The Tennessee Titans’ coaching staff, namely Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur, let the team down against the Chargers.
After a divisional round playoff loss to the Patriots back in January, Tennessee Titans fans clamored for a coaching change. Sure the team had advanced farther in the playoffs than they had in over a decade, but the fans wanted more.
It wasn’t an unreasonable request, either. Former head coach Mike Mularkey and his oft-mocked offensive coordinator, Terry Robiskie, ran what many thought was an archaic offensive scheme.
In a league where the passing game has progressively become more central, the Titans’ old coaching staff put a premium on a mostly-unsuccessful ground attack. As a result, in the eyes of many, quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered.
So the switch was made just six days after that playoff loss from Mularkey and Robiskie to Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur. They were initially billed as the football versions of Bob the Builder; they were going to come in with their talking construction equipment (in the form of other assistants like DC Dean Pees and QB coach Pat O’Hara) and fix everything.
Through the 2018 season’s first seven weeks, that has not happened.
At first, things looked good. The Titans managed a win in Week 2 with backup QB Blaine Gabbert, defeated their divisional foe Jacksonville in a Week 3 field goal fest, and took down the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles in a Week 4 overtime thriller that saw receiver Corey Davis break out.
Then came the whining for more national attention. Then came the sleep-walking. Then came the 2.5-game long touchdown drought.
In the three weeks since their heroic defeat of the Eagles, the Titans are 0-3. To call the losing streak a skid would be an understatement. It’s more like the Titans drove completely off of the road, over a cliff, and into a giant river.
Amazingly, the Titans had a legitimate shot to beat the Los Angeles Chargers at the end of Sunday’s matchup in London despite all of their miscues. Yet, they blew it. More specifically, the coaches blew it.
The Titans team that has taken the field over the last three weeks does not look all that different from last year’s squad, and the problems are coming from all over the place. Execution is poor in general, the receiving corps is not creating separation, the pass rush disappeared for two games, and Marcus Mariota has been as “eh” as ever.
But the biggest problem that plagued the Titans against the Chargers was the guys wearing headsets on the sideline and in the booth. They did their jobs poorly, something that Titans fans are becoming all too used to, and it cost the team a win.
Mean what you say, Mike!
When we asked Vrabel about Malcolm Butler’s issues on Monday, he said this:
Today, Butler’s been fine, but the other DB’s have had the same problem. pic.twitter.com/raFgIe4Jw6
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) October 21, 2018
One of Mike Vrabel’s favorite phrases to use in interactions to the media is “we need to coach better.” While it’s certainly refreshing to hear a coach take the blame after a loss, since the Mularkey staff often blamed players, the phrase is beginning to fall on deaf ears.
While it’s good that Vrabel identifies things that he needs to do a better job of coaching, he doesn’t really do anything about it. A prime example of this is defensive back technique.
When asked about the frequent struggles of cornerback Malcolm Butler last week, Vrabel identified eye placement as the central issue. He essentially said that corners need to know when to have their eyes in the backfield and when to keep their eyes on the receiver they are covering.
Butler had a fine game in this regard against the Chargers, but other Titans defensive backs did not. Cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Kendrick Lewis were both torched for deep bombs by Chargers receivers on Sunday. Both times, eye placement and over-aggression looked to be the issue.
It’s a bit of a problem when two new players develop a bad habit that, just six days earlier, their head coach deemed as something he needed to coach better.
LaFleur is Lacking
The Titans’ shiny new offensive coordinator has had his share of coaching issues as well Billed as an offensive genius who would restore Marcus Mariota to his former glory, Matt LaFleur has done nothing but throw an unimpressive and ineffective scheme onto the field week after week.
LaFleur certainly does deserve some credit. After all, it was mostly due to his scheme against the Texans that the Titans managed to win that game. And his distinct effort to work the ball downfield against the Eagles was crushing for their defense.
In the Titans’ three-game losing streak, however, he has dropped the ball. Sometimes, his play calling resembles that of the departed (and sometimes despised, by fans at least) Robiskie.
Far too often, LaFleur gets away from his signature style of spreading things out and calls plays out of clustered formations that give the quarterback very few options. Usually, when he does that, it doesn’t work out for the Titans.
And his play calling on the goal line throughout the game? It should be considered coaching malpractice. Mariota threw three passes into the end zone against the Chargers, each to his first read. Those reads were perhaps the least-effective and least-reliable targets on the Titans’ roster—Taywan Taylor, Luke Stocker, and Jonnu Smith.
While Stocker miraculously hauled in his target for a touchdown, the ones to Smith (which was intercepted) and Taylor had next to no chance.
There have simply been too many times this season where LaFleur has looked like a rookie play caller. That may be excusable in ordinary circumstances, but not on a team that won a playoff game last year and fired their coaching staff so that everything could get fixed.
Aggressive or Reckless?
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) October 21, 2018
Arguably the biggest area where the Titans’ coaches failed the team in London was at the very end of the game when Vrabel made the decision to bypass a game-tying extra point and instead attempt a go-ahead two-point conversion. The decision was a poor one.
Following the Titans’ win over the Eagles in which Vrabel went on a handful of fourth downs, he assured everyone that he makes sure to never cross the line of being reckless in his efforts to have an aggressive mentality. That line was crossed on Sunday.
The Titans absolutely should have kicked the extra point after scoring a touchdown with 35 seconds remaining in the game. The offense looked to be in a rhythm, Dion Lewis was incredibly effective on the ground, and the defense had been holding Phillip Rivers in check minus one second-half coverage bust.
Instead, Vrabel got ahead of himself. In doing so, he was reckless. That wasn’t the only time Vrabel was reckless in the game.
Earlier, after what pretty clearly looked like a clean catch from Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, Vrabel threw the challenge flag. It was immediately pretty obvious that it was a challenge he would not win.
Vrabel did something similar last week against the Ravens, throwing a challenge flag on an obvious sideline catch, explaining after the game that he “figured it was probably going to be a catch, but it was a big completion, [he] wanted to slow things down a little.”
Challenge flags are not shot in the dark momentum cards that you throw whenever opponents make a nice play that may take a second look from officials. When you use them like that, you unnecessarily lose timeouts. Consequently, you lose football games.
Perhaps Titans fans and the team’s front office had aspirations that were too high when they thought a young coaching staff would be able to take an already good football team to the next level. Maybe that happens eventually, but it absolutely has not through the 2018 season’s first seven weeks.
The Titans have a bye week beginning on Monday, but it’s doubtful that the coaching staff will see the time off as any sort of vacation opportunity. They have a lot of work to do, and they have a team that is playing way below its potential.
Next up for the Titans after the bye is a primetime showdown in Jerry World against the Cowboys. If they don’t want to get embarrassed in front of the national media they recently demanded respect from, a lot of things need to change.
Cover image via AP Photo/Tim Ireland & Donn Jones