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A loss filled with “what if” moments leads to a week filled with “what’s next” questions for the Titans

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At 4-5 with a veritable gauntlet of a schedule ahead, things are looking dire for the 2019 Titans.

Tennessee Titans v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

What if the Titans offensive line didn’t commit penalties on three of the first four snaps of the second drive of the game?

What if Dion Lewis doesn’t fumble on the third drive? Better yet, what if Dion Lewis wasn’t in the game for that drive to begin with?

What if A.J. Brown doesn’t let a ball hit him right in the hands and bounce off into the arms of Donte Jackson?

What if the Panthers don’t convert on 4th and 2 at the Titans 7-yard line early in the game?

What if Dane Cruikshank and David Long were able to stop Colin Jones where they initially had him wrapped up two yards short of the line to gain on the Panthers fake punt?

What if Ryan Succop makes even one of his three field goal attempts?

What if the Titans defense played like they knew where the sticks were on 3rd and 12, the snap before Christian McCaffrey’s game-sealing 58-yard touchdown run?

What if Nate Davis doesn’t get called for a penalty on a play that would have resulted in a 40-plus yard defensive pass interference call?

It was that kind of game on Sunday in Charlotte and it was a game that the Titans had to have if they wanted to make some noise down the stretch in 2019. Don’t get me wrong, the 5-3 Panthers are no pushovers. That’s a competitive football team even with Kyle Allen under center (now an impressive 5-1 in his six starts), but the schedule only gets tougher from here.

This week sees the 6-3 Chiefs come to town with superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes expected to return to action. After the Week 11 bye, the Titans will face the 4-5 Jaguars, 5-3 Colts, 4-4 Raiders, 6-3 Texans, 7-1 Saints, and 6-3 Texans again down the stretch.

Getting to 10-6 — the mark likely needed to make it into the postseason — would require a 6-1 close to the season. Anybody expecting that to happen given that lineup of opponents and the current state of this team?

So if the Titans aren’t going to make a miraculous second half run at a playoff spot, what’s next? Who is to blame and how does this franchise fix their problems on offense and compete in the AFC? I think there are several questions within that question so let’s take a quick look at some different aspects that need to be considered.

Who should be blamed for the Titans 4-5 start?

There are plenty of people who deserve to have some fingers pointing at them for the results of the 2019 season to this point.

The conversation can start with Marcus Mariota. He’s the one person that the Titans have told us, via their actions, that they believe has some culpability in the poor results to this point. Ryan Tannehill has been far from perfect, but it’s pretty undeniable that the offense has improved over the last three games since he was installed as the starter.

  • Mariota: 94 of 159 (59.1%) for 1,179 yards (7.4 YPA), 7 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 91.7 passer rating, 30.8 QBR, 5.80 ANY/A, 2-4 record as a starter
  • Tannehill: 84 of 117 (71.8%) for 980 yards (8.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 99.7 passer rating, 37.7 QBR, 6.37 ANY/A, 2-1 record as a starter

The Titans have scored at least 20 points in all three games with Tannehill as a starter after doing so just twice in Mariota’s six starts. They’ve also eclipsed 400 yards of total offense in two of three weeks after failing to reach that number once in the first six weeks. The Titans are up in average yards per drive, yards per play, number of scoring drives per game, and virtually any other offensive metric that you want to throw out there.

So yes, Mariota does appear to have been a part of the problem with the offense early in the season, but he’s far from the only issue. And to be clear, Tannehill isn’t perfect either.

Field goal kicking has been a total disaster this year. Cairo Santos, Cody Parkey, and Ryan Succop are a combined 7 of 15 (46.7%) on field goal attempts this year, including five misses from inside 50 yards.

The offensive line still appears to be shocked every time opposing defenses run simple twists and stunts. Taylor Lewan’s four game suspension, Rodger Saffold’s terrible start to the season, and Nate Davis’ rookie growing pains have contributed to the problems up front, but a lot of this falls at the feet of offensive line coach Keith Carter and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

Mike Vrabel’s comments in response to a question about common threads that he’s recognized during the slow starts on offense were telling. The question starts at 3:17 of the video below.

