The Titans’ 2016 season is officially in the books. Thanks to performances against playoff teams that shocked many, the team came within just one game of earning an AFC South division title and a trip to the playoffs themselves. Here are the five biggest things we learned about them in 2016.
1. Desperate Need for Corners
This is the only negative on my list, but it’s a big one. Every player has bad days, so picking out a team’s weaknesses after watching just a game or two simply does not work. This is not one of those instances.
I have studied this team thoroughly ever since they put pads on for the first time back in August, and I can say with full certainty that the Titans’ corners are inept. Deficient. Poor. Defective. Use whatever word you want; they are not good. Oddly enough, they also like to talk trash on Twitter.
When I asked former Titans great Eddie George what the Titans must improve heading into 2017, he responded by saying “It’s all about the perimeter this offseason for the Titans…they gotta find some cornerbacks…when you look at the statistics, they’re dead last in the NFL in passing defense.”
Simply put, the Titans will not win games if they continue to get torched in the passing game. When your corners make Blake Bortles look like Drew Brees, something must change.
2. Marcus Is the Man
A year removed from a rookie season in which he struggled mightily to throw the football downfield and to stay healthy, QB Marcus Mariota broke out in a big way this season. After a brutally slow start during the first four games of the season, Mariota came alive against the Dolphins and never looked back.
Named November’s AFC Offensive Player of the Month, Mariota finished the year as a Pro Bowl alternate and as one of the most effective quarterbacks in the entire NFL. His ability to use his eyes to toy with defenses and make throws to any spot on the field make him a lethal weapon under center.
Something that Mariota improved this season was his turnover problem. In his rookie year, Mariota posted a lackluster 19/10 TD/INT ratio. This year, he drastically improved, posting a ratio of 26/9.
Consistency, however, was still a challenge for Mariota in 2016. One week he would be brilliant, and the next he would have fans screaming at their televisions. He must improve in that area if he wants to take the next step in 2017.
3. “Exotic Smashmouth” Works
Perhaps the biggest issue fans had with the Titans’ hiring of Mike Mularkey as head coach was that he insisted on using an offensive approach based around running the ball down opponents’ throats. Many thought that such a system would be a massive failure, considering it seemed better suited to be used twenty years ago.
News flash: it works. And, at times, it works incredibly well.
Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, who calls plays and assisted Mularkey in creating this offense, masterfully used every tool he knew to make the Titans’ offense one of the most productive in the NFL in 2016. He used motions to help Mariota understand the coverage, he used three TE sets to create bigger holes for DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, he used zone reads to keep defenses honest, and he used play action to expose aggressive defenses with big shots down the field.
Under former head coach Ken Whisenhunt, an offensive minded coach who called plays, the Titans had a non-existent offense that got every quarterback killed. Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, Zach Mettenberger, and Marcus Mariota all suffered injuries in Whisenhunt’s offense that kept them out of at least one game.
With Mularkey and Robiskie at the helm, Marcus Mariota was well-protected all season, and seemed very comfortable. The hot takes about Chip Kelly and the Titans’ destruction of Marcus Mariota can officially be put to rest.
4. No More Dysfunction
The Monday following the completion of the NFL regular season is typically referred to as “Black Monday.” On that day last year, the Titans had no head coach, no general manager, no team president, and an owner that nobody had ever really seen or heard from. A year later, Mike Mularkey, Jon Robinson, Steve Underwood, and Amy Adams Strunk have changed that narrative completely.
As I watched various painfully awkward press conferences last week from teams that had chosen to begin a new coaching regime, I realized just how fortunate the Titans are that every decision they made when assembling their coaching and front-office staff seems to have been a good one.
Instead of having a sometimes clueless and tone deaf coach that doesn’t get along with members of the media, the Titans now have a coach who demands the best from his players, but also realizes there’s a time to have some fun as well.
Instead of having a general manager that seemingly had no beliefs about what identity he wanted his team to have, the Titans now have one who repeatedly espouses his views of acquiring players who are tough, smart, and have a team-first attitude.
And instead of having a sometimes invisible ownership group that didn’t seem to care what happened with the team, the Titans have a matriarch who is passionate about the team, the fans, and the city of Nashville.
We all know that actions speak louder than words, and Amy Adams Strunk’s actions, such as swallowing Ken Whisenhunt’s salary and funding renovations to the Titans’ previously outdated practice facility, show that she is fully dedicated to making the Titans a first class organization once again. So far, she’s done a heck of a job.
5. Division or Bust
The Titans finished with the same record in 2016 (9-7) as the team that won the AFC South and advanced to the playoffs, the Houston Texans. Why did the Titans lose the tie? Division losses. Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Houston all handed the Titans losses this season. That cannot happen if you want to win your division.
For the first time in several years, the Titans were competitive until the very end. They weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until Week 16, and they only lost one game by more than eight points. The competitiveness earned back the respect and fans and media members alike, but it is now time to take the next step.
It couldn’t be simpler: the 2017 Titans will be considered a failure if they do not win the AFC South. The front office has the cap room and draft picks to add talent and bolster the roster. The coaching staff has a year under their belts with the current personnel. Their quarterback is entering his third year, a time when many players at the position tend to have break out years.
Everything is perfectly set up for the Titans to be a dominant team next season, but they must capitalize on their opportunities to improve. If they don’t, we will all be left wondering what went wrong.