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State of the Franchise: More magic from Tannehill, Titans?

Members of the Tennessee Titans organization, Titans fans around the world and those of you who are belting out great renditions of Use Somebody by the Kings of Leon at Santa's Pub:

For years, it seemed like the Titans were waiting for someone to take them to the next level. Not many thought it would be a former top-10 pick on the verge of locking into the "journeyman QB" career track, and who once played wide receiver in college (at least for one year). But Ryan Tannehill sparked one of the most exciting seasons in Titans history since their fabled run to the Super Bowl. And while they fell short of their ultimate goal, they head into 2020 riding very strong vibes.

How the Titans got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Knocking off the Chiefs in Week 10. The Titans fell behind Patrick Mahomes on multiple occasions in this contest but still rallied. I mean, I would have to be a jerk to point out that Mahomes was just returning from injury. I clearly won't do that. Regardless of Mahomes' status, this was a huge win that made it seem like 2019 was going to be a special season. Tennessee pulled to 5-5 and did not dip below .500 again.
  • Becoming the first sixth-seed to reach the AFC Championship Game since the New York Jets did it in 2010. All the Titans did to get there was defeat one of the best QB-coach combos in NFL history and hold Lamar Jackson and the juggernaut Ravens' attack to 12 points.

The lows:

  • Stumbling to a 2-4 record out of the gate, despite beating preseason darling Cleveland in a Week 1 upset. 
  • The benching of former first-round pick Marcus Mariota. Sure, you're happy with the way things ended for the Titans, with Tannehill taking over and authoring a Comeback Player of the Year campaign. But you really wanted to see Mariota succeed, because he was your guy. But sometimes you have to make the tough decisions.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Vrabel. You have to love the fact that Vrabel is always willing to put it all on the line. He won over a lot of fans two years ago when he went for 2 and the win against the Chargers in London instead of settling for a tie. Sure, that move backfired, resulting in a 20-19 loss. But you had to respect a coach who was willing to put it all on the line and not play it safe. Playing it safe is what gets you fired, like when you're playing poker. If you try to just hold out the entire night waiting for pocket aces, you're going to lose. Sometimes, you need to take a risk and go all-in. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But at least it's on your terms.

Vrabel made a similarly bold move last October when he benched Mariota and replaced him with Tannehill. And unlike the gamble in London, this paid off. The Titans were 2-4 at the time and careening toward a miserable season. Under Tannehill, they won six of their next seven and became the team nobody wanted to see in the playoffs. Vrabel went into Foxborough in January and ended what would turn out to be Tom Brady's final season with the Patriots. (That was also the second time in his coaching career the ex-New England linebacker-turned-Titans-head-man beat his former coach, Bill Belichick.) Tennessee knocked off the top-seeded Ravens the following week. And then, in the AFC Championship Game ... well, the Titans were dismantled by the soon-to-be-champion Kansas City Chiefs. But Vrabel still pushed his team to unexpected heights well after most people stopped believing in it. (Not me, though. I always believed in the Titans.)

In short, Vrabel is the kind of coach you would love to play for. He's unafraid. He's sassy at times. And he's not overwhelmed by the moment. He's Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill. Last year, I cautioned people not to overthink the Tannehill signing. Mariota had been plagued by inconsistencies and injuries since being picked second overall by Tennessee in 2015, so the Titans needed to find a quality backup. What they ended up with was the second coming of Steve Young. (I know some of you might be shocked to learn this, but Young was an excellent quarterback way back when.) I guess the big question a lot of people are asking is, who is Ryan Tannehill? Is he the guy who couldn't get it done over several years in Miami? Or is he the player we saw last year? 

I'm going with the latter. I know Tannehill's Dolphins record (42-46 with a passer rating of 87.0 from 2012 to '18) is less than inspiring, but it's not like he was graced with the best coaching down in Miami. And maybe not every quarterback is Patrick Mahomes, capable of becoming the best in the league during his second NFL season. Is there a chance I'm writing all this hoping my guy Mitch Trubisky follows a similar path in Chicago, just without leaving the team that drafted him in the first round? That's not important right now. 

Here's what is. The Titans scored at least 20 points in each of Tannehill's 10 regular-season starts, a benchmark they reached just twice in the first six games of 2019. They scored at least four touchdowns in six different games under Tannehill, who had a passer rating of 117.5 and scored a touchdown on more than 85 percent of their red-zone trips. The key? The play-action system run by first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Tannehill led the NFL with a passer rating of 144.5 and a completion percentage of 77.1 on play-action (among those with a minimum of 50 play-action attempts). And his nine play-action touchdowns were tied for third. It feels like they found the perfect situation for Tannehill. So it made complete sense that, facing the prospect of losing him to free agency, the Titans locked up the 31-year-old with a four-year, $118 million deal (including $62 million fully guaranteed).

