Last night’s horror show made a few things crystal clear to me.
First, the Titans offensive line desperately needs Taylor Lewan back. Dennis Kelly is a fine backup tackle, but the offensive staff obviously doesn’t trust him to hold up without significant help in pass protection. That extra help is exposing other players along the line.
Second, the Titans offensive line desperately needs a right guard. Jamil Douglas as a bandaid worked fine for two games — revisionist history will say that he played poorly all along even though that’s not true — but matched up against a monster like Calais Campbell, his weaknesses were exposed. The glaring holes at left tackle and right guard are creating additional strains on the remaining offensive linemen.
Third, the offensive line woes have to fall on Jon Robinson, Arthur Smith, or Keith Carter at this point. Rodger Saffold was one of the best guards in the league the last two years in LA. I saw him dominate with my own two eyes. He’s been a total mess in pass protection here so far. I struggle to blame a coach for the problems of a 31-year old in his 10th season in the league, but questions about what is going on with this offensive line have to be answered by someone.
When the Titans released Josh Kline this offseason, I expected that they would aggressively address that right guard spot. Instead, they re-signed Kevin Pamphile and waited until the third round to draft a small school guard in Nate Davis who was believed to be a bit of a raw prospect by even his biggest supporters. Robinson can’t help that Pamphile and Davis suffered injuries, but Pamphile and Douglas were in an open competition all of training camp and Pamphile wasn’t able to separate himself from the guy that just received a 12.4 pass blocking grade from PFF. It’s hard to imagine he’s going to be a huge boost. Davis might offer more hope simply because he’s an unknown entity. We’ll probably find out pretty soon based on Vrabel’s post-game comments.
Fourth, Marcus Mariota is completely lost as a quarterback right now. Yes, the stats will end up looking OK in the box score when we look back at this game a few years down the road, but they don’t come close to telling the whole story. Many are pointing to the nine sacks as the smoking gun for this game, and that is CLEARLY a major problem that should not be dismissed. However... Mariota was sacked just once in the first half, but his stat line heading into halftime was 6 of 16 for 62 yards. That’s 3.9 yards per attempt. Absolutely awful.
Combined with all of this are major coaching issues. I thought Mike Vrabel’s first season was a relative success. Were there hiccups? Sure, but going 9-7 against one of the league’s toughest schedules while dealing with a quarterback with nerve damage is a better result than a lot of coaches would have gotten. However, there are some disturbing trends emerging with Vrabel’s decision making and they all have shown up in these past two weeks.
He butchered the late game clock management against the Colts. He seems to have little rhyme or reason to when he chooses to go for it on 4th downs. He’s been stubborn with personnel choices like sticking with Adoree’ Jackson at punt returner despite very shaky decision making. The biggest concern to me, however, is the team’s tendency to start incredibly slow. The Titans have been outscored 27-3 in the 1st quarter this season, allowing an opening drive score in each game (with an assist to Jackson’s muffed punt). This is a team that is designed to play from ahead, yet starts every game flat and falls behind. That’s a major problem.
There also have to be questions about his coaching staff at this point, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Has any position group shown any development over the past 19 games? Are we sure that Pat O’Hara, Rob Moore, and Keith Carter are good at their jobs? Is Arthur Smith in completely over his head as offensive coordinator? How much is Vrabel dictating the offensive game plan from week to week?
It’s hard to separate the answers to a lot of these questions because they all tie together.
Is Mariota’s lack of pocket presence and unwillingness to let it rip downfield making the offensive line look worse than it really is? Yes.
Is the offensive line’s inconsistent blocking hurting Mariota’s confidence? Yes.
Is the coaching staff putting the Titans offense in bad situations with it’s playcalling? Yes.
Are the receivers getting locked up too often downfield? Yes.
Is Mariota failing to give them a chance to make plays on the ball when coverage is good and missing some wide open throws when they do get free? Yes.
Those issues all exist to some degree. Figuring out which ones are fixable and addressing those over the next ten days to the best of their ability is obviously priority number one, but what happens if things continue down this path on the offensive side of the ball?
Obviously, there is no way the team can bring back Mariota if things don’t start to click in a big way very soon. Even if Jon Robinson was to believe that Mariota was simply a victim in this whole ordeal — I’d be pretty surprised if he did — would he be willing to bet his career on a sixth year being the charm?
Robinson has yet to really choose a quarterback during his time here. He inherited Mariota and got the best year of his career out of him in 2016. By his actions he blamed Terry Robiskie for Mariota’s regression in 2017. In 2018, it seems he blamed the nerve damage suffered in Week 1.
I can understand the logic for each step, but Robinson never extended Mariota. At most, he just kept kicking the can down the road, seeing if they could recapture that 2016 stretch when he looked like one of the best young QBs in football. The end of that road is here and Robinson will have to make a clear choice after this year. Double down on Mariota and try to fix the issues around him? Or find a new quarterback to build around?
He doesn’t have to make that decision today and there are still 13 games left that could provide important new information that will factor into that critical decision. However, if the season ended today, it’s hard to see how the team could justify running this offensive group back.
It’s worth noting that when Vrabel was initially hired, Matt LaFleur was reportedly not his first choice for offensive coordinator. The first name reported to have been offered the job was then-Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day. He declined, accepting a pay raise to stay with the Buckeyes before eventually succeeding Urban Meyer as head coach in Columbus.
Day’s offensive background is wildly different than what LaFleur brought to Tennessee. He played quarterback for Chip Kelly at New Hampshire before joining the coaching staff after graduation and has largely remained in some version of the power spread scheme that Kelly popularized while at Oregon, including a second stint on Kelly’s staffs at the NFL level. Whether Day’s plan was to import that style directly to Tennessee if he had accepted the job is impossible to know, but you can safely assume things would have looked a lot different than what we’re seeing now.
Would that have made a difference in the results of the past two years? Maybe. Maybe not. The Titans chosen offensive scheme certainly isn’t inherently broken. Other NFL teams like the 49ers and Rams are running offenses with the same general framework with great success in recent years. The implementation may be different and obviously the personnel is different, but it’s not like what the Titans want to do can’t work.
If the Titans do eventually decide to blow things up offensively after the season — new offensive staff, new quarterback, everything — it will be interesting to see if Vrabel looks for a different approach to scheme on that side of the ball. Pairing an offensive coach and quarterback that complement each other should be priority number one this offseason. Frankly, it seems like it should have been priority number one the last two offseasons.
That’s a conversation for a different day though.
For now, the Titans have to see about salvaging what’s left of their 2019 season. There are still parts to like on this offense, even after the performances of the last two weeks. Reinforcements are coming on the offensive line. Digging out of an 1-2 hole with two division losses will be tough, but the Texans managed to overcome an 0-3 start last season to win the AFC South. Can Mike Vrabel pull off a similar run coming out of this mini-bye? He was able to rally his team after eerily similar feeling back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Baltimore last year. I’ll admit that my confidence is low right now, but I’m not ready to pack it in for 2019 just yet.