Tennessee Titans simply didn't go for it enough in 2020 — and paid the price | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Maybe you're going down anyway, but you’d have rather gone down swinging.

Instead, the Tennessee Titans punted.

And I’m not just talking about Sunday’s 20-13 playoff loss to the Ravens.

Sure, coach Mike Vrabel’s decision to punt on fourth-and-2 at the Ravens 40 will be second-guessed to death, and it should be. How could anyone prefer to put a close game on this defense’s shoulders rather than this offense?

Vrabel isn’t allergic to risk-taking. He just didn’t roll the dice in this instance, and that hesitancy revealed his own lack of confidence in a 2,000-yard rusher and an offense that was quite formidable until it got on the field with the Ravens on Sunday.

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That's a defining moment. Not to say the Titans would have converted the fourth-down play, but they at least should be willing to go for it.

Because the sad verdict of this season — for all its positives, an AFC South title, 11 wins — was this franchise had an opportunity for more but too often didn’t go for it.

Not the players. Those guys kept giving everything, and that’s what was so admirable. They just kept fighting, week after week, even when the fight seemed lost. That part was special. They rallied and won games they shouldn’t have because they simply wanted it more, which doesn’t usually happen in the NFL.

Players like Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Ryan Tannehill can mask a lot of weaknesses, and they did. These Titans kept fooling us into thinking they were more than what they were on paper — a roster that was never positioned to seriously contend for a Super Bowl this season.

The flaws of this team were far deeper than one playoff defeat. They went back to an offseason in which the Titans simply didn’t do enough to build on last season’s AFC title game appearance.

For lack of a better word, general manager Jon Robinson punted.

He leaned on the status quo, re-signing Tannehill and Henry without adding enough quality players around them.

These Titans overachieved their talent level all season.

Don’t believe it? Look on the field Sunday: Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Cameron Batson, David Quessenberry, Brooks Reed, Nick Dzubnar and Matt Dickerson played quality snaps against the Ravens in a playoff game.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) celebrates a touchdown during the Tennessee Titans game against the Baltimore Ravens in Nashville on January 10, 2021.

This sort of thing wasn’t new, either. Remember how Breon Borders was a top-two cornerback until he was hurt?

Borders was a great story, having been cut by seven teams in three years. Quessenberry has a wonderful story, too, having beaten cancer. These are inspirational guys whom you root for and respect immensely on many levels.

They fought — and they fought uphill.

“Guys bought in and gave their heart and soul to it,” Tannehill said. “It wasn't for lack of effort or trying or buying in.”

True. You can only beat the odds so much, though. Relying heavily on fringe NFL players isn’t a recipe for a playoff run.

The Titans had injuries, sure, and some costly ones. But it was no more than your average NFL season. This team's lack of quality depth was exposed because it didn't have enough to start.

Outside of the 11th-hour signing of Jadeveon Clowney, the Titans did nothing in free agency to suggest they were in “Win Now” mode.

Robinson let valuable players such as Jack Conklin, Logan Ryan and Jurrell Casey leave and drafted to replace them. The trouble with that is the Titans have barely gotten anything out of their latest draft class. First-round offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson has been a disaster, and he was being viewed as a project anyway. Other draftees were either hurt or incapable or both.

Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins (27) gets. Touchdown as Tennessee Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro (24) falls to the ground at his feet during the Tennessee Titans game against the Baltimore Ravens in Nashville on January 10, 2021.

Can’t whiff on a draft class and not expect it to hurt you on the field, especially when you didn't take many big swings in free agency and the ones you did haven't worked out.

What does it look like when you're serious? The Ravens added Calais Campbell in March. They traded for Yannick Ngakoue in October. They even signed Dez Bryant during the season.

Good as the Chiefs already were, they added Le’Veon Bell during the season. They grabbed a former first-round cornerback, Deandre Baker, as soon as his issues were resolved.

Meanwhile, the Titans traded for Desmond King and were otherwise content to stand pat while their defense floundered.

Would additional moves have made sense? Would one or two more pieces have been enough to put them over the top? We’ll never know.

The next offseason looms even more important for the Titans because of the failures of the previous one.

For now, the window remains open. Henry, Tannehill and Brown will ensure that.

“The Tennessee Titans will be back,” Brown pledged Sunday. “We will be playing for a Super Bowl.”

They're close. They've been close.

But that good-not-great label is starting to get old. Time to step up. To grasp a Super Bowl, this organization must be more willing to reach for one.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.