Projected 2020 MVP: Derrick Henry, running back. Tannehill is great on play-action. But that (stuff) is only going to work if you have a threat in the backfield. And the Titans certainly do. Henry could be a darkhorse NFL MVP candidate if he continues on the pace he's been on in the last year-plus, including a league-high 1,540 rushing yards last season (in 15 games) and 18 total touchdowns. I don't want to say the whole system comes down to him, but yeah, he's the most important player on this team. 

The fair question to ask is, how comfortable should the Titans be relying again on a running back who touched the ball 321 times last season? You don't see that in the NFL anymore. But you also don't see many running backs the size of the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, either. I swear, I saw him walking through the NFL Network offices one time, and at first glance, I thought he was a lineman. Dude is a monster. 

Now, should he get a long-term extension? That's a story for another day. But the 26-year-old, whose rookie deal ran through 2019, has signed his franchise tag and is ready to go for this year.

New face to know: Darrynton Evans, running back. The third-round pick out of Appalachian State is the backup for Henry this season. Evans excels in the outside-zone running scheme and has some nice elusiveness; he kind of reminded me of Ronald Jones at USC. He's not going to be the pounder that Henry is, but Evans definitely projects as a three-down back. He's also a pretty good receiver out of the backfield who could provide an additional wrinkle to the offense. He should find his way on to the field this season. And with a little bit of bulk, he could end up being the franchise's three-down back of the future.

2020 breakout star: Jeffery Simmons, defensive tackle. One of the big moves the Titans made this offseason was to trade away defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, a five-time Pro Bowler who had spent the entirety of his nine-year career in Tennessee, for a seventh-round pick. Now the team is hoping Simmons can make the leap in his second season. If you never saw Simmons in college, I'll tell you he was an absolute stud at Mississippi State. I don't want to throw around comparisons lightly, but it was kind of like watching Ndamukong Suh when he was at Nebraska. Simmons might have been a top-10 draft pick -- maybe even top-five -- in 2019 if he hadn't suffered a torn ACL in February. But Tennessee was able to snag him at 19th overall. Now, Simmons has put the injury behind him, and he showed in limited games last year that he could be a Pro Bowl-type of player. I mean, if you're going to trade away a player like Casey for basically nothing, you have to be pretty confident in his backup.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Titans have finished 9-7 in each of the past four seasons, taking on a mid-card role in the process. Titans fans don't want to hear that, though. They just see a team that made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. It's kind of like in wrestling, when one of the main-eventers has an injury and they have to scramble to find a replacement. Sometimes it works out. Like last year, when Kofi Kingston went from engaging member of the New Day to WWE champion. Sometimes it ends up like Damien Sandow. But rest assured, the expectations are high.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Broncos. I have the Broncos as one of the breakout teams in the AFC, much like the Titans last season. This is a good chance for the Titans to squash that notion. 
  • Week 6 vs. Texans. After the opener with Denver and a date in Duval, the Titans play a tough four-game stretch that includes three games against opponents who made the playoffs last year (at the Vikings in Week 3, vs. the Bills in Week 5 and this one vs. Houston) and another (vs. the Steelers in Wek 4) who will be a contender in 2020. This is the make-it-or-break-it stretch. 
  • Week 9 vs. Bears. Titans fans don't care for me. So, this is a chance for them to gleefully rub it in my face. OK, here's one for real:
  • Week 11 at Ravens. This is a huge game. It comes sandwiched between games with the Colts (who I like to win the division). And I have a feeling the Ravens will be a little vengeful, considering the way their 2019 playoffs ended.

Will the Titans be able to:

Survive without Jack Conklin this year? Running the football is so important to this team. And that means not only is Henry huge (both literally and figuratively), but so is the performance of the offensive line, which was excellent last year in run-blocking. And while the loss of Conklin, who signed with the Browns, will be big, there are some capable replacements waiting in the wings. Dennis Kelly is currently slotted for the right tackle spot, and he's good. But one name to keep an eye on is first-round pick Isaiah Wilson out of Georgia. Wilson was one of those buzz players who starts out as a likely second-round pick, eventually wins over scouts and goes in the first round (29th overall). And this was the perfect type of pick for the Titans. As I said, Kelly is a capable starter and might be so for this season. But Wilson is the kind of player who could develop into a dominant offensive lineman -- maybe not this year, but in the foreseeable future.

Count on Malcolm Butler to be the guy they expected him to be? Butler is a Super Bowl hero. After securing the Lombardi Trophy as a member of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, he'll never have to purchase a Sam Adams in the greater New England area ever again. His career with the Titans, however, hasn't been as great. Butler signed a big-money deal with Tennessee in 2018 after being benched in the Patriots' Super Bowl LII loss. (And let's be honest; we still don't know exactly why he was benched. It's a story that will go unsolved -- much like the story of why Paul Schneider left Parks and Recreation after just two seasons. You never do that.) Butler suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week 9, which, unfortunately, meant he wasn't on the field for the playoff win over the Patriots (though that would have been sweet). But even before the injury, Butler wasn't playing all that well. In fact, Pro Football Focus said Butler dropped the most interceptions last year, along with Jaire Alexander and some other guys. (OK, so I mostly used this stat because I wanted to delight in pointing out a Packer helped top this list, but still.)

