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On the Tennessee Titans’ 2012 season

So, it has come to this. The time before the season when your author attempts to come to grips with the slate of games that matters that is about to be and divines how the Titans might fare against said slate. Your author has a great deal of pride in his understanding of the Titans, but this didn’t aid his cause last season. Last season, he saw a defensive scheme that didn’t try to fix the problems that plagued the Titans the second half of 2010 and foresaw a bad season, calling 7-9 about the best he’d hope for. He was, of course, wrong, as the Titans went 9-7.

This failed prognostication was, alas, nothing new, but the latest installment in an annual tradition. In 2010, he called for the Titans to go 8-8, a prediction that looked first a touch under-optimistic before a second-half collapse sunk the Titans to 6-10. 2009 lacked a similar preview post, but he was similarly over-optimistic, expecting over 9.0 wins, though the final result of 8-8 was in line with his range of 7-9 to 13-3 (and matched his prediction when the Titans were 0-4). Perhaps the absence of a real prediction post was due to his gross failure in 2008, calling for the Titans to win no more than 10 games, a prediction so gloriously wrong it took him all of five games to recant. So, if you want to just ignore what I say in this post, that’s fine with me.

My pessimism last year was primarily related to the defense, and it did drop off, going to 15th in the league after finishing 8th the year before by Football Outsiders metrics. That’s a bit misleading, though; as I’ve written about before, the Titans really had two defenses in 2010. The first was the first half of the season, when the Titans got pressure, and was one of the league’s best. The second came the second half of the season, when the Titans didn’t get pressure, particularly interior pressure, saw few sacks, and were one of the league’s worst. I saw the Titans not getting pressure again and saw a pass defense that would continue to struggle.

That prediction was sort of right; the Titans were awful at rushing the passer, even worse than they were the second half of 2010, and the pass defense was on the whole worse than it was in 2010. It wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, though, coming out as merely below average rather than terrible. Credit for that goes primarily in my view to Jerry Gray. Now, Gray’s not my favorite person in the world, thanks to his willingness to talk turkey and his stated preference for measuring the run defense by rushing yards allowed, which led me to declare I’d like to staple a copy of the Establishment Clause article to his forehead. The Titans ended up with an above-average run defense, still, but it was worse than it was in 2010. On par, the defense was roughly average, better than I thought it would be.

Offensively, the Titans ended up the season pretty much where I thought they’d be. By Football Outsiders numbers, they came out a hair above average, though they only ranked 20th thanks to more particularly bad than particularly good offenses. That was a slight, but not particularly meaningful downgrade from where the offense came out the previous three seasons. Then again, it makes about as much sense to think of last year as a unified whole offensively as it does to think of 2010 as a unified whole defensively.

I covered this during the tight ends positional analysis, but this is probably the most important thing I’ve written about the Titans offense this offseason so it’s worth covering again in detail. It would be an exaggeration, but not too much of one, to say the Titans basically ran two offenses last year. The more featured three wide receivers, one running back, and one tight end. That offense was pretty efficient (15.1% DVOA, as noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012) and threw the ball an overwhelming amount of the time (87%, again per FOA2012). The tight end in this offense was normally Jared Cook, so I’ll refer to this as the Jared Cook Offense

The other Titans offense featured the fullback, some of the time, and either one or two tight ends; sometimes, it was even two tight ends and a fullback in addition to the running back. This offense played about 40% of the offensive snaps, about a quarter less than the Jared Cook Offense played. On the whole, this offense was not very efficient (blended DVOA of roughly -16.1%) and much run-heavier (roughly 69% of the time) than the Jared Cook Offense. Craig Stevens was almost always on the field in this offense, so I think of this as the Craig Stevens Offense.

The person whose performance last year forms the background to some of the distinction between the Jared Cook Offense and the Craig Stevens Offense is, of course, Chris Johnson. Since I declared I was pretty much done with him, the only two posts where I think I’ve particularly concentrated on his play have been the running backs installment of my red zone series and the running back positional analysis post this preseason. With a new season beginning and the end zone angle I find almost necessary to evaluate runs coming to NFL.com’s Game Rewind, I may write in depth about Chris Johnson’s play once again.

Then again, maybe I won’t. Johnson is not the player whose performance drives the success or failure of the Titans’ offense. Even in 2009’s 8-2 stretch, the line between winning and losing was drawn between the better passing performances and the worse passing performances. By 2010 it was clear to me that the Titans’ offensive success was driven more by Kenny Britt than by CJ. Britt was, of course, phenomenal in the brief period of time was he on the field in 2011. Coming off the ACL injury, though, my expectations are much more muted, especially for the first half of the season. While he was activated off PUP, he doesn’t seem to be fullly healthy. When in the lineup the past two years, he’s been targeted as often as any receiver in all of football. I expect him to play as much as his health-adjusted abilities permit, but am not expecting quite the same level of efficiency he showed last year.

