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On ESPN naming the Titans one of the six teams most likely to decline in 2018

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Come on Barnwell!

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Training Camp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Barnwell wrote an article over at ESPN.com identifying 6 NFL teams that he expects to decline in 2018. As you have probably already seen at this point, the Titans are on his list. Before I get into the reasons that I disagree with him, I will grant him that the Titans got pretty lucky last year from the standpoint that they were able to win 9 games with an offense that was absolutely broken. That is why their point differential was -22 on the season (well that and the fact that they got boat-raced by the Texans 57-14 in week 4).

Now let’s go paragraph by paragraph on the article:

Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth scheme sputtered to an 18th-place finish in DVOA. Marcus Mariota’s interception rate spiked to 3.3 percent as the offense turned the ball over in 14 straight games, which tied Houston for the longest streak in football.

The whole offense was bad. I am a staunch Marcus Mariota defender, but even I can admit that he was bad last year. With that being said, it is dumb to write Mariota off because he was bad last year because he was playing in a system where he was clearly uncomfortable, and not only was he uncomfortable, but everyone around him was as well. The offensive line regressed. The running game regressed. How many times did we say a play where 2 receivers ended up in the same spot? No one knew what was going on out there and that hurt everyone, including Mariota.

The Titans promptly lost their next three games against the NFC West by a combined 11 points, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each one.

They blew 4th quarter leads last year because they couldn’t run the ball. Guess what, they have a completely new offensive scheme this year..and...and...the outside zone running scheme is actually a better fit for Derrick Henry. He will be more efficient this year. They also added Dion Lewis who will be better in a “4 minute offense” situation that people think. Oh, and they are also going to be better on defense.

As has been the case with most of his moves in Tennessee, general manager Jon Robinson responded to the frustrating yet successful season by upping the Patriots quotient. Well, sorta. He hired Mike Vrabel -- whose only year as a defensive coordinator had seen the Texans fall from ninth to 23rd in defensive DVOA -- to take over as coach, and Vrabel followed by bringing former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees in to take over for Dick LeBeau. Robinson signed Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler in free agency, paying premiums for players at positions in which the Patriots tend to churn talent and let other teams make mistakes. He traded up in both the first and second rounds of the draft to grab linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry, shipping off Tennessee’s third- and fourth-round picks in the process. It feels a little like a Patriots cover band so far.

This is the paragraph that really pissed me off. Who cares what Vrabel did as the DC in Houston? And he also didn’t mention that he lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus early in the year. Think that might have had an affect on those numbers, Bill? Dean Peas will be calling the defense here, not Vrabel.

As for the cute Patriots cover band line, let’s dig a little deeper. On Lewis, he fills a huge need for the Titans offense. The Patriots didn’t let him walk because they are going to let another team make a mistake. They let him walk because they have James White, Rex Burkhead and others. They simply didn’t need Lewis at an accelerated cost. You who did need a back like Lewis and had a ton of money under the salary cap? The Tennessee Titans.

And on Butler, are we really going to applaud the Patriots for any decision they have made with Butler? Bill Belichick let Butler waste away on the sideline while Nick Freaking Foles threw for 374 yards. Yep, great decision making on that one.

As for the moves in the draft, there were obviously 2 guys at the top end of the draft that Jon Robinson had circled. He ended up getting both of them. Who cares if he had to give up some mid-round picks to do it? Middle round picks are way overvalued in the draft- especially when you have a roster that has the chance to be 1 or 2 players away from being really, really good- which is what the Titans had entering the draft.

Last year was an unquestioned step backward, and while it’s easy to pin that on Mularkey and the wrong scheme, Mariota didn’t transcend, either.

While that statement is not false, it is stupid. There might be 4 quarterbacks in the history of the NFL that could have transcended that scheme, but that’s not the point anyway. Look at the successful teams around the league. Their quarterback doesn’t have to “transcend” his scheme. The scheme is built to put the quarterback in the situation where he can be the most successful.

It would be foolish to write him (Mariota) off, but as he approaches the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, the former second-overall pick needs to improve under the tutelage of LaFleur.

Backup Dennis Kelly would be a downgrade on a player (Jack Conklin) who had been on the field for 843 of Mariota’s 844 pass attempts over the past two regular seasons. Mariota faced the league’s second-lowest pressure rate last season, which would be tough to recreate with Conklin unavailable or limited in 2018.

He’s not wrong on this one either. Kelly is clearly a downgrade from Conklin. However, I would be willing to be that Conklin is healthy and ready to go for week 1.

They have a relatively young, talented roster with plenty of breakout candidates, Mariota included. If Vrabel is the right coach, team-wide improvement might overcome their middling level of play from a year ago.

Absolutely they do. This is the best paragraph of the whole article.

By my strength of schedule metric, the Titans have faced the league’s easiest (2016) or second-easiest (2015, 2017) schedule over each of the past three seasons. Combine the three-year stretch and they’ve had the easiest schedule by a significant margin..

This has no relevance to 2018. I get the point he is trying to make here- that the Titans only won 9 games the last 2 years because they had an easy schedule, but they also had one of the worst offensive coaching staffs in the league. I think that upgrade will offset any increase in strength of opponent (which, by the way, is impossible to accurately predict right now).

Luck has gone 9-0 with a 92.4 passer rating against Tennessee, while Watson produced five touchdowns as part of a 57-14 rout of the Titans last October. If the Titans face them twice each in 2018, they’ll struggle to hit nine wins for the third consecutive season.

**IRRELEVANT STAT ALERT** The last time Andrew Luck faced the Titans their corners were Jason McCourty (who was having a bad year), Perrish Cox (who was just bad), Valentino Blake (also bad), and Brice McCain 9 (yep, bad). I would say Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson are HUGE upgrades from those guys (duh.gif, again).

There is no doubt that Luck and Deshaun Watson are better than what the Titans faced last year in Jacoby Brissett and Tom Savage, but again, the Titans defense will be upgraded as well.

I won’t sit here and argue that there is no way the Titans finish worse than 9-7 this year. So many things can happen during the course of an NFL season that can derail a team. However, it is ridiculous to use things like Mariota’s performance in a terrible offensive scheme and Luck’s numbers against some horrible Titans’ defense to put them on a list of teams that will decline in 2018.