Former Titans star running back Eddie George was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about the Tennessee Titans running game, and how they have managed to improve so drastically in so little time.
It’s been said since the early days of football that you win games at the line of scrimmage, with a solid running game offensively and stout penetration defensively. However, in recent years, various rule changes and fan preferences have lead to a more pass happy game.
Teams like the Raiders, Saints, and Packers are generally considered to have playoff caliber offenses, even though they often struggle to run the football. This further goes to show how pass oriented the NFL has become.
When Mike Mularkey took over as the Titans’ head coach in January 2016, he immediately described the identity he wanted his team to have offensively: “exotic smashmouth.” Mularkey wanted his team to be able to enforce their will on opponents through a physically imposing and taxing running game, a philosophy that, in the eyes of many, has become outdated. This proposed identity made many fans doubt Mularkey’s ability to run a team and build a successful offensive attack.
But, as I wrote in my season review article last week, Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie proved the doubters wrong. The run-based attack allowed Marcus Mariota to feel more comfortable and become one of the most productive and explosive quarterbacks in the NFL. It allowed Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker to have more room to work in the middle of the field. It allowed free agent acquisition Rishard Matthews to have a break out season. And, most importantly, it allowed Pro Bowl RB DeMarco Murray to lead the AFC in rushing.
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I asked Eddie George what change was the most instrumental for the Titans heading into last season, and he agreed that it was their new offensive philosophy.
“The DeMarco Murray trade was big. Getting him in the backfield was huge. Developing the offensive line, creating an identity for the offensive line as a smashmouth team really helped out matters. And bringing in Russ Grimm as the offensive line coach was a huge deal. Those are the things I look at that say this team is now getting back to what they once were when I was there, in terms of having a smashmouth identity, a good defense, and finding ways to win games.”
The first year of Mularkey’s system did not, however, come without bumps in the road. Following the final game of the year, DeMarco Murray revealed that he played half of the season with a torn plantar plate, an injury he sustained during a Week 8 win against the Jaguars in which he rushed for 123 yards and a TD. I asked George, who played through his fair share of injuries, to elaborate on how tough it was for Murray to play on his injured toe.
“Listen, when you’re dealing with your feet…that’s very difficult because it feels like you’re running with a flat tire. You just don’t have quite the same pop, the same burst, and it hurts when you cut a certain way. So for him to go through the season like that and still find a way to win, man up, and sacrifice that for the team is awesome. It’s very difficult to go through a season like that as a running back, and to still have the season that he had is tremendous.”
Finally, I talked to George about Murray’s prodigy Derrick Henry, who grew up idolizing Eddie. Prior to the draft, many scouts gave Henry a low grade because of his supposed stiffness, lack of lateral movement, and inability to catch the ball out of the backfield. It took only one season game for Henry to prove those analytics wrong and to excite fans. His childhood hero, a fellow Heisman trophy winner, was very impressed as well.
“When you look at [Henry], you say ‘well he looks kind of stiff’. No. He’s got good hips, he can get low when he has to, and his run after contact is special. I think Derrick has tremendous upside, and he’s going to be a top back in this league one day.”
Earlier in our conversation, George commented on how much it helped Henry’s development that he was not heavily relied upon as a rookie.
“It allows Derrick to ease into it. He has already accumulated in college a ton of touches and yards, and you want him to have a long lasting career, so you bring him along a little bit slowly. I thought it worked out well with their exotic smashmouth football philosophy.”
From when Jeff Fisher was fired and Mike Munchak became the Titans’ coach until this year, there was no running game to speak of in Music City. It was, at times, a joke. It’s no coincidence that the Titans achieved their first winning season in over six years when they finally established a physical ground attack.