Granted, most teams never do. Jacksonville could plead their case the last few seasons when it comes to dealing with unrealistic expectations.
I'm a long time fan of the Titans, and what we saw last week against Oakland was what fans refer to as, "same ol' Titans." The talented is there on the roster, and there's no obvious QB issue, but the team under performs as fans have come to expect. I picked Oakland to beat us at home this week because despite the mountain of offseason hype the Titans received from the NFL Network, we're in year two of a three year rebuild. Everyone around the organization knows it, and so do the fans, for the most part. That isn't to say that a playoff berth, a division title, and even a playoff win or two aren't possible. Tennessee has a franchise quarterback, an elite offensive line, and a gameplan that covered up major holes on a weekly basis in 2016. Some of those holes have even been addressed.
There's reason for hope of a division crown, just not much. First round picks Corey Davis and Adoree Jackson were nothing short of phenomenal in week one. Marcus Mariota is healthy and mobile, and his two long runs proved that. Delanie Walker isn't showing age. Second year tackle and All-pro Jack Conklin held Khalil Mack without a sack, and the entire Raiders defense sacked Mariota only once, a rare feat. Most importantly, the division is imploding. Indianapolis' season is as far into the trash can as any team can be after week one. Houston benched their starting QB and was nearly shut out by the Jaguars, injuring an underwhelming JJ Watt in the process. Jacksonville will host Tennessee next week, and I fully expect we will expose them. If we don't, then the rest of this column is going to be even more on point than I expected.
Areas of concern:
It's the elephant in the room. Flashy additions in the draft and free agency make it seem like a resolved issue, but it clearly isn't. Adoree Jackson's promise notwithstanding, you need more than two corners worth a damn to hold an offense under 30 points, and the Titans have maybe one - Logan Ryan. And Ryan isn't exactly a world beater. Everyone hopes that Kevin Byard keeps building on a promising rookie year, but he's still a below average starter at this point in his career, and the strong safety spot is a complete disaster. Jon Cyprien had a miserable debut against Oakland before injuring his hamstring. He'll miss several weeks at least. In that time, DaNorris Searcy will be forced back into action, making the Titans safety group the same as it was in 2016 - dreadful. With Ryan and Jackson in place, there's reason to believe that the Titans have addressed the long term need at corner, and Kevin Byard could be a star one day. All of this is why I emphasize that Tennessee is still a year away from contention, and it's so easy to conflate that with being an immediate contender just by taking a glance at the roster. I would highly encourage betting against my team in close outings this year, or against teams with efficient passing games like Oakland.
The Running game:
Really. After the Titans were third in the league on the ground in 2016, there's reason to hit the panic button. Marcus Mariota was the leading rusher against Oakland going into the fourth quarter, and Murray redeemed himself with one meaningless scamper after the game went into garbage time. All in all, the team didn't have the smashmouth that made "exotic smashmouth" a hit in 2016. Sweeps to rookie receiver Taywan Taylor and power RPO's aimed at pass rushers look unbeatable, but if Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry (or perhaps just the later) can't get it going between the best tackles in the NFL, the exotic factor won't last.
The Front Seven:
It's not good when your secondary and your front seven are an area of concern. Overall, the group did a good job against Oakland considering they were dealing with a fresh Marshawn Lynch and some decent spell backs, in addition to a fantastic offensive line. Still, you have to wonder if it wasn't already bursting at the seams. Jurrell Casey was run over by Lynch twice in key situations. Wesley Woodyard missed a gamechanging tackle-for-loss chance on fourth down against Lynch (Cyprien was at fault as well). Avery Williamson barely saw the field, and clearly isn't developing beyond his run defender role, and rookie Jayon Brown is promising, but is clearly being rushed into a role he's not ready for instead of being given a fair shot on passing downs. As usual, the Titans are relying on Casey to carry the lineman group and Dick LeBeau is willing to blitz any player at any time, so it barely matters. Add to that the excellent play of Derrick Morgan against Oakland, and you have a solid pass rush. Can that pass rush make up for a secondary in shambles and a linebacking group that can't tackle, cover, or pursue? The game against Oakland makes me think they won't hold up all year.
Asking Mariota to do too much:
Mariota faced four third-and-long situations on the Titans opening drive. He completed the first three to receivers in coverage, and on the fourth, he ran for a touchdown. Later in the game, he scrambeled for a full 10 seconds in the red zone before stepping out of bounds to avoid a turnover. The Titans can't run on first down or get separation on most passing plays, and they're asking Mariota to bail them out. Amazingly, he did it time after time last week, but he's only human. If you want to see what dependence on a young star QB looks like, I present you the 2017 Colts. If we look like that in two years, it's going to be disappointing.
The bottom line is that even if the Titans pull off upset wins like they did last year and sniff the playoffs, they're not playing like a contending team this year, and I don't think they will. Watch out in 2018, Tennessee is coming.