With their win over the Washington Redskins on Saturday, the Tennessee Titans clinched a winning season for the the third straight season.
A matchup against the Indianapolis Colts looms in week 17. If the Titans are able to (finally) beat Andrew Luck, they’ll reach ten wins for the first time since their 13 win season in 2008.
But even if the Titans don’t reach ten wins, the decision to fire Mike Mularkey and hire Mike Vrabel has already been justified.
What Vrabel has been able to do with the 2018 Titans is remarkable.
This has been an extremely strange season for the Titans. In fact, they should probably be a six or seven win team. Not because they lack the talent to be good, but because of all the weirdness this season has brought.
Vrabel says the Redskins were far from a pushover. pic.twitter.com/0ZrBl0vFBg
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) December 23, 2018
Think about it for a moment. The season started in a bizarre way, with Tennessee losing a seven hour marathon to the Miami Dolphins. Not only did the Titans lose the season opener, but they also lost one of their most important players — tight end Delanie Walker — to a season ending leg injury. Oh, and Marcus Mariota suffered an elbow/nerve injury.
But despite the weird start, the Titans won their next three games (including a game against the division rival Houston Texans, which Blaine Gabbert started for Tennessee).
After the early three game winning streak, however, the Titans hit a wall and lost three straight games, including a brutal 21-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The third straight loss was to the Los Angeles Chargers in London. The Titans had a chance to tie the game and send the matchup to overtime, but Vrabel opted to go for two and the win. The conversion attempt failed and the Titans flew back to Nashville with a 3-4 record.
At that point, it felt like the Titans’ season was on the way down the drain. Losing a game via a failed two point conversion, after the offense had put up only 12 points the previous two weeks combined, would be enough to break the spirit of most teams.
Vrabel, however, was able to hold the locker room together. The Titans then inexplicably won consecutive games against the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots.
Rebounding to win back-to-back games against division leaders is something that probably wouldn’t have happened under Mularkey.
Fighting through adversity
It would’ve been incredibly easy for the Titans to fold in 2018 and chalk it up to the coaching transition. But they, unlike many fans and analysts, weren’t looking past this season to 2019. They kept their focus on the 2018 season and continued fighting.
Players that were much maligned during the early portion of the season — guys like Derrick Henry and Malcolm Butler — never gave up.
Their persistence paid off.
Henry hadn’t rushed for more than 60 yards in a game this season before his offensive outbursts against the Jaguars and the Giants (238 rushing yards and 170 rushing yards, respectively).
In the case of Butler, he was so heavily criticized all season that his game clinching interception on Saturday night against Washington, which he turned into a touchdown, felt like his personal atonement for all of his perceived mistakes in 2018.
Exclamation point on the W! #TitanUp
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) December 23, 2018
I’m not sure those moments happen without Vrabel as the head coach. His continued belief in his players kept the Titans in the right headspace.
Moving forward, the Titans look like a team on the rise in the AFC South.
Are there questions surrounding the team?
Of course. Marcus Mariota has to prove he can stay healthy. And Henry has to prove he can consistently be the running back we’ve seen the last few weeks.
But the foundation of a playoff team is in place in Nashville. And if the weirdness settles down next season, the Titans will be a threat to win 11 or 12 games.
Vrabel was clearly the right choice. And after his first season at the helm, I don’t see how anyone can disagree.
Featured image via Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports