Turnover and changes are as inevitable in the NFL as crowning a Super Bowl champion each year.
The Tennessee Titans are already feeling the effects of change even as their off-season is only just over a week old thanks to a Wild-Card round loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Titans defense held the team back for much of the season, and now Coach Mike Vrabel is entertaining the idea of hiring a defensive coordinator after going all through the 2020 season without one, and tasking outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen with much of the responsibility.
But the bigger deal for the Titans may be trying to keep the offense at an elite level, while trying to fix the defense this off-season with a tight salary cap and several key players and coaches possibly exiting.
The Titans already know they will have a new offensive coordinator after Arthur Smith accepted the head coaching position with the Atlanta Falcons this week.
In losing Smith, the Titans will have to find a replacement for a guy who proved to be very creative in a scheme built around a power running attack with Derrick Henry. The combination of Henry's rushing, complemented by the passing of quarterback Ryan Tannehill to such targets as A.J. Brown, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith made for a well-rounded offense that established a new bar by which all future Titans attacks will be measured against.
Vrabel has to find a better replacement for Arthur Smith than he did for Dean Pees after last off-season. Smith had toiled inside the Titans coaching offices in relative anonymity for years before finally getting his shot to be offensive coordinator. That move was admittedly a gamble, when Smith went from assistant tight ends coach to tight ends coach and then to OC. He had never been a play-caller at any level, but proved adept at the job and also proved to be quite the match with Tannehill, once the latter supplanted Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback.
Tannehill, who has has the best two years of his NFL career under Smith's tutelage, believes the foundation is in place no matter who the new OC winds up being.
“Obviously Arthur has played a big part in it no doubt about it, ... but with the guys that we have, the core that we have coming back, and the foundation that we've laid, the pillars of the program that we believe in, and how we like to play the game, and the way that leadership on this team, and the way that guys have bought in, I feel strongly that no matter who fills that role... that we can build on what we did this year,” Tannehill said in his season-ending press conference call.
But in terms of change, there is also the matter of both Davis and Smith being free agents this off-season and no guarantee that either will be back. Davis just missed 1,000 yards with 984 yards on 65 catches this season. Davis, though he struggled in the final few games, was conspicuous by his absence late in the playoff loss to Baltimore, when the Titans showed that they did not have a solid complement to Brown without Davis on the field.
Smith counted eight receiving touchdowns among his career-high 41 receptions this year. He was a top red-zone target, and though his offensive production might be more easily replaced with restricted free agent Anthony Firkser still likely to stay, Smith's athleticism and combination as a receiver and blocker would be tough to replace.
Tannehill is hoping for the best in that regard, but bracing for the worst.
“I love both those guys. Great people, great teammates, guys that I love playing the game with, that play the game how we like to play, so definitely love to have them back. Obviously, there's a lot of moving parts there and things have to line up in order for that to happen,” Tannehill said. “But those guys had great years for us this year. They did a really good job in doing exactly what we asked of them to do. They stepped up to the plate being in last the year of their contracts, both those guys stepped up to the plate and played huge for us. They deserve everything that they're going to get. I'd love to play with those guys again.”
Going forward, there it is guaranteed that the Titans will have somewhat of a different look and different pieces in place in 2021. Tannehill remains confident that those pieces will fit together and jell in time like they did the past couple of seasons.
“With consistency and continuity, it helps build on what you did so we'll see what happens there. Like I said, I don't know exactly what's going to happen there with Arthur['s system] or a similar system or whatnot. It's all out of my hands at this point. But, consistency definitely helps in any turnover,” Tannehill said.