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On the Tennessee Titans’ 2013 season

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. In the course of sitting down and thinking about what I wanted to say in this season preview post, one of the things I did was look back at what I wrote at this time year. Sometimes, this is a bit of a shaming experience. As I chronicled in last year's post, my thoughts about the Titans at the eve of the season have not been prophetic about the season that was about to commence. 2008 is the most notable example of this, but 2011 was nearly as bad. My prediction of 7-9 last year was not too bad, in my view, and the 6-10 call at midseason ended up being on the money.

I bring up last year's post not to brag about my prescience but because upon re-reading it for the first time in perhaps a year I was struck by how much of what I wrote then about Jake Locker I still believe after his first season as an NFL starter. I wrote then that I did not think Locker was good enough right now to be as good an NFL starter as the Titans needed him to be to have a successful offense. I further noted that Locker's inconsistency would be easier to take if the Titans had an offense around him that was capable of being consistent.

Locker was not quite as inconsistent last year as I expected him to be, but I think the basic point still holds. What the Titans did this offseason seems like a recognition that of the basic idea I expressed last year, that Locker was not good enough to command a high volume passing offense like the one Chris Palmer used the first two seasons. Rather than risking their 2013 fates on Locker's ability to do what he had not done in the past, the Titans instead obviated what might have been the Jake Locker Dilemma (to match what I termed the Kenny Britt Dilemma at wide receiver) by instead building an offense around him that was capable of being consistent. 

I have made this point before, but that is exactly why the Titans did what they did-signing Andy Levitre, even if it took a boatload of money. Acquiring Chance Warmack, even if it took the tenth pick in the draft. Paying Shonn Greene, even if it took me and many other exclaiming "They paid HOW MUCH money to Shonn Greene!?!" They added Delanie Walker, even if it took $4.4 million APY and he is an old tight end who has never had more than 30 catches in a season. I questioned at least the details of all of these moves, and while I sometimes permit myself to go a bit off the rails in my personal sandbox here, I think all of the moves can fairly be questioned in at least the details by anyone not blinded by homerism.

Nevertheless, the moves speak to a very precise plan. In my view, the only thing the Titans have done anything like consistently well the past couple seasons was Matt Hasselbeck throwing the ball in some situations in 2011. Even that season, Hasselbeck had deep fundamental limitations. He declined in 2012 and would have been an even less attractive proposition this year. I have no idea if Ruston Webster, Mike Munchak, and/or Dowell Loggains agree with me in this assessment of what the Titans did and did not do well offensively, but their moves comport with it.

What the Titans have done gives them a chance to be a consistent rushing offense. It does not guarantee it. Chris Johnson has been that inconsistent player; boom-and-bust backs who don't go boom enough and go bust too often are not very valuable; this is why Johnson has ranked as a below-average producer by Football Outsiders numbers the past three seasons. He stopped doing last year the bizarre, shocking, and awful things he did in 2011, but he was still not that effective. The Titans' experience in 2010, though, showed that the Titans can be a relatively successful offense even if Johnson is a below-average producer. Sort of. I'll rein myself in from going off on an extreme tangent not specific to the 2013 Titans here, but the Titans had a good enough offense the first half of that year because they had strengths in the passing game to complement the CJ-based ground game.

The phrase I recently came up with on the spot to describe what the Titans are asking of Jake Locker in the passing game is they're asking him to be Andy Dalton instead of Andrew Luck. In Indianapolis last year, Bruce Arians put Luck in charge of a pass-focused offense with a bad offensive line and a mix of rookies and veteran mediocrities around Reggie Wayne. Dalton, by contrast, has been heavily managed and manipulated by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden since he came into the league. The Bengals have run the ball a lot, even if Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have been just as much below-average producers as CJ.

The question then becomes whether Locker can successfully execute even in that sort of heavily managed and manipulated environment. The evidence from 2011 and 2012 in favor of the proposition is weak, both in terms of his ability to do so and what it says about his ability to do so. Chris Palmer's offense asked him to demonstrate a particular set of skills, skill quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone recognizes he does not have. Ever since Palmer was fired, Locker has talked about fewer option routes, which he seemed to consider the bane of his existence. Loggains has pushed back against that idea at times, noting that every offense has option routes, but the basic point remains. Fewer options will require Locker to do less, allowing Loggains and Ragone to manage and manipulate him more.