Asked a very generic question, Vrabel goes directly to an issue that, to me, are a direct indictment of both the offensive line coach and his offensive coordinator. Specifically, he’s saying that opposing defenses are keying in on specific weaknesses up front and using them against the Titans week after week even if that’s not a regular part of their defensive scheme. That’s an enormous coaching issue.

There is no doubt that Lewan, Saffold, Davis, and Jamil Douglas are due some heavy criticism for their poor play throughout this season, but it sounds to me like they aren’t being put in the best position to succeed by their coaches either.

That brings us to the coaching staff in general. Smith and Carter seem like the two most clear cut problems to me, but Mike Vrabel doesn’t deserve to get off scot-free either. He signed off on Matt LaFleur’s pick of Carter to be the offensive line coach and he promoted Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator in the name of continuity. Fair or not, Vrabel is responsible for the success of this team on both offense and defense. His offense is failing and that reflects on him.

The questionable fourth down decision making and game management choices are well-documented at this point and his team’s frequent lackadaisical starts are continuing to pile up.

Finally, you can point all the way up to the top of the ladder with Jon Robinson and Amy Adams-Strunk. Robinson hired Vrabel, so any coaching failures reflect back on him as well. He also failed to supply his coach with a starting quality right guard on the roster, though it’s fair to argue whether or not a good coaching staff could have either A) developed Nate Davis to a greater degree or B) figured out ways to work around him (very few NFL offenses feature five above average offensive linemen, pretty much all of them have a stinker or two).

The Titans are also one of just a few teams left in the NFL that seem to have no interest in pursuing the advantages that analytics has provided for teams like the Eagles, Ravens, and Colts over the last few seasons. Is that because Jon Robinson doesn’t believe this type of investment is worthwhile or is that a budget issue?

Can the Titans fix any of these issues in 2019?

The short answer is: probably not. Sure, they could can Keith Carter and/or Arthur Smith and promote assistant offensive line coach Mike Sullivan to Carter’s job and tight ends coach/former Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing to Smith’s post, but does that really result in any substantive change? Do either of those moves get the Titans to 6-1 down the stretch like they need to be? Doubtful. That doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t consider making one or both of these moves, but acting like Sullivan or Downing is some sort of panacea for the offense is unrealistic.

The kicking issue will likely come down to whether or not Ryan Succop can return to form. He signed a contract extension in the spring of 2018 so he’s almost certainly their guy for the rest of the year for better or worse. At 33 years old and coming off a knee injury, it’s certainly possible that kicking remains an issue from here out.

Things are probably going to get worse instead of better on the defensive side of the ball moving forward. Malcolm Butler and Jayon Brown both left the Panthers game with injuries, joining Jurrell Casey on the list of key defenders that may or may not be ready to play against the Chiefs this week. We can safely assume Butler will be out for a while with a broken wrist. The Titans final seven games are all against teams that currently rank in the top 12 in offensive DVOA after playing just one such team in the first nine games. If they have to face that stretch with out some of their best players, they could be in for a long second half of the season.

What can they do to make sure it’s fixed in 2020 and beyond?

There are going to be a ton of decisions that need to be made for this franchise this offseason. They have Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, Logan Ryan, Jack Conklin, Dennis Kelly, Tajae Sharpe, Wesley Woodyard, LeShaun Sims, Daren Bates, Chris Milton, Kamalei Correa, Austin Johnson, and MyCole Pruitt all set to hit free agency. With over $60M in projected cap space to work with, the Titans can pretty much bring back as many of these guys as they want to. The question will become which guys they want to keep and which ones they want to replace.

There are also a few contracts that they could get out of relatively easily if they decided they wanted to free up more cap space. Dion Lewis seems like the most obvious candidate here. He’s scheduled to make $5.2M, but could be released with a dead cap charge of just $1.1M. Veterans like DaQuan Jones, Cameron Wake, Malcolm Butler, and Delanie Walker are also guys with contracts that look like candidates for cap clearing maneuvers if the team decided they needed to make more room, but all these guys have played pretty well in 2019 and seem more likely to be back than not.

