We see it every season. From one year to the nex,t a team falls off completely in a facet of the game that derails their entire season. The biggest difference usually isn’t the loss of a star in free agency or an inability to overcome the opponent’s strategy. No, the passing of time is consistently the integral change.
Usually these teams are overrated to begin with. They were great at something unsustainable, propped up by an illusion. The 2016 Texas Rangers won 36 one-run games; they went 13-24 in one-run games the following season and won 17 less total games in 2017. The Oakland Raiders had a one possession record of 10-2 in 2016 that flipped to 4-3 in 2017, ending in a 6-10 season. The 15-1 Carolina Panthers had a +20 turnover differential; they won only six games the next season and had a turnover differential of -2.
Red zone touchdown rate is another one of these high variance stats that act as a pair of high heels for a team’s win-loss record. The year-to-year correlation is .156, and the average year to year percentage change is 47.7%. Unless you are the Green Bay Packers from 2007 to 2012, when they finished in the top ten every year, red zone touchdown rate is a yearly fluctuation. For the rest of the league, the teams without Aaron Rodgers, having a spectacular red zone offense is usually a fluke. The key to having a great NFL offense is to get in the red zone a lot. Capitalizing on opportunities at a high rate is something that works well for one season.
In 2016, the Tennessee Titans led the NFL in red zone touchdown rate. They scored a touchdown 72% of the time when the football got inside the 20 yard line. Last season the Titans scored a touchdown in the red zone 54.5% of the time. This was a mediocre 14th in the league. Tennessee’s points per red zone trip dropped from 5.7 (1st) to 4.95 (9th). This happened despite having the the same offensive scheme, the same quarterback, the same offensive line, and adding a perceived red zone receiving threat in Corey Davis, the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
This is where to start if you want to know why the Titans’ offense dropped from 14th in the NFL with 381 points scored to 19th with 334 points scored.
But why? It’s easy to say that these sort of things are unsustainable. It’s easy to see that certain statistics have high variances and teams are highly unlikely to continue to have the same incredible results year after year. But it’s an entirely different string of letters, words, and sentences to explain why this inevitable doom came to fruition.
For the Titans, the biggest reason why they fell off was their passing offense. Their red zone passing offense DVOA dropped from 94.9%, best in the league, to -14.7% (25th). Marcus Mariota saw his completion percentage drop from 59.6% to 47.8%. He threw 12 less touchdowns in the red zone and was sacked three times in 2017 compared to zero times in 2016.
Mariota became Trevor Siemian in the red zone in 2017. He held onto the ball longer. He lacked the quick recognition and precision he had during 2016’s cRaZy year, a season when Mariota anticipated open receivers, displayed perfect ball placement, and had a rapid release, allowing him to attack the shrunken red zone windows.
This was absent in 2017. It was a lot of second guessing. There were missed opportunities. Mariota’s accuracy was far less impressive.
Mariota wasn’t the master and commander of the pocket he was the previous season.
Mariota was the main reason why his performance inexplicably cratered in this segment of the field. The success simply wasn’t there. He was crappy in the red zone last season. However, it wasn’t all on the quarterback.
The Titans’ offense was less imaginative when throwing the ball in the red zone. In 2016, they crushed teams with some diabolical Rishard Matthews/Delanie Walker route combinations. They motioned all over the field. Their routes complemented one another’s. They ran route combinations with Walker from the slot and from the tight end position. It allowed Mariota to read one defender, make a quick decision, and flick the ball out.
Here, both Walker and Murray run to the right side of the defense, yanking the linebackers over in zone coverage, which allowed Matthews to cut behind on a simple slant route. Mariota reads right to left, makes a quick throw to convert, and scores.
In 2017, the routes were a lot more isolated. It was Walker getting double teamed and no one else getting open. Aside from the occasional pick play, the Titans were never able to get Corey Davis going. The bright spots were the same Matthews window fitting and Walker mismatches against linebackers, but overall, it was a sadder and more banal endeavor.
The fakes and play action passing game were also less effective. The 2016 offense moved ocean and spread the seas when DeMarco Murray accepted an imaginary hand-off or kept running without the football.
In 2016, the Titans had four red zone trips against the Dolphins. They scored touchdowns all four times. On their first touchdown, they faked the inside zone to Murray; Mariota kept it, ran to the right, and scored with two muffled defenders in front of him. The Titans had the right guard cut the 4i and the tight end pin down the defensive end so right tackle Jack Conklin could pull freely.
The key here is the playfake. The Dolphins’ linebackers snorkle off. This removes any possibility of the backside to make a play. All Conklin has to do is kind of sort of get in the way. He does. Mariota strolls in, ripping cigs.
The following season, defenses did a better job staying home. They scoffed at imaginary run attempts on 2nd and 7. They dropped in zone. They ran in man coverage. Eyes were glued to their coverage assignments, not wandering into the backfield.
The high, fluttering, throw against the grain wide open touchdowns to Walker weren’t there. Rollouts weren’t galloping. Things just weren’t the same.
It’s not because the Titans were no longer imaginative. Mike Mularkey was still wearing latex gloves, sterile, cooking things up in a sleek lab coat, and growing ears out of hot dogs. The FUN trick plays were still run. They did similar things. Things like place a tackle over on the right side, making Taylor Lewan an eligible receiver, and throwing him a microwaved potato touchdown pass.
Or turn Murray into a quarterback, where he would display better pocket presence than the majority of starting quarterbacks in the league.
