Matt Weston is previewing the AFC South for the 2016 season by going from worst to first in Football Outsiders' projections. Next is the Tennessee Titans, with a projection of 7.2 mean wins.
The remaining acolytes of "Smash Mouth" football have Tennessee ties. Former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, branded with a 7-9 4 Lyfe tattoo, and Mike Mularkey, current head coach of the Titans, are the last zealots devoted to this brand of football. Run the ball. Stop the run. Devour the clock. Out hit and punish. These are all traits of this philosophy.
This is happening in Tennessee despite the fact the Titans have a young quarterback with to build upon. Rather than spread things out and take advantage of Marcus Mariota's quick release, IBM Watson pass progressions, pocket presence and accuracy, the Titans have spent the offseason zigging while the rest of this passing league zags to create what is supposed to be a punch you in the mouth, physical, bone grinding team.
The first step of this offseason was hiring head coach Mike Mularkey. Rarely does an interim head coach convert place-holding into a permanent position, but Mularkey did exactly that. After Week 8, he took over for the 3-20 Ken Whisenhunt, which is such an incredible thing. I'm sure a red-blooded Maddenite could have gone 3-20. From there, Mularkey went 2-7. Then, following a faux head coaching search, Mularkey was permanently hired to lift the Titans from the dredges of the league.
What's spooky is that there really wasn't a reason for Mularkey to get the head coaching job. His career is covered in red ink. His head coaching record is 18-39. He hasn't had a winning record since his first year, when the Bills went 9-7 in 2004. They followed that up with a 5-11 season and he was subsequently fired. His next head coaching shot was a one-year atrocity with the Jags in 2014. They went 2-14 and had their worst season in franchise history. Additionally, a team with Mularkey hasn't had a positive offensive DVOA since 2010, when he was the Falcons' offensive coordinator. They finished 11th (6.1%). Aside from a few spots of success as a coordinator, ineptitude has followed Mularkey everywhere he's gone.
The Titans also didn't improve with Mularkey as a head coach. They were actually worse overall. Their total DVOA dropped 7.6%, from -22% to -29.66%. The defense plummeted by 17.11%. Tennessee's offense showed a bit of an improvement with Mularkey at head coach; the offensive DVOA increased from -21.28% to -12.33%. That's progress in Nashville! The difference was efficiency. Both Mariota and the run game posted similar counting stats. It still wasn't a well run or productive offense. Regardless of sides of the field, the Titans were bad with Mularkey and bad without him.
Most of the time, an interim coach stays on because of past success and some huge change in performance. In this case, there's neither. Mularkey was hired because the players respected him, I guess, and possibly because he took the job for cheap and ownership needed to offset the $15 million they owed Ken Whisenhunt after throwing him out of the club.
The Titans' offense is already a meme with Mularkey at head coach. The "exotic smash mouth" style he's touting has been suffused with negative light. No one knows what it entails at the moment. My guess is the Titans will run multiple types of run plays out of various heavy packages. Counter, trap, inside zone, outside zone, and maybe some zone read. Oddly enough, that is one of the problems that plagued the Titans' offensive line in previous seasons. They ran too many plays and couldn't find success with any of them. Too often they missed blocks because of assignment errors, and the offensive linemen are fit to run certain types of plays, not every single one (see Warmack, Chance). If this is what exotic means, it's going to be more of the same for Tennessee.
But don't tell Mularkey that. In an article by Kevin Clark on Mariota and the Titans, Mularkey had the following to say discussing his offense.
"I’m going to do the things that I’ve had success with since 2001, and I will continue to do that until someone stops us."
This is coming from a dude with a record of 18-30, who hasn't had a winning season as a head coach since 2004, and who hasn't run an offense with a positive DVOA since 2011. I'm pretty sure Mike Mularkey has been stopped plenty of times.