The four biggest question marks on the roster as things stand today are quarterback, running back, right tackle, and cornerback. Quarterback stands out for obvious reasons. You can safely assume that the Titans will be signing a passer to a contract between now and the end of March, but who that might be is still up for debate.

Tannehill is probably the most likely choice if he continues to play reasonably well over the next seven games, but there will be some interesting options on the free agent market like Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Andy Dalton, and popular rumor fodder, Tom Brady. Whoever they sign will likely be joined by a highly drafted rookie quarterback.

With a reset likely coming behind center, the question must be asked... do the Titans trust the current front office and coaching staff to scout, select, and develop the next “franchise quarterback? If there is even a slight hesitation about the answer to that question at any level from quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara all the way up to Jon Robinson himself, the Titans must look long an hard at what they want to do at that position.

My personal thought is that Robinson deserves the opportunity to draft his quarterback. He’s certainly not blameless in this whole ordeal, but it seems to me that J-Rob has done well to stock this roster with talent at multiple positions. It’s impossible to know whether or not he will succeed in finding the right quarterback, but that’s true of anyone that they would go out and hire as a new GM as well. Robinson at least has a track record of above average talent identification and has shown some ability to maneuver around a draft board to get the guys he wants, which could be very important in this specific draft.

Vrabel I’m less sure of. How much of the offensive direction — or lack thereof — is his doing? How much of it is a lack of faith in his quarterback? How much of it is simply Arthur Smith being in over his head? Is this style what Vrabel wants to be offensively? I hope Robinson has a better feel for this than I do.

Part of the problem with constantly firing and replacing coaching staffs/front offices is the fact that rosters become a messy amalgamation of the specific wants/needs of several different regimes. The Titans have spent the past two years transitioning from Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie’s power/gap run scheme to Matt LaFleur’s zone based rushing attack. That required a different type of offensive lineman, leading Robinson to go out and spend big for Saffold and use a top 100 pick on Davis. Some of the issues the Titans are experiencing on the offensive line can be traced directly back to the change in coaching staff.

Firing Mike Vrabel just two years after hiring him would likely precipitate yet another clunky roster turnover to fit the preferred scheme that the next coach would bring with them. It would also leave the franchise in the unenviable position of trying to talk top coaching candidates into signing on with an ownership group that would have fired four head coaches in the past six years. That’s not exactly a model of a stable franchise. Of couse, that doesn’t mean that the Titans should keep Vrabel no matter what, but these are things that must be weighed when considering firing a head coach along with who they could realistically get to replace him.

If you want to go darkest timeline here, it’s pretty easy. The Titans keep Vrabel and move heaven and earth to go get their guy at quarterback, Franchise QB 4.0. Things go poorly in 2020 and the team decides to fire Vrabel and start over again with a new staff, immediately plunging Franchise QB 4.0 into the same chaotic cycle that Marcus Mariota just dealt with from this team and in five years, we’re back here having this same discussion again.

That makes the next seven games critically important for the direction of this franchise even if they aren’t going to get into the postseason. Will the offense be able to show enough signs of life to justify keeping any of the coaches on that side of the ball? If you’re gutting half the staff and you have a 70-year old who had to be talked out of retirement in charge of the one productive phase of the team, do you just go full reset and pair a new coach with his choice of quarterback right from the start?

I’m not sure what the right answers are just yet, but we will have plenty of time to debate all these issues over the next couple months. If I had to guess today, I’d say that Mike Vrabel likely makes it to Year 3, but with the condition that he goes in a new direction offensively. Vrabel can sell the idea that they tried to make things work with Mariota and it just didn’t pan out, but that it could be different with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator. However, if the offense continues to sputter along and the dam starts to break on defense against tougher opponents, things could turn on him pretty quickly.

This, unfortunately, is familiar ground for Titans fans. The draft QB, fire coach, fire GM cycle has been a constant ever since Steve McNair, Jeff Fisher, and Floyd Reese had things rolling in the early 2000’s. It’s time to take another spin. The only question is how many of the tumblers are going to change.