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Questions that Need to be Answered

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What exactly is wrong with the Titans’ offense?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

When a team is struggling in the NFL, it opens the door for questions to be asked. At 27th in total yards per game, 27th in points per game, and with just 7 points in the last ten quarters, there’s no question the Titans are struggling.

Many of the questions I would like to ask relate to the Titans’ current coaching staff, particularly on offense.

At the end of the Tennessee Titans’ 2017 season, GM Jon Robinson and owner Amy Adams Strunk made the somewhat-controversial decision to fire a head coach who had just won the franchise’s first playoff game since 2003.

Believing that Mike Mularkey and his offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie had hit their “ceiling” as a staff, Robinson pulled the plug and brought in a new regime that was meant to elevate this team from “good to great.”

Since then, the Titans have a record of 11 wins to 11 losses. Many would argue that the talent on the roster has been vastly improved since that 2017 season, especially on the offensive side of the ball, yet an improvement in the win column has not followed.

The only receiver left on the roster from 2017 is Corey Davis. The only one even left in the league is Taywan Taylor, who was a healthy scratch for the Browns last weekend. The receiving corps has since been filled out with high-priced free agents and high-round draft picks. The result of such investments? The Titans have passed for just 1,126 yards through 6 games, fourth-fewest in the league and less than a handful of teams who have already had their bye week.

In contrast, through 6 games of 2017, when the talent and coaching were supposedly worse, the Titans had passed for 1,224 yards with Matt Cassel starting a Week 5 game against Miami.

On the offensive line, the Titans moved on from players they believed to be “weak links.” Josh Kline was cut and Quinton Spain allowed to walk while former 2nd-team All Pro guard Rodger Saffold was brought in for big money, and for good reason. In 2018, Saffold was 3rd among all guards in ESPN’s “pass block win rate,” holding his blocks for at least 2.5 seconds on 87.4% of snaps. He was part of a Rams’ line that ranked 1st overall in adjusted line yards running to the left, and he earned PFF’s 6th-best run-blocking grade among guards last year.

But in six games this season, Saffold has already given up 5 sacks—that matches the amount he allowed from 2016-2018 combined. And he has been a liability in the run game, as well.

Taylor Lewan is a Pro Bowl left tackle capable of being one of the best in the league. Jack Conklin looks healthy again and has shown flashes of dominance. But both have been marred by inconsistency. The Titans offensive line in 2019 is on pace to allow 77 sacks, which is not only the worst pace of the past few coaching staffs but in fact a league-record pace...

The Titans are also leading the league in negative plays, which is a huge part of their 29th-ranked offense according to Football Outsider’s DVOA ranks.

Derrick Henry is suffering from extremely poor blocking, with the 2nd-worst yards-before-contact per carry at 0.8 and the 6th-best yards-after-contact per carry at 2.8.

Meanwhile, Quinton Spain, who was let go for the “upgrade” of Rodger Saffold, is performing at a high level in Buffalo.

I don’t think this is a talent issue. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Jon Robinson for bringing in underperforming players like Rodger Saffold and Adam Humphries. Given their history of success at the NFL level, I find it hard to fault the general manager for failing to get the most out of these additions.

Which brings me to my first question: what gives? How is a team full of proven, talented players performing at such a subpar level? Could it be a coaching issue?

If you want to blame Jon Robinson for failing to build a coaching staff that prioritizes offensive production, that’s a fair criticism.

The Titans offensive staff does not have a ton of coaching experience, particularly offensive coordinator Arthur Smith in his first year as a playcaller or coordinator at any level of football, and offensive line coach Keith Carter, who is in just his second year as an offensive line coach. Quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara is only in his 5th season as an NFL coach.

The groups for which these three coaches are responsible seem to be struggling more than others: quarterback, offensive line, and well, the offense as a unit. These coaches may be intelligent, but having knowledge is different from having the ability or experience to teach what you know.

Experience certainly isn’t everything, and plenty of first-time coaches and playcallers have found success in this league.

The Titans need to find out, and quickly, if this offensive coaching staff is capable of elevating their players. At this point, it doesn’t appear they can.

Which brings up my next question, what can the Titans do about their struggling offense right now? Are there any midseason fixes?

Well, the change from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill could answer some of these lingering questions.

For one, we will get a chance to see if this offense can sustain drives at a better rate and avoid negative plays so much simply by changing out the quarterback. Has Marcus Mariota been holding back his supporting cast, or is it the other way around? We may finally find out.

