Todd Downing is holding a stacked hand with Tennessee Titans, but how's he going to play it? | Estes
For argument’s sake, let’s say the Tennessee Titans’ offense this fall is every bit as unstoppable as it looks on paper: Explosive. Feared. Indeed, the best offense in football.
Even if that best-case scenario happens, many will say it was supposed to happen.
Anything less, and they’ll wonder why.
Welcome to the coordinator chair, Todd Downing. Expectations for this Titans offense were high anyway, but with the addition of Julio Jones, they cleared the tower and headed into orbit. For Downing, it'll be stepping into a new role with a great deal to prove professionally — and a lot to lose, too, with little margin for error.
Not that anyone is going to feel sorry for him about that.
Heck, Downing should be the envy of his coaching peers. He has been dealt a stacked hand. After stumbling badly in 2017 as play-caller and coordinator for the Oakland Raiders, he clawed his way back into a second chance and was promoted into one of the best opportunities for an assistant in the NFL.
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Mike Vrabel’s first two offensive coordinators with the Titans — Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith — were each hired away to become head coach for another franchise. And neither had the luxury of Jones joining Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Ryan Tannehill and an offense that tied for second in the NFL in yards the previous season.
That's enough to get anyone excited about the possibilities.
“I’ll leave it to you to call it a Todd Downing offense. This is a Tennessee Titans offense,” said Downing, responding to my question about what he'd like in a Todd Downing offense. “I want this to be the most effective offense for helping us win football games. Whatever that means week to week, it’ll adjust. …
“My vision for this offense is simply that we are a disciplined, high-effort, high-energy, sound football team, and we go out and help our team win ball games by not doing stuff to get ourselves beat. The rest of it is going to fall into place.”
Given that we’re over the moon already about this stacked Titans offense, it’s remarkable how little we know about what to expect from Downing.
More than any player, he's the biggest question mark in a unit whose success or failure will likely determine the shape of the Titans' 2021 season, as it did in 2020. And we don't have much to draw from with Downing. His coordinator experience is limited to the one lost season in Oakland, and as he has said — appropriately — "I don’t think you can compare one to the other.”
Specifics? Downing isn’t offering many. It’s not about me? That was an admirably unselfish sentiment quoted above, but it was a hollow statement. It didn’t say anything substantive, which seemed by design.
In other words, it sounded like what Vrabel would say.
The widely gleaned assumption — that Downing won't overhaul but tinker, basically seeking to keep doing what worked so well for Smith — is vague. It’s also probably true.
I say that because it’s what Vrabel wants. And if Vrabel’s staff changes in Nashville have taught anything, it’s that the head coach craves continuity, since he keeps promoting assistants already fluent in Titan to be his coordinators.
Obviously, it worked with Smith. But did continuity do that? Or was it much better quarterback play once Tannehill became the starter in 2019? Or Henry emerging as one of the NFL’s best players? Or Brown as one of its best receivers?
I’d argue that by the end of last season, it had also become a matter of Smith proving to be just that good at his job.
To think any coach could come in and follow a template to replicate Smith’s success with the Titans greatly underestimates what Smith meant to that success. Much like with Tannehill, Smith’s contributions were a lot more than just handing the football to Henry.
The Titans were second in the NFL last season in points scored per drive, but they were 18th in time per drive. This notion of a plodding, methodical offense is misguided. The Titans liked to work quickly. They had six game-winning drives last season, the most in the NFL. That’s not game-planning as much as it is gut feel and reactions. There's no template for that.
Perhaps Smith’s greatest strength as a coordinator was that he wasn’t stubborn. He’d adjust to players and situations. He didn’t make everyone else fit what he wanted to do. Instead, he fit what he wanted to do around everyone else. That may sound common, but in a league where coaches build careers on their own schemes, it’s not.
When Downing says things like, “I’m not as caught up in putting Todd Downing’s stamp on the offense,” I believe that's what he’s implying. He watched Smith for two years in Nashville, and that is how he wants to follow his example.
That’s good. Again, though, doesn't tell us much on the front end.
Downing may have been given the keys to a racecar and told not to wreck it, but he’s still going to have to drive the thing — after crashing once before.
It’s true that those Raiders are nothing like these Titans.
But here’s another truth: Once the first game kicks off this season, this will indeed be Todd Downing’s offense. Whether that’s good, bad, ugly or as sensational as everyone is expecting it to be.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.