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When an Elite Coach is Not Enough

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After the first week of NFL action, it’s my favorite time of the season - overreactions and hot takes.

Aaron Rodgers is washed. The Rams are one hit wonders. Carson Wentz is back. Kyler Murray should stick to e-sports. The Giants are back. And the Titans suck.

How much of what we see in Week 1 is a true reflection of these NFL teams? After all, plenty of starters sat out the preseason entirely, leading many people - usually the ones who watched their team get crushed - to call it “preseason week 4.”

It’s probably not far off, though, to think of it in that way. Last season, the eventual #1 seed in the AFC was brutally handed their asses in the first game of the season only to rip off wins against 5 of the other 6 AFC Playoff teams. But at what point do we look at a team and determine that they are not enough? What defines success in the NFL? When does patience for an NFL head coach run out?

The Titans made the surprising switch from Mike Mularkey to Mike Vrabel in 2018, following the first taste of success in the playoffs in over a decade. It ultimately proved to be the right call as Vrabel has lead the team to continued and improving success year after year. However, questionable personnel calls and head-scratching losses to inferior opponents has lead many, myself included, to question the reigning Coach of the Year.

This idea of a philosophical issue is not a new one: run- run- pass, wasted elite WR talent, and outdated efficiency models have all been complaints about this team from media pundits for years, but recently even fans of the team have grown tired of this predictable and stubborn model of offense.

At the height of Tennessee’s offensive success, the team was running heavy doses of play action, preceded by some motion, chucking it deep to AJ Brown while defenses key on King Henry. This level of efficiency scared defenses enough that defensive backs couldn’t walk up to the box every play, allowing the King to do what he does best.

“Run the damn ball” is a fun phrase to put on a hat. But it isn’t much use when that’s the only thing this team does and not even well. Efficiency has never been Henry’s forte, it’s been highlight reels and big plays, enough to work magic with a passing game that actually was performing at high efficiency. The talent on the field was enough to beat a predictable, but effective, scheme.

Now the Titans have neither the talent on the field nor the effective play calling. It’s worrying when TE3 has the 2nd highest snap count on the entire team (69% - not nice) while the athletic rookies and newly signed vets get very little field time in critical situations. Why is WR4-5 on the field with TE3 in the endzone for one last chance at a winning score? Why are the athletic route runners and pass catchers not getting looks?

So what’s the issue? Do we blame Todd Downing for this? Or does Vrabel get the Mularkey treatment at some point during or after the season?

I think it’s fair to say that Vrabel is an elite coach. He is called a “leader of men” and took the most injured team in NFL history to the 1 seed in the AFC. He knows the rules inside and out, pulling the most Belichikian move against Belichick in the Wildcard round. But why does the offense sputter when the team should be marching down the field? Why are the most talented players off the field in critical situations? Why was AJ Brown traded?

Good teams get the ball to their best players. This team doesn’t even have their best players on the field.

As Head Coach, Vrabel has the ultimate call over these kinds of decisions and his comments on the week following the Week 1 loss shows that he doesn’t believe certain players are more valuable than others. I’m not saying he deserves to be fired right now, but Byron Leftwich might look good in two tone blue.

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