In 2017, the Titans still did cool things, and these cool things were new. They ran QB zone-reads with Walker pulling as a lead blocker and wide receivers devouring cornerbacks with some incredible downfield blocks.
They picked up a quick touchdown by putting Walker in motion and giving him the jet sweep hand-off.
Their teeth were still grinding and decaying minuscule blue nubs. Exotic methmouth was still cranking. Cool little play designs were littered all over Tennessee games. Here they faked the toss to the running back and gave Murray a quick hand-off as a fullback that he took and raced to the sideline, creating an easy first and goal situation.
Mularkey was still having a party, playing football the way he wanted it to be played. The problem was Tennessee just didn’t have the same success with the zany. It’s often true that wildcard offenses work for one season and then struggle the next, once defensive coordinators get a summer to watch and find out what works to plug the holes.
The most important aspect of an offense is talent. Scheme can only overcome a lack of talent for so long. So while Lewan was catching touchdown passes and the Titans were thinking that this whole notion of being bigger and stronger than everyone in a landscape full of defenses fielding fast weaklings could revolutionize the NFL, they weren’t totally wrong. It can work. It has worked. But it would no longer be potent without Mariota completing teeth-scraping close touchdown passes. Similar tricks and plays didn’t have quite the same effect in 2017.
The one thing that stayed consistent in the red zone for the Titans was the run offense. In both 2016 and 2017, the Titans had a red zone rushing attack in the top five in the NFL. In fact, it got better in 2017. They jumped from a red zone rush offense DVOA of 27.6% (5th) to 43.9% (2nd). Their yards per carry decreased slightly from 3.42 to 3.2 yards. They scored only one less touchdown. Things were similar. How they had success in both seasons was for entirely different reasons.
In 2016, the Titans weren’t a great red zone blocking team. They had too many new players on the offensive line trying to figure things out. There were too many moving pieces, too many pullers, too many blockers, and so players blocked the same guy, the wrong guy, or let defenders fly free. The reason for Tennessee’s success was DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, Murray especially, making some spectacular runs. Some oMg runs that resulted in dropped phones when popped onto news feeds, shattering phone screens.
Murray and Henry would consistently take the hand-off, look inside, see nothing open, and bounce wide.
From there, they would dispose of defenders with stiff arms, maneuver to open spaces with cutbacks, accelerate, and then leap off a cliff to tag the pylon.
Murray could do things like run completely around the backside of the defense, with Mariota making Russell Wilson blocks to bide him just enough space to score.
It wasn’t all sublime. Sometimes the National Forest is just as spectacular as the National Park. Even in conventional inside zone runs between the tackles, Murray was bruising and busting defenders, going through multiples to put six more on the board.
Here the Titans are running counter at the goal line in an unconventional fashion. They are pulling the guard and tight end, who motions to the fullback position in a full house backfield formation. The tight end hits the outside shoulder, not the inside shoulder. This allows the linebacker to turn back into and go after the ball carrier. The hole is filled. The safety comes in to to plug the secondary route, unblocked, because you can’t block everyone. Murray doesn’t care. He mutters LOL, goes over the top of two low tackles, and topples over to score.
In 2017, the blocking was better, but the galactic runs weren’t here. Last season it became apparent that Murray hit the late 20s running back wall and had used up of all his juice. Panting. Stiff. Struggling to wake up in the morning. Urinating with his chest bent over the toilet seat, hand braced against the wall. The same rushing attacks were no longer possible.
Derrick Henry took the torch and expanded upon what he learned from Murray. These tricks worked in between the 25 yard markers, but not in the red zone. Henry struggled at trying to bounce everything outside and make it happen all on his own.
Teams caught onto this wild man running. Safeties came over into the alley and made tackles; if they didn’t, they at least forced the running back out of bounds or held on long enough for their band of hellions to arrive and flay off chunks of muscle.
This simple first and ten run stop for two yards is the perfect example. Disaster strikes Henry’s run right away. The alley defender runs right past the slot receiver’s block. Henry has nowhere to go, so he cuts back across the field. Rather than be able to continue his run wide, both Yannick Ngakoue and A.J. Bouye are sitting to contain the cutback. Henry is forced to cut back inside and into the defense and, in this case, right into safety Barry Church.
Overall, the Titans’ blocking was better. There were more open rush lanes. The interior routes led to more sustainable and successful five to seven yard gains and first down conversions. They moved the line of scrimmage. Lewan was a beast at making one-on-one blocks. Their interior double teams started checking off every box they needed to cover. All those open and unblocked defenders were now absent.
Despite that improved blocking, the Titans had a much worse red zone offense in 2017 than they did 2016. Mariota wasn’t the same passer. The route combinations were stale. The insane was less effective. Murray wasn’t able to jump cut and score on his own. The drop-off wasn’t precipitous. They were fine; they were just no longer earth-shatteringly incredible. As a result, they scored 47 less points, which amounts to 0.7 expected wins based on points they allowed. Tennessee was no longer able to do things like turn a dropped snap into a screen pass tip-toe, sideline-running touchdown.
The Titans were just mediocre. Why they were mediocre is now apparent.
Looking to the 2018 season, I’d expect Tennessee’s offense to be better yet again. Davis will have another season of grooming. There’s no way Mariota will be this horrible in 2018. Dion Lewis is here, both as a dual rushing and receiving threat inside the 20. Henry is still a leopard-clothed barbarian.
What shouldn’t be expected this year, and what should never be expected again, is for the Titans to score a touchdown in the red zone 72% of the time. Those days are gone.