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Offensive coordinator Todd Downing not at fault for Titans playoff debacle

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Titans fans are in blame-mode after the team was shockingly upsetted by the Cincinnati Bengals at home in the divisional round. It represents one of the most frustrating playoff losses in recent memory. In my opinion, it’s a much more difficult loss than the 2019 or 2020 playoff losses, and that’s not recency bias despite the hurt we’re all experiencing. 2019 was a wild, fun ride and this year’s team was much better than last year’s squad that featured an awful defense. This team felt like they could have won a Super Bowl. It stings.

Our own Jimmy Morris wrote an excellent article on Ryan Tannehill following the defeat, and I agree with his take. Tannehill was abysmal in the loss. At least two of his three interceptions were absolutely his fault, and he’s the main reason the Titans aren’t hosting the AFC Championship Game this coming weekend.

Other fans have shifted blame to offensive coordinator Todd Downing, and that doesn’t make much sense to me. Let me start by saying this. Downing is an average, replacement-level offensive coordinator who certainly had some issues as Tennessee’s play-caller in his first year in the role. They routinely started dreadfully, and that is oftentimes a sign of an OC’s early game script failing to make the ideal impact. I don’t feel strongly about Downing one way or another. If he’s back, sure. If he’s fired and replaced, sure. I can see arguments for both sides, especially since they dealt with so many injuries.

With that said, Downing wasn’t at fault for Saturday’s loss. Not at all. He didn’t draw up a late throw/read on the first play of the game, where Tannehill was far too late to deliver the ball to Julio Jones. Bengals safety Jessie Bates III picked off the pass in rather straightforward fashion. Following the game, Bates said that Tannehill stared Jones down and Bates knew exactly what was happening. He’s absolutely right. That’s not on Downing. It’s elementary-level quarterback play.

Tannehill missed several other throws, including a slant to A.J. Brown. And then he threw a pass right at a defensive back that got picked off. Mike Hilton made a great play and this is the interception I least blame Tannehill for. It’s still not Downing’s fault. Tannehill’s final interception was beyond inexcusable and is responsible for the loss. That’s just how it goes. Nick Westbrook had SEVERAL Bengals defenders around him and bad things typically happen when you attempt that throw.

If Tannehill takes the check down to Anthony Firkser, he may get stopped short of the sticks, and the Titans are punting and going to overtime. If he targets Dontrell Hilliard near the sideline, he may get stopped short of a first down, and the Titans are punting and going to overtime. Both of those outcomes are significantly better than what Tannehill did. That’s not Downing’s fault. The potential throw to Hilliard is my favorite option here by the way, although Titans fans seem to be pointing to Firkser. Hilliard appears to be 1-v-1 there and has shown the ability to make a man miss in the open field. Again, not Downing’s fault.

You could potentially blame Downing for the short-yardage play calls on third and fourth-and-short that resulted in the Titans turning the ball over on downs, but I still shift blame to Tannehill, actually. On the third down keeper, Tannehill should have identified that the safety crept up towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap. He should have handed the ball off to his 6-foot-3, 250-pound running back. The second the Bengals safety crept up, the call had to be an inside zone run. In addition to that, the defensive end didn’t take the bait and stayed home on the play. We all know that Tannehill keeper was previously undefeated, but he should never predetermine his decision there, and it felt like he did because there’s no other post-snap explanation for why he didn’t hand that ball off. Henry picks up the first down there if Tannehill makes the right decision. He didn’t. That’s not Downing’s fault.

Downing certainly has his warts, but he’s not to blame for Tannehill’s play on Saturday. Remember all of this when you’re pointing fingers.