Adopting a key element of Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s mindset could be crucial to the Titans earning a playoff spot.
Even after their win against the New York Jets, the Tennessee Titans’ playoff chances are not very good. They will likely need to win all of their last four games in order to push for a wildcard spot.
This situation places a pair of challenges in front of the Titans. First, seeing every game as a must-win can put a lot of, and perhaps too much, pressure on a team. It becomes a temptation to look ahead in the schedule and start to think about the “big picture,” rather than taking each game at face value.
Additionally, almost all of the teams the Titans will face for the remainder of the season are struggling. The Jaguars have been a glorified trainwreck all season, the Giants have not been able to find their way thanks to an aging Eli Manning, and the Redskins just switched to their third starting quarterback of the season thanks to another injury.
The low status of the teams the Titans will face presents a second temptation. It gives the Titans the opportunity to “overlook” their opponents, something that can result in playing down to inferior competition.
“All we can control is what’s going on today,” said quarterback Marcus Mariota of the situation the Titans find themselves in. “We’ve just got to work at our process, find ways to improve every single day, and just attack it. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully, at the end of the season, we’ll like where we’re at.”
A team simply saying that they’re going to stick to the process, though, is not enough. They have to come up with a plan for how exactly they will avoid falling into paths of destruction.
Where should the Titans plan come from? The answer lies in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Every year since head coach Nick Saban took over the program, the Alabama Crimson Tide has been college football’s single-most dominating force. They have earned a spot in every College Football Playoff, and their losses over the last several years can be counted on two hands.
That success brings with it a challenge. It’s a challenge that Saban humorously refers to as “rat poison.”
Nick Saban side steps rat poison once again 💊🐀
— BamaInsider.com (@bamainsider) September 17, 2018
Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans, who played under Saban for four years at Alabama, explained what exactly his former coach means when he uses that phrase. “The rat poison consists of, you’ve got your media talking great about you, ‘oh you’re doing this, you’re the #1 team, something into history.’
“You’re feeling good about yourself, so the rat poison is listening to that kind of stuff. Even though you want to because it’s good stuff and you feel like you can kind of build from it, at the same time you don’t want so to get caught up in your team’s success that you forget the things that need to get better.”
Combatting that rat poison is something that Saban and the entire Alabama program have become masters at. It is of particular importance when facing clearly inferior opponents.
After all, when you are the very best team in the nation, it is certainly hard to get fired up to play teams like Louisiana Lafayette and Mercer. Yet, Alabama does it time and time again.
The key to combatting the rat poison, according to Rashaan Evans, is understanding that no team is ever safe. “Just because you’re ranked and the #1 team in the nation,” Evans said, “doesn’t mean you’re going to win a game. That just means you have better odds of winning the game, because of who’s on your team and your coaching staff. Any game, you can lose. If you go out there sluggish thinking that you’re going to win a game, even the smallest teams can beat you.”
While the Titans won’t exactly be playing Lousiana Lafayette or Mercer, they will be playing opponents over the next few weeks that are objectively not as good as them in terms of both talent and record.
According to safety Kenny Vaccaro, that isn’t even close to being on the minds of players. “When you’re 6-6, you don’t overlook anything. I don’t think anyone overlooks anybody in the NFL, anyone can win on any given Sunday. Everybody has talent in this league, and it’s a close race.”
Offensive tackle Taylor Lewan refused to even answer a question about looking ahead in the schedule. When asked if that mentality, of not looking ahead, is shared by the entire team, Lewan said “If it’s not, it should be. When it comes to sports, especially when you want to play football and there are only sixteen games, you can’t look ahead. You start looking ahead, you get beat.”
It will be of great importance for the Titans to hold fast to this mindset as they enter the final stretch of the 2018 season. If they let the rat poison take over, they will be watching the playoffs from home.
Cover image: USA Today/Jason Getz and Jim Brown