“All aboard!” Choo Choo!
The Titans’ hype train has been gaining steam since January. In fact, Yahoo!’s Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, and the headline for their Titans’ article is "2017 NFL Preview: All aboard the Tennessee Titans' bandwagon."
In the offseason, the team’s major positions of weakness were attacked with ferocity by General Manager Jon Robinson as he worked to reshape the wide receivers, cornerbacks, and special teams units with multiple projected starters added via free agency and the draft.
Prior to the signing of veteran receiver Eric Decker, Pro Football Focus ranked the Titans roster as 3rd best in the NFL, just behind the Patriots and the Falcons (the two teams that most recently challenged for a Super Bowl), high praise for a team that won a total of five games in the two seasons prior to last.
Along with Yahoo!, various sites are starting to come out with their pre-season power rankings. The Titans find themselves 11th in the aforementioned Yahoo! article. NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk ranked the Titans 10th, while USA Today has the Titans’ roster at 5th in their rankings.
With the team primed to take another major step forward in 2017, just how high should expectations be?
In Brad Gagnon’s (Bleacher Report) write-up of “NFL Teams Ready to Break Through as Playoff Contenders in 2017,” the Titans were the 2nd of 6 teams listed. But the Titans were already playoff contenders in late December last season. This article seems to be a year behind.
That’s probably why Las Vegas has raised the stakes beyond simply “playoff contender,” with oddsmakers picking the Titans as the odds-on favorite to win the AFC South. They aren’t the only ones. On Monday, USA Today released their predictions for the 2017 NFL season, picking the Titans to win the division and secure the #3 seed in the AFC with a 12-4 record.
But it doesn’t stop there. After the Decker signing, Sports Illustrated has gone as far as to call the Titans Super Bowl contenders.
For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade, these are fairly lofty expectations. Should they be tempered?
In my opinion, the Titans should be the favorites to win the AFC South. They were in position to make the playoffs last year before the disastrous Christmas Eve game in Jacksonville. Without Mariota’s injury, who knows how that game would’ve ended. Yes, the team was trailing by 15 points with basically one quarter to play, but the Titans had found themselves in similar situations throughout the season and managed to come back to win some of those games and fell just short in others. It’s not impossible to think they could’ve won that game and made the playoffs.
The Titans 9-7 record in 2016 included three heart-breaking losses (Minnesota, Indianapolis round 1, and San Diego), in which the team gave up five touchdowns on returned turnovers. The six total defensive touchdowns scored against the Titans in 2016 tied the Rams for highest mark in the NFL. The Rams turned the ball over a lot, 29 times, 4th-most in the league. They averaged a touchdown allowed every 4.8 turnovers. The Titans, however, turned the ball over the 20th-most times in the NFL with only 18 giveaways. That means the Titans allowed a touchdown on one of every three turnovers. That’s insane!
For the record, there were 700 total giveaways in the 2016 season, and 57 total defensive touchdowns. That means a defensive touchdown was scored, on average, on one out of every 12 turnovers. The Titans luck rate with this statistic is absolutely unbelievable. A simple regression to the mean in this category could net the Titans multiple wins by itself (the Titans also had 18 total takeaways and scored only 1 touchdown, which is more-or-less in line with the average of 1 touchdown per 12 takeaways).
The Titans also lost two games because of penalties committed in the final seconds. Two penalties on the final drive ended the comeback attempt in Oakland - a really dumb penalty committed by Taylor Lewan and a really dumb call for offensive pass interference against Andre Johnson. Then, a holding call against Anthony Fasano ended the Titans comeback attempt in the second match-up with Indianapolis.
The Titans also gave up a punt return touchdown to the Texans in Week 4, effectively losing the game for the team.
That’s six total wins the Titans were unable to secure mostly due to bad luck. While the Chiefs and Bears games were won thanks to good luck, the number of games lost due to the opposite is far greater.
Many people will argue that the Titans had a “lucky” season last year because the team avoided a high number of serious injuries. I’d argue that it all balances out. Fumble recoveries should be a 50-50 shot. The Titans only recovered 6 fumbles all season (to takeover a possession), tied for 5th-fewest in the NFL. The Chiefs had 15 fumble recovery takeaways to lead the NFL.
The gruesome injury suffered by Mariota in Week 16, a complete freak accident that has happened to two quarterbacks in the last however-many years (never mind that both incidents happened on the same day), is pretty darn bad luck that just about makes up for all the good injury luck sustained throughout the season.
That awful injury to the most important player effectively ended the Titans season. Add that to the horrid luck in terms of turnover-touchdowns and fumble recoveries (the Titans didn’t recover a fumble on defense until Week 14 against the Broncos), plus the rotten luck the Titans faced in terms of scheduling last season, and I don’t know how you could call this a “lucky” team in 2016.
