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Evaluating Jeff Fisher’s performance as Tennessee Titans head coach

The Titans entered the offseason with two particularly big questions to answer, one at the quarterback position and one at head coach.  We got an answer at the quarterback position yesterday, when owner Bud Adams announced Vince Young would not return in 2011.  The way the battle was normally portrayed, it was a question of bringing back either Vince Young or Jeff Fisher.  Adams’ statement, though, included the following language:

“I also informed Jeff (Fisher) today that I was continuing the evaluation of the coaching staff and I am hoping to make a decision soon.” 

Is Jeff Fisher’s job safe now that the Titans are making a change at quarterback?  Should it be? The latest reports are that Fisher himself is probably safe, but that some of his staff is not.  As to whether or not this would be a good thing, I think it would be useful to compare how the Titans’ results have fared to preseason expectations for the last six seasons and why they’ve departed.

Vegas Expectation: 7.0 Wins
Tom’s Expectation: 5-11
Actual Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 4.9
DVOA: -23.2% (29th)

Starting off, a brief explanation as to what I’m looking at.  The “Vegas Expectation” is the betting over/under for the Titans’ record for that year.  My source for this is the relevant column of Scramble for the Ball at Football Outsiders, but if somebody else has a reliable source of Over/Unders for the Titans that conflicts with that, I can use those.  “Tom’s Expectation” is how good I expected the team to be; obviously, I’m a biased observer and will sometimes be badly wrong, but I’m trying to establish a realistic-to-pessimistic baseline.  “Actual Record” is what you’d think it is.  “Pythagorean Record” is how many games you would expect the Titans to win based on how many points they give up and score; teams that win a lot of close games and get blown out in losses will be lower rated by this metric.  DVOA is the main Football Outsiders metric.

2005 was kind of a lost year; I was very surprised the Vegas over/under was as high as it was.  The wideouts were Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico (when actually available) plus a bunch of rookies.  The defense had been hit by the cap purge as well, and the corners ended up being rookies Reynaldo Hill and Pacman Jones (eventually) and Andre Woolfolk.  The Titans were bad; they went 1-5 in close (one-score) games, and didn’t beat a team better than the 6-10 Ravens.  Simply put, this was a year to be endured.

Vegas Expectation: 5.5 Wins
Tom’s Expectation: 6-10
Actual Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 6.0
DVOA: -9.6% (22nd) 

This is a tough year to evaluate.  The Titans lost three games by 30+ points, which normally indicates a team that’s absolutely abonimable.  They went 7-4 in close games, and there were two players in particular who produced a lot of big plays that helped the Titans win: Pacman Jones and Vince Young. Personally, I think Jeff Fisher did an excellent job this year of bringing Young into an offense where he could be comfortable quickly and keeping together a team that after a bad start could simply have folded and given up on the year.

Vegas Expectation: 6.5 Wins
Tom’s Expectation: 6-10
Actual Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 8.1
DVOA: 9.5% (11th)

If VY and Pacman were 2006’s heroes, 2007’s hero was Albert Haynesworth.  The Titans had the top defense in DVOA overall, but were #1 with a bullet in the games Albert played and one of the ten worst in the games he didn’t play.  Fisher’s coaching job here was absolutely marvelous, taking a bad and severely limited team to double-digit wins and a playoff berth.  The Titans lost to the Chargers in the first round of the playoffs, but the Chargers were a much better team.

Vegas Expectation: 8.0 Wins
Tom’s Expectation: infamously 8-8
Actual Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 12.1
DVOA: 26.9% (5th)

It’s not often you see a team outperform its over/under expectation by a full 5.0 games, but the Titans managed it this year.  The defense played at its regular 2007 level for pretty much the entire year, Kerry Collins proved a much more reliable quarterback than Vince Young was in 2007, and Chris Johnson added a much-needed element of explosiveness to the offense.  Then, of course, there was that playoff disappointment.

Vegas Expectation: 9.0 Wins
Tom’s Expectation: 10-6
Actual Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 6.8
DVOA: -6.4% (22nd)

Pythagorean wins and DVOA are both greatly affected by magnitude of the 59-0 loss to the Patriots; if you cap that at a “mere” 31-0, the Titans’ Pythagorean win total jumps to 7.5.  I wrote about this season in good detail for FOA2010, but part of my issue with this season is it comes off as much more “narrative” than it truly was.  The narrative, of course, is Kerry Collins starts, the Titans go 0-6, then Vince Young comes in and the Titans go 8-2.

