Success can be defined in a multitude of ways in the NFL. For some teams, it’s simple: winning the Super Bowl marks a successful season. Not winning a Super Bowl is a failure. For others, it’s about postseason appearances, winning divisions, or just posting a winning record. To the Tennessee Titans, it may have simply been about getting out of the basement and forgetting about the previous two-win and three-win seasons.
Whether Mike Mularkey’s squad is calling 2016 a success or not in-house, a 9-7 record far exceeded preseason expectations. Before the season started, most were saying six wins would’ve been the proper mark of progression. If you would’ve told this fan base the Titans would be in contention for the AFC South title and a home playoff game in December, fans would be jumping for joy.
So, let’s revisit some of the more prominent ideas that were circulated amongst the fans and pundits alike before the season started.
‘Exotic Smashmouth’ can’t work in 2016’s NFL
The main criticism of Mularkey’s system was that it couldn’t work in today’s NFL. This, despite the fact that the Carolina Panthers had just won the NFC with a diverse, run-centric offense and a mobile quarterback the year before. That argument was countered with, “well, the Titans don’t have the personnel the Panthers have.” Sure, that, or all the critics were just flat out wrong.
‘Exotic Smashmouth’ worked, and it worked rather well. The Titans scored 30 or more points four times in 2016, including an impressive 47-point performance in victory against the Green Bay Packers. Conversely, the team scored 10 or fewer just once in 2016, compared to six times in 2015. It’s safe to say the arrow is pointing up for this offense.
Mularkey didn’t earn the job
Mularkey’s interim performance in 2015 didn’t inspire a ton of confidence moving forward. When he was announced as the full-time Titans head coach moving forward, the city of Nashville let out a collective groan. But, one thing that was discounted was Mularkey’s connection with his players. He learned from past head coaching mistakes, and appears to have turned a corner. This team is competitive with him at the helm.
Too many holes on defense
Sure, the Titans brought in DeMarco Murray, Marcus Mariota had another year to develop, the offensive line was bolstered, and some upgrades were made at receiver. But, that wasn’t going to do anything to correct the porous defense! Well, as it turned out, the defense was better than average. The Titans are still thin in the secondary, but the defensive line was phenomenal.
A lot of things went right for the Titans in 2016. The offensive line was named the best in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Jack Conklin was named to the AP’s All-Pro team. Taylor Lewan is a top three left tackle (…and yes, that is the hill I’ve chosen to die on), and the additions of Ben Jones, Josh Kline, and Dennis Kelly have proven fruitful.
At wide receiver, the Titans have a couple of dependable guys in Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe. Mariota looks like he’s capable of becoming a top five quarterback in the NFL. The run game is chugging right along.
There’s still plenty for the Titans to improve upon, however. Going into 2017, cornerback is absolutely the most crucial position of need. Some linebackers with exceptional coverage skills would be a welcome addition, and well – you can never have too many pass rushers. Delanie Walker is another year older, so maybe finding an heir at tight end should be on the team’s radar, too.
But, perhaps there’s no bigger success than that of the hiring of GM Jon Robinson, who served as architect of this team through free agency and the draft. Part of what has made New England so successful over the last decade is their ability to add depth through the draft each and every year. With no position on the field in dire need of addressing, the Titans are in such a position. That’s success – success that may weigh more than the nine wins do.
The Titans will be the trendy pick to make the AFC playoffs next season. How they respond to playing with expectations will partly determine their success in 2017, but make no mistake, this should be a team on the ascent.