About that scheduling bad luck... the Titans faced off with three teams in the preseason that they would go on to face in the regular season. The Titans played their preparation games against the most vanilla of all the vanilla defenses, as none of these teams wanted to reveal how they would actually try to defend the Titans. This may have factored in to the Titans incredibly slow start offensively, given that they prepared for the regular season against teams playing even less defense than is typical for a preseason game.
Furthermore, the Titans had to play against Houston, Miami, and Kansas City all coming off of a Thursday night game, meaning all of those teams had an extra few days to prepare. Based on simple math*, the Titans odds of getting “randomly” matched up with a team fresh off a Thursday night game three separate times in one season is 1 in 3,375, equivalent to approximately a .029% chance**.
*(Only 2 teams play on Thursday Night Football each week. In 2016, every team got one Thursday Night Football game. That means there are 14 other games where you could conceivably be playing against a team that just came off a Thursday night game, as you can’t play one on your own week and you can’t play the same team twice in a row (or against yourself). So in any given week, a team has a 2 out of 30 chance of playing an opponent fresh off a Thursday night game. That means on the season, each team has a 93.3% chance (1/15 odds run 14 times) of playing one game against a team coming off a Thursday night game, meaning not every team even has one game against an opponent who just played a Thursday night match. The Titans had 3. Multiplying those 1/15 odds by 3 gives you the 1 in 3,375 chance of it happening three times in one season.)
**Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure that I did this math correctly, so if anyone out there wants to check it and let me know in the comments, please do.
The Titans were also the unlucky recipient of playing against the Jaguars one week after the firing of their head coach. Teams often play more “inspired” after the head coach is let go, as the Titans found out in 2015 when they were beaten by the Dolphins in the same scenario, as well as when they themselves beat New Orleans coming off the firing of Ken Whisenhunt.
So I don’t want to hear anymore about how the Titans were lucky in 2016. The Titans were extremely unlucky. Even aside from all the bad luck I just described in detail (maybe too much detail), the Titans’ starting quarterback suffered a rare, freak injury that ended the playoff hopes. The best receiving threat missed a week with injury. The starting running back was plagued by nagging finger and toe injuries for the majority of the season. The starting right guard was lost to IR in Week 2. The best pass rushing specialist finished the year on IR with a torn achilles. The starting left guard missed three games himself. The starting outside linebacker missed a week and was hindered in several others.
These aren’t extreme injuries, but they aren’t necessarily lucky, either. They are the kind of routine injuries that are unfortunately to be expected in a football season (with the exception, of course, of Mariota’s injury). Yes, the team was luckier than, say, the Chargers when it came to injuries, but that doesn’t make them lucky.
Want to know why it seemed like the Titans had really good injury luck in 2016? Because Jon Robinson built a roster that had good depth. The team didn’t skip a beat when the backup offensive linemen had to play significant snaps. The depth at tight end and on the defensive line paid off throughout the season. And that depth is even better and deeper heading into 2017. The Titans should be able to survive whatever the average number of injuries is, as long as (and this goes for every team in the league) they can keep their most valuable assets healthy.
So this year, playoffs should be the expectation. The Titans lost zero key players from last year’s roster, with Kendall Wright (basically the 4th receiving option) and Chance Warmack (who spent the season after Week 2 on IR) being the only notable pieces from the offense to walk. They won’t be missed. The defensive players that departed in free agency might be a case of addition-by-subtraction.
Many upgrades were made to various starting positions, including wide receiver, cornerback, and nose tackle. There is no basis from which to argue that the roster this season is worse than the roster last season. While many teams had to let high-priced free agents walk away (such as Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye), the Titans didn’t have any pieces like that (partly because of how terrible Ruston Webster was at constructing the roster, but also because of good deals made to extend Jurrell Casey and Delanie Walker).
Don’t even get me started on special teams, where the Titans may have gone from one of the worst units in the NFL to one of the best with additions through free agency and the draft.
As the young foundational players continue to gain experience and develop (some of them, such as Marcus Mariota and Taylor Lewan, into superstars), the Titans will be better in 2017 than the squad that was good enough to beat five playoff teams last season. These upgrades could result in the Titans playing deep into January if certain things go their way, or really just if things can simply not go against them. There are many reasons to be confident in this group.
Admittedly, the team still needs to prove it has overcome the biggest struggles from last season by beating divisional opponents this year. That is the only question mark remaining as far as the Titans improvements are concerned.
In 2017, it’s playoffs or bust. Anything less will be considered a disappointment.
What are your expectations for the Titans this season?