The NFL is a league that encourages abstract thought of a most profound nature (if you’re the sort of person to wonder such things in a self-indulgent blog, of course). Which god did the Cleveland Browns cross to be imprisoned in football hell for decades? How do the New England Patriots continue to win games despite not having had quality skill position players since the departure of Randy Moss? What is the point of the Arizona Cardinals?
But in watching the second of this season’s London games, in which the Tennessee Titans travel somehow simultaneously across the continental US and the Atlantic Ocean to visit the Los Angeles Chargers at Wembley Stadium, I have come to ponder another question: are the Titans actually any good?
Now, ‘goodness’ is at metric at the heart of any sport, as competition exists to determine the team or individual with the most goodness, the goodnessest, or ‘best’ if you will, but the quality of a team cannot be determined exclusively by its wins and losses at the end of a season. The 2013 Denver Broncos, who scored the most touchdowns and put up the most points over a season in NFL history, were a much better team than their 43-8 shellacking in Super Bowl 48 suggests. The Buffalo Bills reached four consecutive Super Bowls in the 90s, a clear indication that they were one of the league’s finest teams over the first 21 weeks of the season for a nearly unprecedented stretch, but will always be remembered as the team that lost four Super Bowls, and the haunting phrase: wide right.
Assessing the current Titans team is a similarly complex issue, although not because their performance has bounced between the sublime and the ridiculous. Against almost any metric of goodness, you could describe the Titans with an emphatic shrug of the shoulders and a curious cocking of the head.
Let’s take the most obvious one, winning games; going into the London game, they were 3-3, a perfectly mediocre score that suggests their performances have been neither too hot, nor too cold. These six games have also been the first games coached by rookie headseat-wearer Mike Vrabel, and their previous head coach, Mike Mularkey, presided over a near-perfectly average two-and-a-bit year record of 21-22, including playoffs, that would make former Rams coach Jeff Fisher salivate over the aggressive blandness of it all.
The team rebounded from a 3-13 season to reach the Divisional Round of the playoffs within two years, an excellent achievement on paper, but one that is less remarkable in reality when we consider that that playoff appearance came off the back of a typically mediocre 9-7 season, where the team was thrust into the playoffs more due to the dearth of talent in the AFC as a whole than anything particularly good that was done in Tennessee. There was a joke during the reign of New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin that Big Blue would go 8-8 every year, and that some seasons this would leave them stuck to the bottom of the NFC East, and others it would be good enough to win the Super Bowl; there is something of that about these Tennessee Titans.
Even the Bills made the playoffs last season, for the first time this century, so it could reasonably be argued that making the AFC playoffs in the 2017 season was an achievement roughly equivalent in impressiveness to making toast without burning it: technically a success, but not one you would want to write home about.
But what made the recent on-field ‘success’ of the Titans perversely surreal was that their coach Mularkey was operated with a sword of Damocles dangling perpetually above his head. All year long we were treated to rumours that he would be fired at the first opportunity, that he was failing to get the most out of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and that the franchise was stuck in neutral, in need of either a total rebuild or a shot in the arm to take the next step and stride out of the quagmire of depressing football that is the AFC South.
Apparently leading the unfancied Titans to their first playoff berth in a decade, and their first playoff win in 14 years, wasn’t enough to save his skin, as he was fired the day after the loss to the Patriots.
The next metric we can use to determine the quality of a team is the quality of its individual players, and the Titans are, again, something of an enigma. Marcus Mariota is, on the one hand, a quarterback playing in his third system is an many years, who has thrown fewer touchdown passes in his last 21 games than fellow 2015 draft pick Jameis Winston did in the 16 games of his rookie season.
On the other hand, he did this as a rookie.
And, oh yeah, this.
Meanwhile, the defence came into this year’s London game as the second-best unit in the league in terms of touchdowns conceded, but wilted on the first play from scrimmage, Logan Ryan giving up a 75-yard touchdown pass to Tyrell Williams simply because he stopped tracking the receiver as he ran past him. No double moves, no flooding his zone, Williams just ran down the field and caught a pass.
Mariota and the defence are then interesting mirrors of each other. Mariota’s stats since his sophomore season are poor at best, but has made jaws drop often enough to establish himself as an exciting, and sometimes even effective, player who led his team to an 18-point comeback in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the defence enjoys some statistical success, but is liable to crumble at important moments in games.
Often, during a play, if both sides commit a foul the referees will decide that the penalties offset, and nothing will come of the play. It will be reset, replayed, and redone so a more conclusive, and less boringly balanced, outcome is found. The Titans are like that, offsetting penalties in franchise form.