Yet here we are. After the Mularkey hire, the rest of the offseason fell in place with a singular vision: get bigger, meaner, tougher, and stronger so Tennessee can play this style of football. The most monumental move the Titans made was trading the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft to the Rams. They picked up two 2016 second round picks, a 2016 third, and 2017 first and third round selections in the deal. Then, on draft day, the Titans traded back up to eight to select Jack Conklin, a run-first offensive tackle from Michigan State.
Improving on the offensive line was necessary, just like it was back in 2013 when the team drafted Chance Warmack and signed Andy Levitre. For the last three seasons, the Titans have tried to put together an offensive line like San Fransisco had, or like what Dallas currently has, only to mold an expensive line that has never played to its potential. This season, they will have three former first round picks in Warmack, Conklin, and Taylor Lewan. These three will be paired with newly signed Ben Jones and probably 2015 third round pick Jeremiah Poutasi. Their OL should look something like this:
The conundrum is that the Titans' offensive line wasn't good last year. It's not like Conklin and Jones are going to be the guys to transform this line or resuscitate them back to some greater glory. Last season, the Titans were last in the league in adjusted sack rate (9.6%). According to the 2016 Football Outsiders Almanac, the Titans' line was credited with giving 27 sacks, the most in the league. This was in spite of the fact that Mariota can play with pressure, release the ball quickly, and rapidly flick through reads. The sacks were all on the offensive line.
Lewan has the physical tools of a top ten offensive tackle, but his game is littered with technical errors and he still doesn't know who to block. Poutasi was the worst pass blocking tackle in the league, but he does have run blocking ability that's better suited for guard, so moving inside will hide his pass blocking woes some. Jones is as mediocre as it gets. Warmack is large; he has no redeeming qualities other than that. And Conklin, as mentioned earlier, is known for his ability as a run blocker.
One of the main ideas guiding Mularkey's philosophy is that by running the ball, they can protect Mariota, who missed four games last year with MCL injuries. What they needed was pass blocking to protect him, yet they didn't add anyone who's an above average pass blocker. The offensive line that was down at the bottom will probably be rolling around down there again next year, unless potential transforms into tangible results.
That being said, this should be a better run blocking team. Jones is an upgrade over Andy Galik. Poutasi is better than both Byron Bell and Quinton Spain. Conklin is better than Jamon Meredith. To add to those changes on the line, Tennessee spent resources on running backs.
In the spring, Tennessee swapped fourth round picks with Philadelphia and took DeMarco Murray off the Eagles' hands. Then in the draft, they selected Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry with a second round pick.
I really like Murray in Tennessee. Philadelphia ran an offense that didn't match his skill-set. He was running horizontal on outside zone plays and zone reads. He was spending too much time trying to get outside the tackles and into space. This works with elusive backs like LeSean McCoy, who flourished his first year in Chip Kelly's offense. That's the exact opposite of what Murray is good at. He's a guy who bursts through the hole and runs vertically.
In his last year in Dallas, Murry ran downhill and in between tackles for his career, OMG year. He had a run DVOA of 14.8% (5th), his DYAR was 382 (1st), and he gained 1,845 yards on 392 carries, which is good for 4.7 yards a carry. This wasn't entirely because of the offensive line, either. Murray was third in the league with 51 broken tackles and accentuated what the best line in the league did. They worked in unison to dismantle run defenses.
The difference between 2014 and 2015 wasn't because of workload or Murray not being able to break tackles anymore. It was because the scheme didn't match his strengths.
|2014 (DAL)||2015 (PHI)|
|Att||Yds||Y/A||TD||1st Downs||Att||Yds||Y/A||TD||1st Downs|
This is seen in the chart above. No matter where Murray ran in Dallas, he had success--outside, behind the tackles, and up the middle. The key is that the majority of his runs came inside. 173 of his carries were marked as between the tackles and 151 were behind the tackles. In Philadelphia, 40.1% of his carries were outside. In Dallas, it was 20.97%. When he did run outside in Dallas, it came on the occasional toss and runs he decided to bounce outside. In Kelly's hasty stretch offense, filled with runs designed outside, Murray gained just 2.96 yards a carry outside the tackles and 2.42 yards a carry behind them. Yet inside the tackles, Murray averaged only a bit below what he did in Dallas. He was still effective on inside runs.
