In some ways, it was obvious after making sweeping changes to the coaching staff this off-season that the Titans would find themselves in this spot. Still, to anticipate a feeling is different than actually feeling it. The organization sold the fans—even the fans sold the fans—on the belief that things could be so much better ... if certain limiting factors (Mularkey and his staff) were removed from the equation. Naturally, fair or not, the pressure on those given the opportunity to correct things would be immense from day one.
If this isn’t a good season for the Titans, there will inevitably be those that boomerang back to join the very small minority that believe the decision to move on from Mularkey was the wrong one. It’s possible we will come to perceive Mularkey’s time here in a different light as it fades into our rear view. No matter what unfolds from here on out, though, the reality is: everyone—both those involved with the team and the fans—had to know. With so much that was unclear, the Titans were obligated to take the side of their young possible-franchise QB and place him into a control environment of sorts, so that they could properly evaluate him once and for all.
At this point, everyone associated with Tennessee’s franchise is dependent on Marcus Mariota. The perception of Mike Vrabel, Matt LaFleur, Jon Robinson, Amy Adams Strunk, and the Titans’ entire roster is tied to Number 8. Robinson and Strunk have been afforded the chance to operate in relative good faith because of the presence of a promising quarterback on his rookie contract.
Despite his aw-shucks demeanor, I’m confident Mariota understands all this. I’m sure he more than anyone wants things to go according to plan so that the team can enjoy success and he can be paid handsomely by and play out his career for the organization that drafted him. His humble and genuine personality has endeared him to most Titans fans and bought him ample time. A tick-tock is audible now, however.
There are going to be more and more voices murmuring (or in the case of social media, screaming) when he has a bad game, throws a bad pass, or gets dinged up. Titans media will begin to aim their scope at him, for real, for the first time. I don’t have a good sense of how he’ll react if and when that occurs. His typical cliche non-answers to reporters’ questions won’t pass the smell test any longer if things don’t improve.
Sunday’s game in Miami was the worst football-watching experience I’ve ever endured. It was a summary of the last decade of Titans football presented in the form of a tragedy. The combination of an off-season’s worth of anticipation, multiple drawn-out weather delays, poor officiating, an initial high followed by ugly lows, and injuries ranging from unnecessary to gruesome left me feeling borderline existential and numb. The coaches and players surely rode a weighty emotional roller coaster of their own as the day progressed.
Mike Vrabel may be just the coach to navigate these rough waters. He has a no-excuses attitude and played the bulk of his career under a coach, Bill Belichick, that simply does not allow his teams to crack under pressure. Vrabel must find a way to either spin this experience in the team’s favor on a dime or immediately evacuate it from their collective consciousness. Tennessee is staring 0-4 squarely in the eyes with games against their division rivals, Houston and Jacksonville, and last year’s Super Bowl champs, Philadelphia, on the horizon. Rest assured that if the Titans limp into any of those games, each of their opponents is equipped to embarrass them and two would delight in doing so.
The problem with starting poorly won’t be the poor start itself, it will be the rising temperature associated with the poor start. Despite what the coaches and players would say or what some fans believe, it’s not mandatory that the Titans have a season to remember in terms of final record or post-season success. It is only mandatory that they use this season to show one thing: that Mariota is a bona fide franchise quarterback deserving of a big contract and capable of delivering said post-season success beginning in 2019.
If that evidence isn’t fully presented until later in the season, so be it. The process won’t always be fun, but it will be worth it in the end. If the first quarter of the season is an unmitigated “show”, however, it will be increasingly challenging for the coaches, the QB, and the offense to dedicate their focus to that sole pursuit, due to the unrelenting questions and negativity they will be bombarded with.
The onus is on Marcus Mariota himself to become the quarterback the Titans have bet on him becoming. That being said, at this moment it is Mike Vrabel’s, Matt LaFleur’s, and Dean Pees’ responsibility to stabilize the locker room and put the players they have remaining in position to be successful, based on what they’re capable of now within these new systems. If they cannot, Saint Thomas Sports Park will become a pressure cooker. Who’s hungry?