New coach, higher expectations for Titans after playoff run
By TERESA M. WALKER
Aug. 29, 2018
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans won their first playoff game in 14 years in a thrilling rally from 18 points down on the road.
Then they fired coach Mike Mularkey once the postseason run ended in an ugly rout.
Yes, expectations are very high in Tennessee where consecutive 9-7 seasons with Marcus Mariota just didn't cut it, not with an offense that didn't get the most out of the young quarterback.
Now the Titans have first-year head coach Mike Vrabel with his three Super Bowl rings as a linebacker in New England in charge of a roster that needed only a little tinkering in the offseason.
"Now we've just got to pick up where we left off," linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "It's not a rebuilding stage, we just reloaded essentially."
This is the 20th season for this franchise since dropping the Oilers' nickname for the Titans, and they capped that debut season with a run to their lone Super Bowl appearance in Atlanta. The Titans unveiled redesigned uniforms in April and are hoping for another trip to Atlanta — site of this season's Super Bowl.
Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker said they have plenty of motivation from how their last playoff berth ended in a 34-14 loss to New England .
"It didn't sit well with me," Walker said. "I think everybody in that locker room felt the same way. I worked as hard as I could this offseason."
Some things to know about the Titans, who open the season Sept. 9 at Miami:
FIRST-TIME COACH: For so many years, Vrabel was seen as a sure winner once he became an NFL head coach.
Now the man who played 14 seasons and was an assistant coach for four more will be making all the big decisions on his own. Vrabel has tried to prepare himself by watching tape from games over the past decade to decide what he would do in specific situations. Everything from tossing a challenge flag to deciding whether to go for it on fourth down will be a first for Vrabel this season, with fans and critics watching closely.
"My playing career is going to help us win zero games," Vrabel said.
MARIOTA TIME : The Titans already have picked up the fifth-year option on Mariota, and that $20.9 million for 2019 could prove a great deal if offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur's offense helps the quarterback look like the Heisman Trophy winner he was at Oregon. Mariota is going to get to run and throw more in an offense the Los Angeles Rams used to lead the NFL in scoring last season. Mariota is coming off his worst season, having thrown more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13). But he enjoyed a rehab-free offseason and looks faster playing without a knee brace.
DEFENSIVE CHANGES: Legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau is gone, replaced by another longtime success in Dean Pees. The Titans did so much right under LeBeau, ranking fourth against the run and tied for fifth in sacks.
But they were 17th in points allowed and 25th in yards passing given up. That's why general manager Jon Robinson signed cornerback Malcolm Butler and drafted linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry to shore up remaining holes.
YOUNG RECEIVERS: This position easily is the biggest question for the Titans. Veteran Rishard Matthews missed the entire offseason and the preseason with an undisclosed injury. Corey Davis is expected to be the top guy; the fifth pick overall in 2017, he didn't catch his first touchdown pass until the playoff loss in New England — against Butler. After Davis, there are young and unproven receivers in Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharp. That makes Walker so valuable with his 356 catches since 2013, most by any tight end.
NEW BACKFIELD DUO: The Titans released DeMarco Murray in March , and it's now time for Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, to show his skills after leading the team in rushing last season despite only two starts. They also signed Dion Lewis to a four-year deal to give Mariota another dangerous receiving threat and a change-up to the powerful Henry .
TOUGH START: Five of their first eight games are on the road, including the franchise's first trip to London to play the Chargers on Oct. 21. The first month isn't kind, with Houston and the defending champion Eagles visiting, along with a trip to Jacksonville. If the Titans survive, four of the final five games are in Nashville, where they went 6-2 last season.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker