The NFL released its 2016 regular season schedule last week. Even though the Thursday Night opener between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos is nearly five months away, it’s never too early for fans to analyze their favorite team’s schedules.
For fans of the Tennessee Titans, the bar is low after back-to-back seasons of futility. Although a similar season is expected, Tennessee’s schedule provides a number of interesting dynamics.
1) Can the Titans climb the division ladder?
It’s an old NFL cliché repeated by every head coach as the team’s primary goal: Win the division.
The Titans haven’t captured the AFC South crown since the ageless wonder Kerry Collins was quarterback, Chris Johnson sported the two-tone blue and Albert Haynesworth cared about football, back in 2008. Since then, they’ve finished last three times, including each of the past two seasons.
Even uglier is Tennessee’s conference record (2-10) since 2014, with both wins coming against Jacksonville. Luckily for them, the AFC South is widely considered the weakest division in the NFL. Andrew Luck appeared to re-establish Indy’s dominance over the AFC South after back-to-back division titles in 2013 and 2014. But thanks to a laundry list of injuries and an organization unwilling to place a competent roster around their franchise quarterback, the division is up for grabs.
Assuming Luck remains healthy, the Colts should be the favorites though. His mobility, leadership and lack of fear when throwing the deep ball has plagued the Titans’ defense since 2012. When the neck-bearded wonder is upright, Indianapolis is 17-1 within the division. The Houston Texans have also been a consistent force within the division since 2011, winning the title three times.
So, Tennessee is really measuring itself against the Jaguars at this point. Last season, the two teams split their meetings. If the Titans plan on climbing up the division ladder, their performances against Jacksonville are huge. Tennessee first draws Jacksonville during week eight’s Thursday night match-up, just days after its first game against the Colts. Although it’s not the most desirable prime-time match-up, fans of both teams should pay close attention to this game. Both franchises appear to be trending upward, it’s just a matter of which trends quicker.
2) Toughest opponents travel to Nashville
Nissan Stadium has perhaps the most underwhelming home field advantage in the NFL. On a normal Sunday in Nashville, fans of the opposing team flock the stadium as if they’re at home. Their boos easily drown the cheers during pregame warm-ups.
But with the development of Marcus Mariota, newly-acquired running back DeMarco Murray and the savvy moves made by general manager Jon Robinson, the Music City should be buzzing over this team. If the fan base can develop a formidable home atmosphere, that bodes well for the Titans when they welcome the toughest teams on their schedule in Minnesota (week one), Oakland (week three), Green Bay (week 10) and Denver (week 14).
A win over the Broncos is highly unlikely. That late in the season, Von Miller and company are likely to be in playoff form. They’ll throw a multitude of complex blitz packages and nuanced schemes in coverage to confuse Tennessee’s still-developing young quarterback. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are nowhere near as dominant on the road as they are on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, but a downfield thrower like Rodgers spells trouble for the Titans’ secondary.
However, the home match-ups between Minnesota and Oakland are certainly winnable.
Remember, Tennessee is a bonafide week one dynasty. In 2014, they traveled to Arrowhead and soundly beat the Chiefs by 16 points. Last season, in the most heavily anticipated match-up between 2-14 teams with rookie quarterbacks in NFL history, the Titans sunk the Buccaneers, 42-10. The Vikings were one Blair Walsh shank away from defeating the Seattle Seahawks in last year’s playoffs, but Adrian Peterson is entering his tenth season and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is allergic to downfield throws. The week one dynasty continues.
Oakland is a consensus “team on the rise” selection, but Tennessee actually would have defeated the silver and black last year had it not been for a late phantom penalty in the secondary, resulting in a game-winning Derek Carr touchdown pass.
3) Mariota vs RG3
The Titans’ week six match-up with the Cleveland Browns would normally be miserable television, but the quarterback duel between Mariota and Robert Griffin III is worth a look.
Both players have a lot in common. Both won Heisman trophies, ran spread offenses in college, were the No. 2 overall picks in their respective draft classes and both provided a ray of hope for dimly lit franchises after electrifying debuts. However, the primary difference between the two has to do with culture and development.
Griffin’s career took a turn in the wrong direction for a number of reasons. His knee injuries during his rookie campaign might have affected his confidence. He was also drafted by a team whose head coach was never all that invested in him. But more importantly, he’s never been properly developed.
The read option was in vogue during the 2012 season. No quarterback benefited from that offense more than RG3, who ended up winning Offensive Rookie of the Year over Andrew Luck that season.
However, the negative effects of totally depending on the read option are clearly visible now. It didn’t help that RG3 never learned how to slide properly, but when he returned fully healthy in 2013, his inability to be a pocket passer was exposed.
That’s what makes Mariota’s development so promising. He possesses wild athletic ability, but Tennessee was more concerned with the cerebral part of the game, such as pre and post-snap reads, as well as progressions and eye manipulation. It wasn’t always pretty for Mariota, but the lack of designed runs will only benefit him.
Ultimately, this match-up is interesting because of the duality between approaches. Investing too much time in a quarterback’s athleticism rather than his IQ is detrimental to growth.
Edited by Jordan Dajani
Featured image courtesy of Denise Mattox