This is why I like Murray in Tennessee. Last year in Philadelphia, amidst all the drama, he still ran the ball really well when he did what he does best--attack and run downhill. Playing in Philly was like a pair of dentures in the bottom of a urinal for Murray. In Tennessee, he will play in an offense that matches his strengths again.
With Henry, the Titans are getting someone with a similar skill-set. Henry is an inside runner who has great strength and vision. When the Titans run the ball, which they will try to do a lot, it will be between the tackles. Even though I dislike the pick, it will help take the pressure of Murray. DeMarco won't be running the ball 392 times this year. Together, these two are going to have to be the ones to protect Mariota since the offensive line won't be able to.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee upgraded their front seven. They used a second round pick on Austin Johnson out of Penn State to anchor the core of the 3-4, and another second on Kevin Dodd to play defensive end, especially on pass rushing downs. These two will be added to a team that allowed 3.91 yards a carry and had a DVOA of -4.5% (24th) when stopping the run. Those two stats aren't good enough for this style of play.
The front seven should improve this season in stopping the run. Jurrell Casey should be able to face more single blocks and maneuver freely with Johnson constipating the center of the line like a cheese pizza. Daquan Jones improved last year and has turned into a viable player at the defensive end position, and Karl Klug is a fine rotational run stopper.
The problems are at linebacker. Brian Orakpo was great against the pass, bad against the run last year, and at age 30, he's not getting better at something he's never been good at. Wesley Woodyard is better against the pass than the run. The other inside linebacker position is a competition between replacement level players. It should be better, but the linebackers will hamper Tennessee from being above average in this facet of the game.
All of the moves the Titans made were fine and dandy for this style of football. They have a run blocking offensive line. They have two backs who can trample through the tackles. Their front seven should be better against the run. There are two enormous problems. Two HUGE problems, both of which will combine to prevent Tennessee from playing the style of football they put all of their resources into building this offseason.
The first, and biggest complication, is Tennessee's secondary. Last season, their secondary was a mesh net used to collect water. Coty Sensabaugh, Michael Griffin--Sensabaugh and Griffin are both gone--Da'Norris Searcy, and Perrish Cox didn't make plays on the ball and spent the season chasing after wide receivers. Tennessee had a pass defense DVOA of 17.7% (24th). They ranked 24th at covering WR1s, 27th at covering WR2s,, 25th at covering other WRs, and 24th at covering tight ends. Their secondary didn't do anything well.
This occurred while playing behind a good pass rush. Orakpo and Casey combined for 14 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 31 hurries. Derrick Morgan played well too when he was healthy; for the first time in his career, Morgan was a successful edge rusher. With Ray Horton at defensive coordinator, the Titans blitzed five men 33.3% of the time, most in the league, and six plus 10.8% of the time (6th). By blitzing five and attacking in passing downs, the Titans had an adjusted sack rate of 7.8% (3rd) and sacked the quarterback 39 times. This is the reason why their pass DVOA finished 24th and not 30th.
The problem was the secondary couldn't hold up their end of the bargain. The Titans couldn't play man coverage behind their blitz schemes. As a result, Tennessee fell behind early and often. Last season, the offense ran just 220 plays with a lead, which finished 26th in the league. More shocking: they played 8 games without ever having the lead.
To improve their secondary, they added Antwon Blake, Rashad Johnson and Brice McCain. None of these guys are impact players. Johnson and Blake are mediocre. McCain is terrible and will probably play the slot. The pass coverage is going to be horrid again. I mean, their best defensive back is Da'Norris Searcy.
The pass defense looks to be more of the same. A good pass rush that gets to the passer in splotches and a scorched secondary. Because of this secondary, I can't see the Titans playing the game they want to play. Tennessee is going to fall behind in most games. As a result, they won't be able to run the ball 40 times and grind the clock down. All of the resources they spent on running backs and the offensive line will be for naught because they will be spending their second halves throwing to catch up.
