Super Bowl dreams? Tennessee Titans' 2021 opener was a nightmare performance | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

These Tennessee Titans are better than this, right?

I think they are. I’ll have to take that on faith, though. I lack evidence.

That in itself is a little jarring. Because I’ve known for months that the Titans’ highly anticipated season would start Sept. 12 at Nissan Stadium. Would be a big deal. Fans would be back. The whole city was gearing up. Surely, the Titans knew the date.

They’ve been saying they were ready.

Know who actually was, though? The Arizona Cardinals.

The visitors showed up Sunday in a bad mood, with a lot of urgency and talent on both sides of the ball. They clearly weren’t on board with confirming these Titans as an honest-to-goodness Super Bowl contender.

And so this was ugly: Cardinals 38, Titans 13.

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It’s early, of course. I still expect much more this season from the Titans, though I can’t offer examples of why anyone else should. I mean, what went well in this game?

Newly signed emergency kicker Michael Badgley struggled. Defensively, it maybe wasn't 2020 awful. But it dang sure wasn’t good enough to carry an offense that still hasn’t blocked Chandler Jones and – for most of the game – looked as if it hadn’t practiced this entire preseason.

That was probably because it didn't practice together this preseason.

The Titans offense – either by choice or situation – had the majority of its starters absent too often and for too long in recent weeks. And that offense opened the season every bit as rusty and sluggish as feared.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) is sacked by Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (55) during the third quarter at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

In the balancing act of keeping top players healthy and allowing them to get warmed up for the season, the Titans’ staff leaned too far toward safety on offense, especially with a new coordinator calling plays.

I’d imagine Todd Downing will be better in Arthur Smith's old role than a first quarter of minus-16 net yards – and a combined zero targets for wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones.

This wasn’t just the skill positions, though. The offensive line – after being banged up these past weeks – had a miserable afternoon. In particular, left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was brought along slowly this preseason because of last season's knee injury. Lewan was whipped twice by Chandler Jones before the Titans’ offense was able to get a first down.

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The Cardinals’ Jones had five sacks – three in the first quarter – and two forced fumbles, the first of which handed Arizona its first touchdown.

In other words, Chandler Jones made far more of an impact Sunday than Julio Jones. Unless you count Julio’s silly scuffle and 15-yard penalty that turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-16.

Look, Julio Jones is much better than this.

So is Taylor Lewan.

So is the Titans’ entire offense, for that matter, and this entire team.

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons (9) celebrates after intercepting a Titans past during the third quarter at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

We know what the Titans’ players and their offense are capable of providing, and the NFL is not college football. Long is the list of pro teams that have stumbled in Week 1 and gone on to have strong seasons.

But the clock is ticking. Week 2 will be a tough test in Seattle. Week 3 brings the divisional rival Colts to town for a showdown. Starting a season 0-3 would be a deep hole for any team. 

Given how dreadful this season-opening dud was for the Titans, who can say 0-3 isn’t possible? Or worse? Because these Titans were strangers. They didn’t look a thing like the ones we’ve been expecting.

After months of Super Bowl dreams about this team, Week 1 was a nightmare.

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