If Butler doesn't get it together, rookie Kristian Fulton will be waiting in the wings. The Titans spent a second-round pick on the LSU star, which is crazy, because he was one of the best cornerbacks in the game last year. I'm not sure how he lasted until the No. 61 overall pick, but he did. And it's not going to surprise me if he usurps Butler for a starting gig this season.

Get consistency out of Vic Beasley? The Titans are hoping Simmons will continue to progress on the defensive line, but they are also hoping for some consistency from free-agent signee Beasley. Beasley is the NFL equivalent of Harvey Danger, the band responsible for 1990s runaway smash single "Flagpole Sitta" -- a one-hit wonder. Beasley was a top-10 selection in 2015 by the Atlanta Falcons. And he did have a league-leading 15.5 sacks in his second season. But he'd been living on that reputation for some time before the Falcons decided to let him walk this offseason. Like Harvey Danger, whose fans will tell you did have other songs, Beasley has had moments where he has flashed the potential that landed him such a lofty draft spot. We just haven't seen it. I mean, it's not like Beasley is sick. But he's clearly not well. (And with that, I will show myself out the door.)

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The historic greatness of A.J. Brown's rookie season. Loved this dude when he was coming out of college last year. Implored those around me to take him in fantasy drafts. (Which is good, because I also told people to take DaeSean Hamilton, so I'm glad Brown hit, at least.) And he proceeded to be nothing short of amazing. He was the first rookie in NFL history to gain 1,000 receiving yards and average more than 20 yards per reception. His 20.2 yards-per-reception mark topped the first-year figures of some of the best who have ever done it, like Randy Moss (19.03) and Julio Jones (17.76). He had five 100-yard games last year, which was extra impressive because he doesn't get a lot of targets in Tennessee's run-first offense. He's a true field-stretcher in every sense of the word. And with Tannehill being so effective looking for him deep (I'll get to that in a moment), Brown is a huge piece of this offense. Maybe Brown's effectiveness can help Corey Davis, the former high first-round pick whose fifth-year option was not picked up by the team, make strides in a contract year. 

(Fantasy tip: If you're looking for a tight end this year, consider Jonnu Smith. Brown opens it up down the middle, which in turn opens things up for Jonnu. I know I just admitted how much I liked DaeSean last year. But trust me here.)

... people are overthinking: The lack of a defensive coordinator. Dan Pees retired as the defensive coordinator in January, and the Titans have replaced him with (checks notes) nobody. Not to go all Pepper Brooks, but that's a bold strategy -- and it's one that I like. As I've said, I appreciate that Vrabel is willing to go outside the box. You see a lot of offensive-minded coaches eschewing offensive coordinators. Why can't a defensive-minded guy? Why bring in an outsider who hasn't worked with the team to possibly cause friction? Besides, there are solid defensive coaches on staff, like Jim Haslett, who knows what he's doing. I like it.

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: Ryan Tannehill's capabilities as a passer. Tannehill isn't just some dink-and-dunker. He was third in the NFL (among those with 200-plus attempts) with 9.6 air yards per attempt. Which, again, with Brown stretching the field, means this is a perfect opportunity for Smith to jump in there and eat. 

AND ONE MORE storyline people are overthinking: The Titans' ability to rally from behind. Because a run-based team like this would theoretically have a tougher time digging out of holes, given that it would have to pass exclusively, and thus be able to lean on play-action less. But the Titans did overcome double-digit deficits to the Chiefs and Colts last year to win. The more troubling note might be that they had double-digit leads on the Saints in the regular season and on Chiefs in the playoffs before ultimately losing both contests soundly. So maybe a defensive coordinator might be a good person to have on your staff. (I'm kidding, Mike. You do you. I love this idea.)

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Titans MUST ...

Win the Super Bowl. Because the Titans fans on social media (at least those I failed to previously mute) keep telling me this is the greatest team in NFL history. Even one loss would make this seem like a bad year. 

But seriously, it would be good to at least return to the playoffs. The Titans fired Mike Mularkey because they were tired of going 9-7 every season. Vrabel has gone 9-7 in both of his years as head coach. And I understand that the Titans went all the way to the AFC Championship Game last year. But they haven't fully Kofi Kingston'd quite yet. (In case you forgot my earlier reference, that means Tennessee still hasn't won the title.)

In closing

The Titans overachieved last season. They captured lightning in a bottle with Ryan Tannehill. Derrick Henry is going through a prolific stretch similar to what other great Titans backs, such as Eddie George and Chris Johnson (even DeMarco Murray had a nice run) have gone through before. (Notice I didn't say Earl Campbell, because Campbell played in Houston. With the Oilers.) A lot of things went in the Titans' favor in 2019 -- so much so that it seems like it would be hard to replicate the magic again. Remember how the Jaguars fell flat after reaching the AFC title game in 2017? I will say Tannehill is better than Blake Bortles (you hope). But there is a very real possibility the Titans will both be a better team in 2020 and see a regression in the win column.

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