Second, they won't be able to throw the deep ball. Last season, 78% of Mariota's throws were marked as medium or short. Only 22% of his passes were thrown over 15 yards. When he did toss it farther down field, he was about the 24th best quarterback in the league.
|Total (Min 40 Att)
He couldn't toss it down either sideline where the throws are longer and demand greater arm strength. On throws towards the sideline, he completed just 20 of his 64 attempts. Mariota didn't have success with any of his receivers: Dorial Green-Beckham caught 8 out of 24 passes, Harry Douglas 3 out of 17, Kendall Wright 2 out of 13, Delanie Walker 5 out of 14, and Justin Hunter 3 out of 5. When Mariota threw to the sideline, it was a disaster no matter what.
Mariota did have success on closer throws down the middle, but he still only attempted fourteen throws in that direction and averaged just 1.1 more yards per attempt than the minimum to classify it as deep. He found success here throwing to Walker and Green-Beckham. Walker caught three passes, all for touchdowns. Green-Beckham grabbed all of five of his attempts for 133 yards and one touchdown.
With an offense this run heavy, you have to throw the ball down the field. Mariota lacks the skill to do this. It's going to take more time throwing around heavy weights while listening to the new PUP album for this to happen. Before that can happen, if it ever does happen, the Titans needed to complement his weakness. What did they do? Nothing. They subtracted.
Dorial Green Beckham was the only receiver Mariota had any success with deep. He was traded for a sixth offensive lineman so Tennessee could run even more heavy sets. Now, DGB wasn't good last year. He was tall, strong, and fast in a straight line, but he couldn't run routes and had a catch rate of only 46%. Still, teams had to watch him when he ran posts or fades down the field, and Mariota actually threw deep passes to him. That's attention no other receiver on this team could draw.
This year, there is no one that scares you deep or can leap up to help Mariota on deep throws. Walker is only helpful deep in the middle of the field. Up to this point of his career, new addition Rishard Matthews has just been a short to medium receiver. Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright are still waiting to break out; it's 2016, and some things just don't ever happen no matter how badly you want them to. Harry Douglas is old enough for William Hayes to think he doesn't exist. There's no one here to act as a medieval rack to stretch defenses apart.
This was a critical error by Tennessee. The Titans' offense is going to operate in a fifteen yard box. The safeties are going to play close. The corners are going to play tight. Defenders are going to creep up, and Tennessee will face even more than than the 6.38 defenders in the box they faced last year. The run game will be claustrophobic. When they throw the short to medium routes Mariota is best at, the windows are going to be tight, and the margins are going to be small. These limitations, plus frequently playing at a deficit, is going to prevent Tennessee from running the offense they built this offseason.
Last weekend, I went to a diner at four in the morning with a friend. We shared an order of fried mushrooms and gravy. As I was eating, there was a strange and repulsive burnt taste in my mouth that ruined my tongue for a millisecond after every bite. It was late, I didn't care, and I didn't want to bother a waiter who already had a massacred carpet to clean up. After we finished eating, I asked my friend, "Did something taste like cigarettes?" while we waited for the check. Now, neither of us had any Marlboro Reds, yet that full cowboy killer flavor dominated the entire meal. He replied with a snort and a yes. The gravy was the only communal substance left, so I scooped some up with my thumb. Sure enough, there it was--the taste of cremated cigarettes and spongy brown butts.
The Titans' offseason looked to be all gravy. The front office and coaching staff conjured up a vision and a playing style. They went to pick up personnel to match it. They upgraded at running back, added another first round pick to the offensive line, and improved theiir front seven. It all seemed like a cohesive plan. When combined with a talented young quarterback, it could lead to eight wins this year and set up a stable organization moving forward.
After further review, the secondary and the lack of fit with Mariota are two gaping holes in this plan. Cigarette ash masked as pepper ruined this gelatinous mash of an offseason. It's going to take more than a year and an expansion on the steps they took this offseason to create the formidable football team from earlier this century they so badly desire.
Prediction: 5-11, 4th in the AFC South.