led Colts team twice, a Tom Savage led Texans team once, and a [Insert QB here] led Browns team once has certainly helped pad their win total.
However, they haven’t all been cupcakes. The Titans have played four games against teams that have winning records through Week 13. Those games were a 37-16 win at (8-4) Jacksonville, a 33-27 home win against (8-4) Seattle, a 23-20 home win against (7-5) Baltimore, and the 40-17 blowout loss at (10-2) Pittsburgh. So the Titans are 3-1 against teams with winning records. How does that stack up with other “good“ teams? (h/t to SuperHorn for this find)
YTD Records against teams with winning records:— Superhorn (@Super_Horn) December 7, 2017
MIN - 4-1
PIT - 3-1
TEN - 3-1
NWE - 2-1
KAN - 2-1
SEA - 2-2
JAX - 2-2
LAR - 2-2
PHI - 1-1
All other have losing records. Including ATL - 1-3, BAL - 0-4, and LAC - 0-3.
Interesting huh? Where are all the outrage pieces about the Ravens being a 7-5 fraud because they’re 0-4 against winning teams?
Its also interesting that the weak schedule argument doesn’t seem to get applied to the Jaguars and Seahawks who both have played the 7th and 8th easiest schedules in the league according to DVOA and are also 8-4. They also both lost — convincingly — in head to head matchups with the Titans.
“The Titans have a point differential that doesn’t match their record”
This is true. They don’t match. The Titans are 8-4 despite a negative 16 point differential which would normally point to a team that “should” be 6-6 or even 5-7 at this point. Losing games by 43 and 23 will do that to a team.
There is no excuse for the debacle in Houston. Deshaun Watson absolutely embarrassed this defense. The Titans were losing that game regardless of whether Mariota finished the game or not, but I will say that I don’t think the Texans pile on 20 additional 4th quarter points without Matt Cassel’s help that day. We are also 10 weeks removed from that game and the Titans secondary is much improved from then to now.
The loss in Pittsburgh is tough to take much away from. You see some very strange results on Thursday Night Football. Remember the Rams-49ers 41-39 shootout way back in Week 3? How about the Ravens — who must be really bad since they got beat by the terrible Titans — giving a 40-0 beat down to the Dolphins in Week 8? The Bucs having a chance to beat the Patriots on the final play in Week 5? None of those games feel terribly applicable to what we’ve seen from those teams the rest of the season. TNF games are heavily slanted towards the home team and the Titans were playing a team that is both objectively good and that plays even better at home. They hung around for most of the game and then faded at the end.
I’m not saying the Titans should be absolved of any blame for those two blowout losses — they played badly in both games and the better teams clearly won — I’m just saying there is some context around them that may make the scoreboard look more lopsided than it otherwise could have been and those two games are carrying this negative point differential argument.
They also could have counter-balanced those blowouts with some blowout wins of their own. This is true. The Titans’ largest win of the year is their 21 point win in Jacksonville, but outside of that they’ve only won by double figures twice more — 36-22 at home against the Colts and 24-13 at home against the Texans — with both of those being aided by a 75 yard Derrick Henry touchdown run as they were running out the clock. The other 5 wins have all been a one score game when the clock hit zeroes — though both Seattle and Baltimore scored late in garbage time to make those games closer than they really were.
As I mentioned earlier this week, the Titans have struggled to get up early on teams and that’s a major flaw that needs to be corrected. It contributes heavily to this lack of blowout wins and bad point differential, but does it make the Titans a bad team necessarily? I don’t think so.
“The Titans might make the playoffs but they’ll be one and done”
First, making the playoffs qualifies this season as a success for this team even in a weaker AFC. Only 12 of 32 teams make it every year and we haven’t been there in almost a decade. Not a single player on this team has played in a playoff game as a Titan. Changing that is a big deal even if it proves to be a short stay. Blaine Bishop always talks about the speed of the game and how it steps up from the practice field to preseason games to regular season games to playoff games. If this team makes it in, it will at the very least be a valuable experience for their future.
However, my bigger issue with this statement is that its ignoring the fact that the two most likely first round opponents for the Titans as it stands today are the Jaguars or Ravens — TWO TEAMS THEY ALREADY BEAT. Even if they don’t get one of those two, would it be impossible to imagine the Titans beating the Chargers or the Chiefs or the Raiders in a playoff game?