If things work out, managing and manipulating Locker can let him mimic the traits of high level quarterbacks without actually being a high level quarterback. We have seen this with Dalton the past couple seasons. It is very hard to have a successful passing game when you do not throw with either precise ball location or anticipation in the NFL. Locker has not yet demonstrated either of those skills. Without getting off an another unproductive tangent, what Dalton has done, and what I think the offense will allow Locker to do, is to throw with what I think of as "robotic anticipation." Based on pre-snap read X and route combination Y, I can throw to spot Z knowing that my receiver A is supposed to be there even if he has not yet beaten pass defender B. Truly top quarterbacks can do a much more dynamic form of this, but you can have a moderately productive passing offense if you can do the mimicked stuff.

What Locker has done this preseason is evidence in favor of the idea that he could actually successfully execute in this sort of managed and manipulated passing game. I'm still not sure he is throwing with anticipation, which I believe he will still need to do to execute at a high enough level for the offense to be successful, but early signs are encouraging. Sunday will be a very different ballgame, though, with both offenses and defenses doing everything they feel comfortable doing and have game-planned to stop the opponent specifically. More on the Steelers specifically later this week, though.

The bottom line is I think the Titans will be better on offense. I'm not sure just how good they will be, though. If everything goes as well as they think it can, I think they max out at a little above average. Replacing three starters on the interior of the offensive line, even if a needed move, is one that is unlikely to immediately pay as many dividends as it potentially could, given that benefits of line continuity. CJ is still a boom-and-bust back. Shonn Greene is a bad back once you get 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Between the two of them, you basically have the plot of Twins. Unfortunately, you can't combine them and just play Arnold Schwarzenegger while Danny DeVito goes to hang out with Jamie Harper and Javon Ringer.

If I were writing a conventional rather than a personal preview, I would find it incumbent to say something, much more than I have to this point, about the wide receivers. The Kenny Britt Dilemma still holds, but aside from that I do not see the precise performance of the wide receivers as a key part of whether the Titans will be successful on offense in 2013. If Locker is good enough, the wide receivers can do enough the passing game can be successful enough the offense can be successful enough (this sentence may make more sense if you read it as a series of if/thens). If Locker is not good enough, outside of perhaps the Kenny Britt Dilemma, the Titans do not have wide receivers who are good enough to be Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green or Roddy White (to a young Matt Ryan) or Steve Smith who will carry the passing offense to a reasonable level by themselves. The offense's fate will be determined by whether the offensive line can do enough for the backs, the complementing but imperfect backs can do enough behind the line, and the performance of Jake Locker. Oh, yeah, the defense will matter too.

The question underlying this post is whether the defense will be good enough for the Titans to run this sort of managed and manipulated offense a season after they gave up more points than any other team in franchise history and allowed more points in the first quarter than any other defense in NFL history. While the Titans did a lot that should improve the offense, the question then becomes did they do enough to improve the defense? My short answer is a clear and unequivocal "No." The longer answer is more complicated.

For purposes of this season preview post, I will simply state I believed (and still believe) perhaps the most important reason the Tennessee Titans have not fielded a good defense lately (since the first 7 weeks or so of the 2010 season) is they lack premium defensive players. Of their current roster, I would rate only perhaps Derrick Morgan as currently an above-average starter relative to the rest of the league. This does not mean, by any reason, I want to the Titans to completely start over on defense. Jurrell Casey, for instance, is a nice player, but I would not consider him a top-12 or -15 defensive tackle and thus does not fit my criteria, and there are a number of other players I could name.

As the presence of, for example, a player like Eric Weddle on a non-too-great San Diego defense shows, having an All-Pro-type player is no guarantee of overall team unit excellence. The above-average starter or player with premium skills/ability must be combined with a squad that is effective enough around him to make a good unit. The prototypical example of this is Jevon Kearse on the 1999 Titans, though by Football Outsiders numbers the dramatic effect he had on the sack rate was not matched by anywhere near as big a transformation of the pass defense as a whole. The more conventional way to improve a defense is by adding more good players, as the Texans did from 2010 to 2011 when they also brought in Wade Phillips.