Of course, Kenny Britt isn’t the player whose performance will do the most to drive the success or failure of the Titans’ offense in 2012. That will instead be quarterback Jake Locker. I haven’t tried to hide my thoughts about Locker, namely that I don’t think he’s good enough right now to be as good an NFL starter as the Titans need him to be to have a successful offense. I would describe the choice to start him as risky, but The Powers That Be (and from Chris Palmer’s statements, the decision to start Locker seems to have been made by some combination of Mike Munchak and Ruston Webster, and possibly Mike Reinfeldt) are rarely criticized for choosing to play a young player who’s shown flashes of positive performance. I completely get where they’re coming from and see Locker’s development as a game manager, not in the conventional sense of a quarterback who takes what the defense gives him, but one able to more or less run the offense the coaching staff wants him to run.

My favorite term for Locker’s play is the Lockercoaster. As I saw it, though, roller coasters were rarely much of a good investment-a nice thrill, yes, but too often an incredibly long wait and a necessary but dull climb that preceded the payoff thrill. My concern from late last season, that Locker will struggle to play and perform consistently, remains. His trademark last year was those big plays, but those rarely came within structure and against NFL defenses playing soundly (Gregg Williams’ commitment to pressure uber alles made the Titans’ failure to hire him much more appetizing, not that I thought that more highly of Chuck Cecil than you did).

Locker’s inconsistency would be easier to take if the Titans had an offense around him that was capable of being consistent. Of course, consistent has never been the right way to describe Chris Johnson; even at his best, consistency was never his strong suit and at his worst, the consistency he provided was the consistency with which his performance put the Titans in second- and third-and-long situations.

Last year, Matt Hasselbeck was particularly adept at converting those third-and-long situations into first downs; overall, the Titans ranked sixth in the league in DVOA on third down on offense. Overwhelmingly, those third down conversions came in the air. As I chronicled during the season to my continuing puzzlement, the Titans were good on third down notwithstanding that they threw the ball on third-and-two or more an overwhelming majority of the time, even more overwhelmingly than they normally threw the ball while in the Jared Cook Offense that was a staple of those third-and-long situations. It used to be a mantra at Football Outsiders that third down performance was inconsistent from year-to-year, but more data suggested that particularly good third down performance seemed to be a sustainable result of quarterback play. Then again, Matt Hasselbeck is no longer the starting quarterback, which means Jake Locker is the man on third down. I’m not going to even try to read Locker’s small sample size performance last year and draw down-by-down conclusions, so I’ll simply aver I expect him to be as consistently inconsistent on third downs as I expect him to be on first and second downs.

One of the reasons I was against starting Locker early was because of the Titans’ rough slate early in the season. The counter to this was that teams like the Patriots are good because they’re particularly good offensively more than they’re good defenses. This is true, but I consider it unavailing. That is to me rather a better argument in favor of not starting Jake Locker. Hasselbeck provides a lower upside, but is still good enough that he should be able to be successful against those less fearsome defenses, especially when it comes to sustaining drives.
Sustaining drives is particularly important against those better offenses; this isn’t a profound statement, but the fewer chances a good offensive team like the Patriots has, the fewer points they’re likely to score. The fewer possessions, the greater the likelihood plays like the Saints’ two drops in the end zone on third and goal can affect the outcome of the game. Sustaining, if not particularly proficient, offense and some good play and luck on defense was the key to several Titans upsets in the surprisingly pleasant season of 2006.

The reason I refer to the decision to start Locker as risky is doing so against a slate Locker’s likely up-and-down performance is in my eyes particularly ill-suited for is risking a start like 2009’s 0-6. Unless Locker gets hurt or is unbelievably terrible (which I don’t believe he will be), he’s the starter, for good or for ill. If he’s not good enough, the season could be effectively over by the second week of October. It’s unlikely, but possible, and if that happens, all bets could be off.

More likely, though, the Titans will be just as average-ish as they’ve been the past two seasons. In 2010, the Titans faced a slightly stronger than average slate of opponents and it, plus a touch of bad luck, drove them to a 6-10 season. Last year, the Titans faced one of the easiest schedules of opponents in the league, and they ended up with three more wins despite virtually equivalent performance. This year’s slate looks to again be a formidable one. I’ve said before the Titans could be a better team than last year and go 8-8. I’m not expecting them to be better, though, just on par roughly as good as they were last year. Thus, 7-9 is my prediction for the Titans’ 2012 record. I could see better. I could see worse. But there’s my best guess for where they’ll finish.