It’s hard to separate the coaching performance from the players’ performance, but this will give us an opportunity to see things a bit clearer. This particular stat about the offensive line may indicate a quarterback problem more than a blocking problem:

While that may excuse part of the alarmingly high sack total, it doesn’t really explain the poor execution in the run game. That said, Derrick Henry has faced an 8-man-or-more box on the 3rd-highest percentage of carries in the league behind only Alexander Mattison and Frank Gore with 38.05% of his carries coming with 8+ defenders in the box.

Which leads to my next question, will a new quarterback and a possibly more threatening passing game push defenders out of the box and allow more space for the running game?

I’m not sure of the answer to that question, but I believe that to be the staff’s mentality behind the quarterback switch. A variable must be changed in order to evaluate the other parts of the offense. Quarterback is the most important and obvious variable that can easily be changed at this time.

But I have another question... What if that doesn’t work? What if Ryan Tannehill comes out and the offense is just as bad? It’s certainly a possibility given a statistic like this one:

That brings us back to coaching... If things don’t improve once Ryan Tannehill steps in, that will leave little variables left to change. We already know that at least 3/5 of the offensive line can play well in the right situation, we’ve seen them do it at different points throughout their careers. We don’t know that Art Smith can coordinate a successful offense. We don’t know that Keith Carter can coach a competent offensive line.

I don’t know what else could change midseason. Mike Sullivan, the Titans assistant offensive line coach, has many years of experience coaching offensive lines in the NFL. Perhaps you could promote him, but why is his presence not helping already?

Is it all Mike Vrabel’s fault? Ultimately, the blame for all problems with a team’s performance should fall on the head coach. And perhaps Vrabel is to blame for hiring Arthur Smith in favor of a more experienced offensive coordinator option.

But Mike Vrabel is a defensive minded head coach. And the defense has been excellent in Vrabel’s tenure. Not only is it performing well as a unit, but we’ve seen pretty much every contributing member of the defense improve their individual play over the past 22 games. Vrabel deserves credit for that as much as he deserves blame for the struggles on offense.

The Titans defensive coaching staff seems to be full of teachers that consistently work to improve the abilities of the players in their position groups.

I wish I could say the same about the offensive staff.

If the offense doesn’t improve with Tannehill, there is no reasonable explanation for Arthur Smith to return in 2020, especially if the team plans to select a quarterback early in next April’s draft (and I expect they will). They can’t give such an unproven and struggling coordinator the reigns to a rookie quarterback, that’s just irresponsible.

The ultimate question if the team continues on its current trajectory is... will Mike Vrabel return in 2020?

Based largely on what he did in 2018 in a year of extreme adversity, I would expect Vrabel to be back next season barring a catastrophic collapse over the rest of the season—meaning the defense finally breaks and the Titans start getting blown out on a weekly basis. I don’t think that will happen, but he must be held accountable for the offense regardless.

Allow me to entertain a possible worst-case scenario... say the Titans do draft a QB in 2020. Say Vrabel is retained but the team continues its slow-starting nature, continues to perform inconsistently week to week, and the offense continues to struggle.

Then what?

Do you fire Mike Vrabel midway through or perhaps after the 2020 season? That’s the same treatment Marcus Mariota received when Ken Whisenhunt was fired in 2015.

It’s actually been surprisingly common for NFL teams to fire their head coach within a year of letting that coach draft the team’s new franchise quarterback in this era where teams are relentlessly chasing the “next” Sean McVay. Just looking at the past five years, eight different teams (a quarter of the league) have made such a change.

2018

  • Browns draft Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall and fire Hue Jackson after 8 games
  • Jets draft Sam Darnold No. 3 overall (trade up) and fire Todd Bowles at the end of the season
  • Cardinals draft Josh Rosen No. 10 overall (trade up) and fire Steve Wilks at the end of the season

2017

  • Bears draft Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall (trade up) and fire John Fox at the end of the season

2016

  • Rams draft Jared Goff No. 1 overall (trade up) and fire Jeff Fisher after 13 games

2015

  • Bucs draft Jameis Winston No. 1 overall and fire Lovie Smith after the season
  • Titans draft Marcus Mariota No. 2 overall and fire Ken Whisenhunt after 7 games

2014

  • Raiders draft Derek Carr No. 36 overall and fire Dennis Allen after 4 games

That brings up another question I’ve wondered about... Is it a death knell for a quarterback to have his head coach fired during or after his rookie season? Probably not. But it’s certainly not the ideal way to find early success with a young quarterback.

So the Titans will be in quite the pickle here soon if things don’t turn around. There are enough important decisions looming this offseason without adding a bunch of questions about the coaching staff.

The next few weeks should be pretty telling about how deep the problems run with this current Titans’ team. Hopefully, we’ll get answers to some of these outstanding questions...