It feels like I have noted this many times already, but the Titans made only modest personnel additions to the defense. Rather than adding (or getting back) five or six starter-level contributors, they return nine starters, seven or eight of whom seem poised to play significant roles on the 2013 defense. Sammie Lee Hill for Sen'Derrick Marks is a move I view as more or less a wash in terms of overall quality. Moise Fokou is not a better player than we have seen a healthy Colin McCarthy be, though the McCarthy we have seen since Week 1 of 2012 has been neither particularly healthy nor particularly good. Ropati Pitoitua for Kamerion Wimbley (as the swap works out) is a change in a conception of what the defensive end should be, but in the abstract Pitoitua is not a better player than Wimbley. Only Bernard Pollard for Jordan Babineaux looks like an upgrade, and Pollard is mostly a mediocre pass defender. The draft brought more players, none of whom is likely to make a significant difference on the 2013 defense. Upgraded talent is not a good reason to believe the Titans defense will be much better in 2013.

As the Titans did not upgrade their defensive talent, they must be counting on some combination of internal improvements and more effective deployment of the pieces they do have. Given the addition of Gregg Williams, much of the attention has reasonably been focused on more effective deployment of those pieces.

Williams the defensive coordinator has a sterling reputation, but the real story is more complicated. His presence results in an improved defense, except when it does not. He is renowned for getting pressure on quarterbacks and forcing them into mistakes, except his defenses since he left Tennessee over a decade ago have generally not gotten many sacks or forced many interceptions. He's philosophically committed to pressure, but too often not getting pressure results in big plays against and a defensive breakdown. When you are coordinating a defense that is coupled with a high-powered offense like that of the Saints, this sort of high-variance defense can be very effective-a couple turnovers, plus a really good offense mean you can punish teams and get on them early, so you can win games 31-21. Paired with an offense that must remain on schedule like the 2013 Titans will have to, those sorts of breakdowns can create a deficit too big for the offense to climb.

Fortunately, the other side of Gregg Williams is when he's not blitzing he has a lot of 3-man rushes with some tight zone coverages that tend to be pretty effective and require precise execution from opposing offenses. Maybe this would not be quite as effective without the big blitzes, but they're a big part of the defense and tend to work given a defense on the same page. Something like this conservative yet effective defense is what the Titans were able to accomplish in 2011 that let them be only a mediocre pass defense rather than the abysmal one I expected based off what happened the second half of 2010.

Truth be told, the pass defense was not really what sunk the Titans defensively from 2011 to 2012. By Football Outsiders numbers, it declined but only slightly, from 8.6% to 10.7%, and actually improved by rank, from 21st to 19th. The real problem was the run defense, which went from top-ten (-9.4%) to fourth-worst (3.8%). The problem was especially acute when the opponents, as they so often did, spread the field with three or more wide receivers and forced the Titans to sub package (9.3% DVOA). How the Titans solve this particular question is very much an open question in my mind, given the absence of any clear personnel-related solutions. The first and most basic solution may just be to play less sub-package D. The Titans were mostly in sub (overwhelmingly nickel) against 11 personnel in 2011, but they were in sub (again, overwhelmingly nickel) even more so in 2012. More creative solutions will be the domain of Williams and Jerry Gray, who oh by the way is still at least officially the defensive coordinator.

The other way for the Titans defense to improve is through internal improvement. This is the hardest category to talk about, because the normal preseason optimism for all 32 fanbases has their team's players "making the leap" or somesuch, yet at the end of the season 27 or so fanbases will be disappointed their team did not actually make anything resembling such a leap. Yet, for the Titans, there are sensible reasons to expect at least some degree of internal improvement.

First, the Titans were a particularly young defense in 2012; by Football Outsiders' snap-adjusted age metric, the youngest in the league. Improvement from a young defense might have been part of the narrative for why the Titans would be better in 2012, but last year they ended up getting even younger than they were in 2011. The lack of defensive additions means all those young players the Titans played on defense will actually be playing again and a year older. Given where about all of them are at in the typical age, development, and quality curves, this typically means a year better.

