The LiveBall Sports Tennessee Titans Season Preview
Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom
What we said about the Titans prior to the 2012 season
The Tennessee Titans almost made the playoffs in 2011, finishing with a 9-7 overall record. The team’s biggest change going into the offseason was a change at the quarterback position, with second year QB Jake Locker taking over for veteran Matt Hasselbeck atop the depth chart. The rest of the offseason plan was based mostly on the hope of internal improvement. They needed to bolster their pass rush, improve coverage, and find out why the heck RB Chris Johnson kept falling down before contact.
My predictive analysis didn’t love the Titans, but they did see team that could easily build on the 2011 season and could compete in a weak division in 2012. Ultimately, I thought that Andrew Luck getting drafted into the division might end up being the difference between a first place contender and a second place contender because I had a much higher college grade on Luck than Locker, but I wasn’t in love with the Texans, and thought the Titans could challenge for their spot atop the division, if not a wild card.
What should we have known with hindsight?
Even with hindsight, the collapse of the Titans defense compared to the relative development of the young players on that defense remains a mystery. DE Derrick Morgan, the team’s 1st round pick in 2010, had a strong season and took the first step towards fulfilling his potential. LB Akeem Ayers had a nice year. DT Mike Martin was a great find in the third round of the 2012 draft. Jason McCourty was every bit as good as his much more heralded brother, replacing CB Cortland Finnegan, who left in free agency following a career year. Despite all that, the defense just was not very good in 2012. And even still, it doesn’t make much sense to this analyst. More pressure is going to fall on defensive coordinator Jerry Gray in 2013.
But the offensive struggles were more troubling because they were traceable directly to the offensive backfield. Locker was horrible, which wasn’t a terrible shock, and Chris Johnson failed to produce again, which is no longer a shock. That combination of ineptitude cost offensive coordinator Chris Palmer his job during the season.
Here’s how hindsight helps us: Matt Hasselbeck’s first third of a season in 2011 may have been a fluke, but it is also the only offensive production the Titans have enjoyed in the entire Mike Munchak era. He retains his job in 2013 as very much a lame duck coach, because the roster is incomplete and Hasselbeck was shipped out of town by longtime owner Bud Adams. Adams does not have a reputation as a bad owner, but now on the wrong side of 90, he is getting a deserved reputation as an impatient one. Impatience is a virtue only if you can actually go out and land Peyton Manning in free agency, but the season the Titans had was far more disappointing than anyone around the organization planed for. Munchak is just in a tough spot as a coach now.
Where does the organization appear to think it is at?
That declining ownership situation, combined with a front office that under Ruston Webster has not achieved the stability it had under Mike Reinfeldt and Jeff Fisher, has created a situation in Tennessee where winning is expected, even though it is unrealistic. The Titans are not going to begin a rebuilding project anytime soon, but the roster isn’t particularly good. The best hope for the organization is that the defensive players that produced last year can bring their talents together in the form of a productive, cohesive unit, allowing the Titans to win with strong defense. This might help explain the controversial hire of linebackers coach and special defensive assistant Gregg Williams, who was suspended by the league last season. Williams was defensive coordinator in Washington when Jerry Gray was their cornerbacks coach.
Gray is on the hot seat right from September on, and if the defense doesn’t show immediate improvement, it’s possible the Titans could promote Williams to defensive coordinator.
There can be value even for a team coming off a rough season to focus on the present instead of the future, but short-sighted moves don’t often lead to great seasons, much less a great future.
How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?
On a more optimistic note, the Titans did appear to improve their team through the draft. They grabbed Alabama G Chance Warmack with their first round selection, and while guards are not typically the first place you look for impact players, Warmack profiles as the kind of offensive lineman who offers game-plan altering ability, at least as far as opposing defensive coordinators are concerned. It was not a great year for the Titans OL in 2012, but the head coach is a former lineman, and with the tackles both signed to long term deals, it was an interior impact maker that the team needed.
Tennessee prefers zone blocking, but they run a multiple attack in the running game (at least they did last year under Palmer), and Warmack won’t have a problem fitting into any scheme. My only question about him is in the screen game, where they will actually have him moving. Screen’s figure to be a part of the Tennessee attack, given their quarterback situation, and the kind of contract Chris Johnson has.
What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?
With regard to Mike Munchak’s future, teams do not often rebound from the kind of hole the Titans have put themselves in after last season. I called this a lame duck season for him above, which seems on the surface like an unfair tag to put on Munchak while leaving off coaches like Ron Rivera and Jason Garrett. But the difference with Munchak is that the decision of the Titans to keep him in his position as head coach but not to alter the path of the franchise in terms of personnel philosophy is questionable at best. It’s not an assessment of Munchak’s head coaching aptitude (where I have my concerns), but his role in the context of the organizational plan. If there is one.
The 2013 Titans project to be a pretty bad team, although all caveats about the weak AFC apply here as well. As I’ve said in multiple articles, someone is making the postseason at 8-8 in the AFC, and in a league were every team is expected to trend towards 8-8 every year, no team is out of it. The Titans are just really far away from it. We’ll say three wins off the pace, and a team best projected to finish at 5-11.