Their offence and defence are each statistically dominant, or useless, or individually impressive, or fragile, frequently enough that they are bizarre mirrors of each other, each doing enough good work to not consign the team to a Browns-like fate, but shooting themselves in the foot enough to prevent them from consistently challenging for the playoffs in a weak conference, and a particularly weak division. The offence cancels out Mariota, Logan Ryan cancels out the defence, and both units work tirelessly for and against each other to give us a team that might be good? Or could be a bit rubbish?
One play from the game against the Chargers sums up the Titans in their current form. With five minutes to go in the first half, and down by four, Mariota scrambles out of the pocket on a broken play and takes off, charging past the line of scrimmage into the yards of green, slightly sub-par Wembley turf ahead of him. But as he encounters a defender, he pivots to his left and chucks the ball to his teammate, who catches it and runs a few yards further downfield before being tackled himself.
The play, conceptually, is brilliant, the sort of individual improvisation that has come to characterise Mariota in his young career; laterals are so rarely attempted in the league, and are so rarely successful, that the sudden movement of the ball can bamboozle a defence, leaving over-pursuing defenders all at sixes and sevens.
Apart from the fact that Mariota’s pass went forwards, and he was so far downfield that a forward pass is illegal, and ended up costing the Titans both yards and the down, rather than benefitting them.
Even the highlight reel plays from before served little broader purpose beyond looking awesome in the immediate term. Mariota’s 87 yard run came in the team’s only home win of a lost 3-13 season, which saw Ken Wisenhunt lose his job as head coach; and his touchdown pass to himself only set up a crushing defeat to the Patriots a week later, and again resulted in the Titans firing their coach.
So what can be done with the team? They’re not an established team in need of one or two more pieces to mount a serious playoff charge, like the Broncos prior to Manning’s arrival, nor are they a mess in need of a total reboot, like the New York Jets ahead of drafting Sam Darnold. They have potential on offence with Mariota, Corey Davis and Derrick Henry, but none of these players are rookies who can expect to be eased into the team; they should be significant contributors to an established offensive scheme. The fact that the team is also unusually reliant on injured and underrated-but-only-slightly-so Delanie Walker doesn’t bode well for the future of the offence.
The defence’s reliance on veterans, specifically veterans who have been jettisoned by the Patriots in Ryan and Malcolm Butler, is similarly concerning, as these are yet more players not bad enough to be unceremoniosuly booted out the door in a rebuilding effort but, as Tyrell Williams will attest, certainly aren’t shutdown corners. While Kevin Byard is an excellent safety, the team’s other marquee defensive draft pick, Adoree’ Jackson, has spent more time considering a shift to running back, and returning kicks, than shutting down receivers; he finished his rookie season with over 800 yards in returns on special teams, and zero interceptions on defence.
And at the top, coach Vrabel remains an enigma. This is true of many rookie head coaches, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan in place for Vrabel’s Titans, beyond signing players from his former employers in Boston. Is he developing Mariota into a more rounded pocket passer, or building a playbook around his legs? Is the defence an aggressive, high intensity unit, or of the bend-don’t-break variety often seen in recent Patriot teams?
Ultimately, these question marks muddy the already murky waters surrounding the goodness of the Titans, as they are not only an enigma in the present, but the course of their future remains similarly difficult to foresee.
But that’s almost the point. One of the reasons I’m so enamoured with sports – and yes, sports as a whole; there have been very few I’ve watched and thought “nah, you’re alright” – is that they can scratch a range of intellectual itches within the comfort of a bubble where the consequences don’t really matter.
Considering the benefits of the I-form formation versus the pro set prods the same part of my brain that is exercised when I think about the Battle of Cannae and how laughably ineffective the Roman army was; obsessively following the tugs of war between coaches, general managers and owners as they all try to sign different players in the offseason is akin to a tight political drama, where the boundaries of power are uncertain, and the stakes high.
But 70,000 people don’t die following a football game. An offseason power struggle doesn’t determine the fate of a country for the next five years until an election can shake up the establishment. We can think and talk and write about all flavours of Big People Chasing Balls Around Pitches into infinity, and then turn off the TV, leave the stadium, and return to our real lives, where any frustrations, losses and tragedies can be left on the field with the players and the goalposts.
So I don’t know if the Titans are any good. I’m not sure the Titans know if they’re any good. But I’ll happy talk about it ad nauseum.