Second, and this is a very hard thing for me, as an outsider, somebody 500 miles away who for the most part tries very hard not to say anything about players other than what they do between the white lines on Sundays, to evaluate, the Titans seemed badly lacking in defensive leadership in 2012. Cortland Finnegan was about the last player who seemed like a leader, and he left after 2011 for what I assume were a multitude of reasons. Adding a player like Bernard Pollard, who reportedly led a near-mutiny last season but who could prove inspiring to a group in need of inspiration and who is philosophically simpatico with Gregg Williams, could be a major addition. Then again, the players could get as tired of listening to Pollard talk as I already am and completely tune him out the first time a pass goes over his head and a receiver strolls into the end zone. This is a reason for optimism, but only of the cautious sort.

Third, sometimes defenses just improve for no clear particular reason. Sometimes, these are young defenses. Sometimes, a collection of individual talent coalesces into a unit that plays well together. Sometimes, a group of good enough players helps cover for those players that need to be covered for. Sometimes, surprising and unexpected things just happen in the NFL for whatever reason and we construct narratives in an effort to pretend like we can understand. This sort of thing happens more frequently with defenses than it does with offenses, which tend to be more consistent from one season to the next given standard personnel. From this perspective, the Titans did what they needed to do and should have done in a must-win year, making necessary improvements without which the offense would be very unlikely to improve much and hoping to hit the right mix of alchemy on defense that transforms lead into gold. It could work. Could.

Since I'm laying out reasons the defense could improve, here are two I've heard that I am specifically not listing: injuries and third down performance. Jerry Gray has talked multiple times about the effective of having five Mike linebackers, and what it did to his defense. It's true, Colin McCarthy struggled most of the season with his Week 1 ankle injury and his backup Zac Diles went down for the season as well. Beyond that one starter (and his backup), the Titans were on the whole very healthy on defense. Of the normal defensive starters, Sen'Derrick Marks missing the first two games was the only other notable injury. By Football Outsiders numbers, the Titans were the league's fifth-healthiest defense in 2012. That was roughly in line with how healthy they've been in the past (the Titans have overachieved the past six or so years because they've tended to be very healthy). If you were making a prediction for 2013 based on injuries relative to 2012, though, you would expect the Titans to suffer closer to an average number of injuries on defense and thus be worse than they were in 2012, not better.

The story on third down is similar, except that I'm less clear why it is stated as a reason to believe they should improve. By the NFL's official numbers, the Titans gave up a first down on 39.7% of attempts, 21st in the league. They ranked 32nd in points allowed and 27th in yards, so ranking 21st seems good. The story by Football Outsiders numbers is similar; they ranked 25th overall, 23rd on first downs and 30th on second downs, but were actually 11th on third downs. Because opponents were so successful against the Titans, they likely faced more third-and-short and -medium opportunities, so the Titans should be expected to be particularly bad on third down. Instead, they were particularly good. Defensive third down performance seems to be the result of small sample sizes that regress towards the mean the next season, so third down performance, like injuries, is a reason to believe the Titans should be worse on defense rather than better.

While my cynical side wants to argue the Titans have done a better job of building a defense that can win time of possession than they have of building one that wins football games, I think on balance the defense is likely to be somewhat better than it was in 2012, though I still expect it to be somewhere between average and mediocre.

Perhaps the best news for the Titans is they play in the AFC South, with perhaps one of the weaker "best" teams in a division, a team in the Jaguars that is likely to be worse than they are, and a team in Indianapolis whose 2013 record is likelier to match their (negative) 2012 point differential than their 11-5 actual record. An average offense and an average defense is not out of the question for the Titans in 2013. That pairing, plus an excellent special teams unit, was enough for the Titans to make it to 9-7 against a soft schedule in 2011. I think that represents a reasonable best case scenario for the 2013 Titans. More likely, in my view, at least one and probably both of the offense and the defense are closer to mediocre than average,  and even against a reasonably favorable schedule the Titans end up as the sort of 7-9 team that is described as feisty when they aren't losing games by three scores.