This is becoming the Tennessee Titans' injury season instead of something special | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Rarely has a bye week been so welcomed by an NFL team.

The Tennessee Titans won’t get healthy in a week. But maybe they can get healthy enough to start to resemble the Titans again. Maybe then they’ll have a fair chance.

Because on Sunday, they didn’t.

Oh, they scrapped. They always do. But they ultimately faded and lost 36-13 at the New England Patriots, who were better and — not coincidentally — much healthier than their gritty visitors.

Considering all the Titans did surprisingly well Sunday — Dontrell Hilliard ran for 131 yards? And D'Onta Foreman had 109? Really? — they’ll end up pinning this latest defeat on correctable miscues: On turnovers and shoddy special teams and penalties, and they won’t be wrong.

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It’s just that the Titans had no margin for error when the game started. Until they start getting their best offensive players back on the field, that won’t change. They’ll struggle to compete with AFC contenders. Such was underlined by coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

So that’s two Titans losses in a row entering a desperately needed bye week, and the remainder of this season can be boiled down to two questions: Who returns from injury and when?

Doesn’t take an advanced degree in football to say the Titans can’t expect success without Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown and Julio Jones and Marcus Johnson and Bud Dupree and a bunch of key players on both sides of the ball.

The Titans entered Sunday with 17 players on injured reserve. There might have been more talent there than the active roster. I counted nine or 10 starters who were sidelined Sunday. Many of those players lack a clear timetable to return.

Tennessee Titans linebacker Monty Rice (56) is helped off the field during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Mass.

Think it's a coincidence that the Titans' red-zone offense has gotten sick without Henry? That Ryan Tannehill's production has dipped with five – yes, five – wide receivers on the IR currently, including Brown and Jones?

Approaching an NFL record for the number of players used this season has been a badge of honor for the Titans in some respects. Their 8-4 record has been astounding, all things considered. But the odds are finally catching up, as it’s no longer just the sheer number of injuries.

It’s who is being injured that threatens to define a season tumbling downhill.

What’s awful about a promising season slipping away is that it’s difficult to point fingers anywhere other than fate. Luck plays more of a role in sports than anyone wants to admit.

The NFL is a place that'll seek to explain everything, but when the injury bug bites, the common response is to hold up palms. Whatcha gonna do?

Short-term, the Titans can only hope for the best and try to get their most valuable players back as soon as possible.

Long-term, they'll need to try to figure out how this happened.

The Titans must take a long look at how their own operation might be impacting the team’s health. This started way back in August. Why can’t this staff keep its players healthy? What’s happening – or not happening – at practice or in the facility?

How, too, are the Titans choosing their players? What are they not seeing in the front office when they scout draft picks and potential free-agent acquisitions? Should injuries start scaring them off more than they have?

You could, for example, conclude that Jon Robinson shouldn’t have traded for damaged goods in Julio Jones. At the time, though, I was in favor of that trade. If you are a Titans fan, I'd imagine you probably were, too.

Tennessee Titans punter Brett Kern (6) reacts after kicker Randy Bullock (14) missed a field goal attempt during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Mass.

Perhaps Robinson shouldn’t have thrown money at Dupree, who was recovering from a knee injury. Dupree’s current absence, though, was after an abdominal injury. Can’t expect that.

Perhaps Robinson shouldn’t have drafted Caleb Farley in the first round. The concern there, though, was a back injury. Can’t expect Farley to tear up his knee.

Can’t expect Henry – as durable a running back as there has been in the NFL of late – to break his foot. Can’t expect Brown to deal with several different issues, going back to training camp.

But it happens.

The Indianapolis Colts were an example to start this season. The New Orleans Saints that the Titans beat a couple of weeks ago were as well. And so, too, are the Titans.

A franchise could reexamine every aspect of its operation and still not find an answer to why so many players get hurt in a given year. There may not be an answer.

Answers, though, are going to be demanded – as would be the case with any other weakness that was serious enough to render a good Titans team so frustratingly outmanned.

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