There’s obviously a reasonable amount of truth to this period, in that what I wrote was strictly factual.  I believe, though, that it’s misleading.  As I wrote during the streak, though, Kerry’s play didn’t deserve the level of blame it took.  The Titans also changed their offensive philosophy after the first 6 games, choosing to rely much more heavily on Chris Johnson’s legs as the primary driver of the offense.  The Titans were also lucky in close games the last 10 after being unlucky the first half, going 5-0 after starting 0-3.  The Titans could easily have been 2-4 after the first six games and 6-4 in the last 10, simply by having, say, Rob Bironas make the kick in the Steelers game and miss it in the second Texans game, and Collins recovering his fumble at the end of the first Texans game and having one of the three fourth-down conversions in the Cardinals game fail for whatever reason.   These plays wouldn’t have changed just how good the Titans as a team were, but would have destroyed the narrative.

The failures that drove this disappointing season were, in my view, more managerial than coaching-related.  The Titans made a similar mistake to the one they made in 2004, hoping to squeeze another year out of declining veterans and hoping rookies would play well and provide depth in some areas where it was much-needed, only to have it blow up in their face.   This was most evident in the early season secondary injuries that were one of the main drivers of the disastrous games 4-6 that effectively killed the season, but the Titans’ season-long problems with tight ends and running backs were also evidence of the problem.

Vegas Expectation: 8.5 Wins
Tom’s Expectation: 8-8
Actual Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 8.5
DVOA: 8.0% (11th)

This will be a difficult season to summarize, in part because I haven’t given you some of the evidence I’ve accumulated.  There were, in my view, three major factors that drove what happened:

  • First, Vince Young was the Titans’ best quarterback and generally gave them the best chance to win.  When he played, the Titans were much better-positioned to win the game.
  • Second, the most effective part of the Titans’ passing game was deep balls to Kenny Britt.  When Britt played, the Titans had a downfield threat and the offense was better.  When he didn’t, they didn’t.  Britt played in 12 games and missed good-sized chunks of two others (SD, @IND).  In the 10 games he played all of, the Titans were 6-4.  In the 6 he didn’t, the Titans were 0-6.
  • Third, the defense was good at the beginning of the season and was, well, not, at the end.  As FO colleague Bill Barnwell wrote, the pass defense was second over the first eight games and twenty-eighth best over the final eight games.  I’ll be writing more about that in a future post.

 Injuries are, to a certain extent, inevitable and unavoidable.  Virtually any team that loses any but the worst starting quarterback will see their fortunes decline.  The bad part of the Kenny  Britt injury is the Titans really only had two above-average offensive skill-position players, and Chris Johnson had a bad year (another topic for future postings) and has never been a factor in the passing game.

2010 was, however, the second straight year the Titans underachieved their preseason expectation by at least a game.  That the Titans have had 3 five-game losing streaks is, I believe, misleading, especially when you don’t also point out the Titans also had 8 five-game winning streaks over the game period (ok, 6 of those are the 10-game winning streak in 2008).  The streaks point to the narrativity of how the seasons unfolded, but in my view speak less to a failure of coaching than to persistent flaws in team construction.

Those persistent flaws in team construction go back to one of my biggest fears when Fisher won his power struggle with Floyd Reese.  Whatever the merits of Reese v. Fisher, Reese provided what I saw as a much-needed check on Fisher, in terms of both perspective of how teams win and general obstinacy in terms of decision-making.  Fisher tends to be nothing if not loyal, and this loyalty sometimes costs him.  The best executives are ruthless in disposing of players when they’re ready to go, and Fisher does not excel in this category.  For him to save his job, he needs to give back some of that executive power, he won.

Fisher’s loyalty is also apparently being tested right now.  The defense tailed off badly after a great start, and failed to make good in-game adjustments or from game-to-game, and for the second straight year.  Coincidentally or not, 2010 was Chuck Cecil’s second year as defensive coordinator of the Titans.   If you are looking for a staffing change for the Titans, THAT is where you need to start.

Of course, Jeff Fisher doesn’t have to relinquish some of the front office and personnel authority he acquired in 2007, and he very likely contractually does have authority over his staff.  In that case, if he does refuse to let somebody else make decisions and fire his underperforming defensive coordinator like his friend Mike Shanahan did in 2008, he too should be given the chance to find other employment. And you know what, I’m quite alright with that idea.