What's at stake for Tennessee Titans' Mike Vrabel, Jon Robinson in 2021: 'Super Bowl or bust'?

Ben Arthur
Nashville Tennessean

Last month, just hours after pulling off the Julio Jones trade, Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson was asked whether he believes the 2021 roster can contend for a Super Bowl. 

He didn’t offer any juicy headlines. 

“We don’t set expectations,” Robinson said on the Zoom call with local media. “I think my charge is to try to get as many good football players on the team as possible, let them go out there and do their jobs and play the style of football that we want to play and let the chips fall where they may.”

How the chips are falling, though, is into win-now mode for the Titans.

They're primed to be one of the top AFC contenders in 2021.

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Tennessee has several returning stars under contract for at least the next two years: running back Derrick Henry (2024), wide receiver A.J. Brown (2023), quarterback Ryan Tannehill (2024), left tackle Taylor Lewan (2024), safety Kevin Byard (2025) and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons (2023 or 2024, if his fifth-year option is picked up) among them. But the Titans are an offense-led team, and their window of opportunity with their new superstar trio – Jones, Brown and Henry –  is now

Henry, the focal point of the team’s run-first offense, has been at his peak the past couple of years. But there’s no telling how much longer it will last with his incredibly high workload. Since 2018, including playoffs, he has recorded 997 rushes – at least 102 more than any other running back in the league. What if he starts declining sooner than later? The history of high-usage backs in the NFL supports that notion. 

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And the Brown-Jones tandem figures to never be better than what it will be in 2021. No one knows what Jones, one of the best receivers of the modern era, will look like at 32 in Tennessee. But he was on pace for 1,300 receiving yards last season, despite missing seven games with a nagging hamstring issue (51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns in nine games). He’s healthy now. A drastic dropoff seems unlikely in 2021. But it only grows as he gets deeper into his 30s. 

It’s why the Titans are in a good situation with Jones’ contract. He’s due $23.026 million in 2022 and 2023, but just $2 million is guaranteed. Worst-case scenario, if he doesn't work out in Nashville, Tennessee could cut him at little cost after this season and gain salary-cap flexibility. 

Even with a defensive-minded coach in Mike Vrabel, the Titans’ strength has been offense. It has been that way the past two years. The Titans have gotten drastically better on offense each of the past three seasons (27th in scoring offense and 25th in total offense in 2018; 10th in scoring offense and 12th in total offense in 2019; fourth in scoring offense and second in total offense in 2020) and  progressively worse defensively in that same span (third in scoring defense and eighth in total defense in 2018; 12th in scoring defense and 21st in total defense in 2019; 24th in scoring defense and 28th in total defense in 2020). Offense leading the way appears to be the Titans’ surest path to championship contention. 

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In their fourth year together, Robinson and Vrabel have arguably the most impressive collection of offensive skill talent in franchise history. The defense got a facelift with new personnel. The Titans prioritized older and more experienced players in the draft. Robinson and Vrabel’s time building up a championship culture and top AFC contender in Nashville over the past three seasons – for Robinson, the job began in 2016 – has led to this 2021 roster. 

After reaching the AFC Championship game in 2019, failures from team decision makers last season resulted in a step back in the team’s ascension, culminating in a disappointing wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Among those decisions:

  • Vrabel’s indifference toward the importance of an official defensive coordinator, central to the defense’s inability to find an identity in 2020.
  • Robinson’s big spending on the Jadeveon Clowney-Vic Beasley pass-rush tandem (moves, made with the appropriate aggression, but failing to pan out).
  • Drafting an all-time bust in offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson. 

The Titans can’t afford the same errors this year. They need the big investment on first-round cornerback Caleb Farley and veteran pass rusher Bud Dupree, both dealing with injuries, to pay off. They need Shane Bowen to prove his promotion to defensive coordinator was the right move for a defense that needs direction. And they need Todd Downing, whose first stint as an offensive coordinator with the Raiders was forgettable, to be the right captain for an elite offense.

That burden is on Robinson and Vrabel, after they pointed the finger at the personnel during the offseason. If contention hopes go south in 2021, the finger pointing will turn back at them.

They’re under contract for the next two seasons, aligned through 2022. They have a division title and AFC Championship game berth under their belts, but no Super Bowl trip to show for it. In-house, there should be a sense of urgency for 2021. 

While Robinson won’t feed into the hype surrounding the Titans this season, Byard offered a glimpse into his own mindset. 

The veteran safety was holding his second annual youth football camp in Murfreesboro on Saturday. He was surprised with the key to the city by Mayor Shane McFarland

After a photo-op, McFarland turned to Byard. He asked whether he was ready for the season. 

“Yes, sir, absolutely,” Byard said. “It’s go time.

“Super Bowl or bust.”

Ben Arthur covers the Tennessee Titans for The USA TODAY Network. Contact him at barthur@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @benyarthur.