Here are a few other points of my own to consider.
The best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl
The most famous and extreme case of this was the 6 seed Giants beating the 16-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2007 season. That Giants team also sat 8-4 at this point in the season. They sported a +17 point differential.
The 2008 Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl despite being 7-5 with a +25 point differential through 12 games — and The Whiz as head coach.
The 2003 Panthers made it to the Super Bowl despite being 8-4 with a +5 point differential through 12 games.
The 2011 Giants won the Super Bowl despite being 6-6 with a -25 point differential through 12 games.
That’s 4 times in the last 15 years that we’ve seen teams with similar resumes to the Titans after 12 weeks make it all the way to the Super Bowl and sometimes win the whole thing. That doesn’t even include teams like the 2016 Broncos and 2012 Ravens that struggled to reach the playoffs and then ended up winning the title.
The national media guys like to act like it is impossible for a team that plays just OK during the regular season to do anything in the postseason when that’s simply not true according to history. Once you reach the playoffs the fact that you struggled to beat the Browns in Week 7 doesn’t really matter. All that matters is who is the better football team that day.
Vegas thinks the Titans are pretty good
Jimmy posted earlier this week about Bovada having the Titans with the 4th best Super Bowl odds in the AFC behind the Patriots, Steelers, and Chargers and tied with the Raiders, Jaguars, and Chiefs. So Vegas at least thinks the Titans are on par with the Jags.
They have also had the Titans as favorites in 10 of their 12 games so far with them being listed as dogs for just the Miami game (The Matt Cassel Effect) and the Pittsburgh game so far. They are favored once again this week.
Against the spread, the Titans are 5-6-1 so despite the outcries of playing down to their opponents, the Titans actually have played pretty down the middle against expectations from week to week.
These shots from the media have a lot to do with the Titans style of play
Would the #Titans still be a "fraud/mirage/pretenders" if they threw for 300 yards a game, but still had same record and point differential?— Josh Gunnels (@gunnelsj) December 7, 2017
I think Gunnels nailed it here. The Titans play a style of football that is largely unpopular with the masses. For one, this is an offense that doesn’t produce fantasy points in bunches for any one guy besides maybe Delanie Walker. This offense isn’t designed to ask Mariota to throw for 350 and 4 TDs every game, they also spread the ball around to multiple receivers and they split the carries between two running backs. Lots of NFL fans and media personalities view the league through the lens of fantasy football. Its a massive part of the popularity of the sport. However, it also skews opinions about players and teams often.
Its not just fantasy players though. The Titans play a brand of football that is boring to many — maybe even most — people. They want to smash giant running backs in to the line until they break your will and then play bend-but-don’t-break defense on the other side of the ball. That formula has proven to be pretty good for winning football games so far, its not great for capturing the hearts and minds of America’s football writers.
The Titans are not the worst 8-4 team of all time. They also won’t be the worst playoff team or division winner of all time if/when they accomplish those goals. This is a pretty good football team who plays an unpopular style under a coach that too many people are eager to be “right“ about after bashing him when he was hired in 2016.
We frankly don’t know what this Titans team is yet because their story is only partially written. As Paul Kuharsky astutely pointed out this week, this Titans team has a lot of similarities to the 1999 Titans that came up one yard short in the Super Bowl. That team won ugly a lot and played a physical, grind-you-out type of style. These Titans won’t get to 13-3, but its not crazy to think they could make some noise if they get in the playoffs and you shouldn’t let any writer tell you otherwise.
Football is a non-linear, small sample size sport. Teams develop at different rates and times and games — and seasons — are influenced by chance far more than we would like to admit. The small sample size means that an outlier in the data set by which we evaluate these teams carries far more weight than it would in other sports that play more games and have more “measurable events” during the games.
The Titans have the one thing that gives you a chance to win every game come playoff time: a good quarterback. Mariota hasn’t had the best statistical season, but he’s played at a higher level than what his numbers suggest.
These next couple months are as good as it gets for football fans and the Titans are right in the thick of it for the first time in ages. My advice is to embrace this team — flaws and all — and enjoy it.