NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Culture matters in the NFL. If you don’t believe that, take a look at the 2019 Tennessee Titans.

It was because of the culture that head coach Mike Vrabel and the Titans’ corps of players have established that the team was able to advance to the AFC Championship. It’s also why they will have every opportunity to take the next step in 2020.

The confidence that was instilled during the team’s remarkable playoff run also gives them a headstart on next season.

MORE FAMILY THAN TEAM

Vrabel is not some kind of schematic genius. In his one year calling plays for the Houston Texans defense before becoming the Titans’ head coach, the Texans’ defensive production declined from the year before.

That being the case, Vrabel wasn’t hired to implement a scheme, but to build off of the Titans’ winning culture that had already been established by previous head coach Mike Mularkey. He was tasked with taking it to the next level.

Based on the early returns, Vrabel has accomplished that goal.

“I think that this team embodies the city of Nashville,” safety Kevin Byard said. “Blue-collar, hard-working guys that don’t care about, you know, ‘who’s got more followers?’ or national recognition.

“Guys just want to go to work, and I think that will always be the blueprint to having a successful organization.”

More than just having a winning attitude, though, the Titans have a very family-like atmosphere within their locker room.

Part of that is because the organization has, in recent years, stayed away from bringing in players with behavioral concerns or feather-ruffling personalities, but the Titans’ brotherhood goes beyond just that.

A lack of players who are “rough around the edges” doesn’t explain why receiver A.J. Brown became emotional after the benching of QB Marcus Mariota, why safety Kenny Vaccaro got choked up when Byard, his partner in the defensive backfield, became the NFL’s highest-paid safety last year, or why RB Derrick Henry admitting to shedding some tears after the Titans’ AFC-Championship loss.

“We’re a family, first,” Brown said. “We really care about each other, that’s one thing I can say about this team. We look out for each other.”

USING IT TO THEIR ADVANTAGE

That family-like atmosphere is what allowed the Titans to dig themselves out of the hole they found themselves in at the beginning of the season.

Just over three months ago, the same Titans that came up short in the AFC Championship were a generally painful team to watch. They were in a 2-4 abyss and looked to be headed toward “fight for your job” territory.

If a fan had guessed, then, that the same team would fall just one game short of the Super Bowl, that fan would have been deemed crazy.

Yet, the Titans did just that, using their belief in each other to climb out of the gutter.

“When things get hard, those are the only things that you can grasp onto,” Vrabel said. “The harder it gets, you have to make sure that your circle is as tight as it can be, and that the players were the ones that ultimately got us out of that. I think the leadership from those players did that.

“We tried to believe in each other, we tried to improve, tried to prepare, trust each other, execute. That’s what’s gotten us here.”

“We always had that mentality where, no matter what happens to us, we’re always going to keep fighting,” receiver Tajaé Sharpe said. “We’re never going to quit. We’ve always got each others’ backs, no matter what.”

“THE TITANS ARE FOR REAL”

The fact that the Titans were able to come back from those early-season woes should—and likely will—be a boost of confidence moving forward.

Heading into the 2020 season, the Titans won’t be underdogs. They won’t be overlooked or become an afterthought. That’s what happens when you knock off Tom Brady and NFL’s best offense in back-to-back weeks on the road in the playoffs.

“We brought the Eddie George and Steve McNair era back into the air,” corner Logan Ryan said. “The Titans are for real. The Titans are contenders.”

The success has instilled a sense of belief and confidence within the Titans that likely hasn’t been present in years.

“There’s a lot of guys in this locker room, I think, who, back when we were 2-4, didn’t know we had an AFC Championship in our hearts,” Vaccaro said. “They didn’t know that we could do that, and I think we gained that [belief].

“Belief is the first step. If you don’t believe, you’re never going to make it. Having that in their minds when we go through organized team activities and Training Camp, that can be a huge stepping stone for the next step in our program.”

While the Titans’ roster will likely look at least a bit different next season—18 players currently on the team will become unrestricted free agents in March—Vaccaro is certainly correct.

The Titans won’t have to spend their offseason program and Training Camp wondering about their identity, their capabilities or their status within the NFL. Thanks to a magical playoff run that came up just short of the ultimate stage, all of those things have already been decided.

Instead, the Titans can focus on getting to that ultimate stage, which is an entirely possible feat.

Cover image: USA Today/Geoff Burke

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