Titans promote Downing for continuity.
The Tennessee Titans have officially announced the promotion of Tight Ends coach Todd Downing to Offensive Coordinator, replacing the departed Art Smith. Downing was Smith’s original replacement as a position coach, joining the team in 2019. All in all, Downing boasts 15 years of NFL coaching experience, spending 2017 as the Offensive Coordinator of the Oakland Raiders.
The immediate reaction among Titans fans was a largely uninspiring one, which is understandable. Internal promotions are rarely “exciting,” and even Art Smith’s promotion two years ago was met with mixed emotions.
Those hoping for outside support to come in and provide an added jolt to an already explosive offense were intrigued by the Titans’ reported interest in external candidates, specifically former Chargers QB Coach Pep Hamilton and Texans OC Tim Kelly.
Hamilton has been lauded for his work last season with Justin Herbert and would have brought a very quarterback-centric approach to an offense that lacks consistent balance. Kelly seems to be one of the few people within the Texans organization that Deshaun Watson supports, and has a professional relationship with Vrabel going back to his Houston coaching days.
With Kelly being retained as OC under the new David Culley regime and Hamilton joining their staff as QB coach, the rumors attaching the coaches to the Titans immediately cooled. Fans’ expectations shifted to an internal promotion, it was just a matter of learning which position coach would be taking over play-calling duties.
On Friday morning, Vrabel made the promotion official. Todd Downing, who did good work overseeing the continued growth of Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, and the inclusion of Geoff Swaim, will now be tasked with building upon the strong offensive foundation that Art built with Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and the ever-emerging AJ Brown.
And similarly to the importance of having those same players continuing to play together year after year, Vrabel is highlighting the value of continuity among those coaching them.
The Titans are committed to maintaining the Shanahan-style offense that was originally implemented by Matt LaFleur and successfully enhanced by Art Smith. An offense committed to the ground game and play-action passing, playing to the strengths of their three best offensive players.
While we are certainly right to critique coaching continuity on the other side of the ball, that sentiment holds less water for the Titans offense. After averaging nearly 30 points per game in 2020 and providing career years for both Henry and Tannehill, the Titans are smart in investing further in “what works,” doubling down on the notion that continuity among players and coaches will only help the offense.
That does not mean Downing will be without his own challenges and duties in his new role.
The first will be finding a more natural balance in play-calling on early downs. All but 22 of Derrick Henry’s 378 rushing attempts came on first and second down. As great as Henry is, such a heavy commitment to running the ball on first and second down inevitably resulted in many third and longs. A willingness to throw earlier in a series will lessen the third-down pressure on Tannehill, as Downing will be able to utilize more of his playbook on third-and-shorts.
The same willingness to throw will be Downing’s primary opportunity to differentiate himself from Smith and make his own respective improvements to the offense.
Derrick Henry is and has been the focal point of this offense. The scheme dictates it, as does the physical approach this team takes toward each game. But that does not mean he needs to be.
It may sound strange to demand “more” from Ryan Tannehill after the most prolific passing season in Titans history, but that’s just what the Titans will need from their quarterback and his OC to take the next proper step into the league’s elite offenses.
In the Titans’ past two playoff games, losses against the Chiefs and Ravens, Smith can be criticized for relying too much on Henry and the run game, putting Tannehill and the passing weapons to the side. In both games, their services would have been very much welcomed.
This is where I feel Downing, a former QB and QB coach, can best benefit this offense and Tannehill. Tannehill has made it clear that he’s capable of dropping back and pushing the ball down the field. His arm and arsenal of weapons are strong enough to put up points in bunches.
Fortunately for Downing, he will also benefit from Vrabel’s prioritization of continuity. These are players and a scheme he’s familiar with, and strengths and weaknesses that he’s aware of. Now is his chance to use this strong foundation and get even more out of it.