As no-name Tennessee Titans win, an overarching question: Who are these guys? | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

What surprises me most about the Tennessee Titans’ success this season is how often I'll have no idea who a player is when I see him while covering the team.

It's true. Happens all the time.

After Sunday’s 23-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints, for example, I didn’t recognize Dylan Cole. That's an admission that would be more embarrassing if it wasn't so easily explained.

“You ask me two weeks ago,” Cole said, “I thought I would be on my patio watching this game.”

Cole just got here.

A lot of Titans players just got here. It has kind of become their thing in this weird season.

“I think we're on a record pace right now of guys that have played for the Titans this year,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said.

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Sure enough, entering this weekend, these Titans had used 80 players in games. That was 11 more than the next team, and they added two – receiver Dez Fitzpatrick and defensive lineman Kyle Peko – during Sunday’s win, bringing the total to 82 players in only 10 games.

That's absurd in a league in which you're allowed 53 players on your active roster.

The Titans have come by it honestly, though. It's not like they are that one participant in your fantasy league who is way too fond of the waiver wire. Theirs is the consequence of a ridiculously long injury report that looks like a phonebook page each week.

The Titans were snake bit long before Derrick Henry’s broken foot. A lot of the injury problems go back to training camp. Then and now, the Titans simply can’t stay healthy.

I don’t know if it’s getting worse, but it’s not getting better.

They go on IR like Julio Jones (hamstring) just did. They’ll miss games suddenly, as Lewan (knee) did last week in Los Angeles. They’ll exit games. They’ll pick up new injuries like Bud Dupree did Sunday with an “abdominal” injury. I didn’t know what that meant for Dupree, but it sounds painful.

This continues to be head-on-a-swivel stuff for Mike Vrabel and the Titans’ coaches – not to mention general manager Jon Robinson. They all continue to navigate this uncertainty with a stunning amount of success. For any NFL team to be 8-2 and atop the AFC with this many injures and this much roster turnover is amazing.

“That's great coaching,” Lewan said. “That's them taking care of business.”

Vrabel says he tells the entire team on Wednesday each week that "you're expected to be ready to play in the football game," including those on the practice squad.

“And if you get everybody to prepare like that with that idea," Vrabel said, "then there's no surprises or no scrambling on Friday when somebody goes down or somebody decides that they're not available."

The Titans were fortunate Sunday in a lot of ways, not the least of which was the fact they ran into an opponent that might had have a bigger bone to pick with the injury bug than they did.

Who could have envisioned this Week 10 game – between two contending teams – wouldn’t feature Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones or Jameis Winston?

This was a shell of the game it could have been between these teams. It was The Attrition Bowl, and between sacks and costly penalties, it became more a contest to see who wouldn’t do enough to lose. The Saints raised their hand. They missed two extra points and fumbled a kickoff return. That was enough. They didn’t win.

Tennessee Titans running back D'Onta Foreman (7) runs the ball for a first down during the fourth quarter at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Yeah, the Titans got lucky. They made their own luck in some ways, too, and from some unexpected places. The Saints’ fumble to start the second half – they’d won the toss and opted to kick to start the game – was caused by Cole, the new linebacker who thought he’d be on his patio after spending years playing for the rival Houston Texans.

Cole's unfamiliarity with his surroundings isn’t uncommon among his new team.

Never has “two weeks ago” seemed further away than when mixing with players this Titans season.

“A couple of weeks ago, I didn't know what was going to happen,” running back D’Onta Foreman said. “I was just working, trying to make sure I was ready if I got an opportunity. God is good, man. He blessed me to be in this position, to give me this opportunity. I haven't had an opportunity like this in a very long time, man.”

Like Cole, Foreman didn’t just wear his uniform Sunday. He got it dirty. He made an impact.

Splitting time with Adrian Peterson – he . just got here, too, but I'll say he was plenty recognizable – and Jeremy McNichols, Foreman led the Titans in rushes (11) and rushing yards (30). But the big moment was his 39-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, setting up Randy Bullock’s field goal to ultimately provide the winning margin.

Bullock wasn't on the roster this preseason, either.

And so on ...

These are all great stories, you understand. So many Titans players who are happy to be here and hungry to prove their worth to the NFL after sitting on the couch for months, not knowing if they could still call themselves pro football players. 

But those heartwarming tales don't often equate to a team's success. What's going on with the Titans and all these new players, it simply isn't normal, and it's bordering on the inexplicable.

You keep waiting on a league-leading reliance on free agents and fringe signings to catch up with the Titans.

Hasn’t happened yet. I can’t tell if that’s a fluke or a sign of something greater if, let's say, the Titans are able to actually get healthy late in the season.

Man, that'd be costly, wouldn't it?

Can you imagine how much all those rings would cost?

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.