When talking with folks around the NFL, you’d probably have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t think the Titans are a young and upcoming team in the league. As long as he remains healthy, the Titans have a franchise QB in Marcus Mariota, and one of the very best running attacks in the NFL to complement him.
I still remember staring at my TV, biting my nails, and shaking in anticipation leading up to and while watching the 2015 NFL draft. Chip was fresh off of winning his power struggle with Howie Roseman to gain complete control of personnel decisions, and he had just produced back-to-back 10-win seasons with a revolving door at the most important position on the field. I just knew, deep in my heart, that Chip was going to pull off a massive trade to bring his prodigy QB, Marcus Mariota, to the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the perfect fit, after all.
Of course, as well all know, the Titans weren’t willing to move off of their #2 overall pick, and selected the Oregon QB for themselves – and rightfully so.
Mariota came out of the gates as a rookie on fire against the player he will be forever linked to: Tampa Bay QB and the #1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, Jameis Winston. Mariota threw for four TDs and compiled a perfect, 158.3 passer rating in his first career start – making him the first QB in NFL history to attain a perfect passer rating in his first career game.
However, major highs led to major lows during Mariota’s rookie campaign. After beating the Buccaneers in week one, the team would then go on a skid and lose 6 straight games, provoking the Titans’ front office to fire their second-year head coach, Ken Wisenhunt. The team promoted (and eventually retained) TEs coach Mike Mularkey to HC.
The Titans went on to finish 2015 with a 3-13 record. Despite actually improving upon their 2-14 record from the year prior, obviously at 3-13, the team knew it had to drastically infuse the team with talent around their young franchise-caliber signal caller.
Sound familiar? Let’s press on:
Heading into the 2016 season coming off of 3 wins the prior year, there was still a sense of excitement around the organization. That’s called the franchise QB effect. They added DeMarco Murray and Rishard Matthews to the skill positions via free agency. They drafted a franchise tackle in Jack Conklin and also added Derrick Henry and Tajae Sharpe in the draft.
While Mariota’s rookie year was largely a disappointment, he showed plenty of promise. It was clear that the team needed to better protect their young QB and get him better weapons as well – and they began that process in the 2016 offseason.
All of this should be ringing a bell. The Eagles found themselves in an eerily similar situation heading into the 2017 offseason. Despite a disappointing 7-9 finish to the 2016 season, franchise QB Carson Wentz showed plenty of promise during his rookie year.
During their rookie seasons, both Mariota and Wentz dealt with revolving offensive lines, under-achieving running games, sub-par wide receivers, and defenses that, quite frankly, couldn’t be relied upon. However, even with all of the deficiencies around them, they still shined through enough to show why they were each selected number 2 overall, in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Simply put, the Titans in year 2 of the Mariota era looked really good. They didn’t look like a team that had just went 3-13 the prior year. They were playing smashmouth football – sorry – exotic smashmouth football.
The Titans offense took a huge step forward in 2016 with their 'Exotic Smashmouth'. @PFF_Mike explains how:https://t.co/cztBO3YnPs pic.twitter.com/qGL4Ok5k5U
— PFF (@PFF) July 26, 2017
A Healthy Quarterback
Tennessee was smart to really prioritize the health of Marcus Mariota in 2016. They did this by having Mariota bulk up some and by drafting well up front, but they largely did this by scheming to their personnel strengths.
Of course, Marcus still ended up missing one game to end the year. Even with better protection and a better running game to help alleviate some pressure, Mariota’s athletic style of play will always leave him more vulnerable to injury than traditional pocket-passer QBs.
But even then, the Titans grew last season. No, they did better than grow – they exceeded expectations. Mariota came on strong; DeMarco revived himself and proved his one-year hiatus in Philly was a fluke (Derrick Henry looked like a beast too); the offensive line improved with the additions made there, and really became one of the league’s top units; oh, and the defense saw some promising improvements as well.
The Titans were very smart in being creative with their running game. This led to manageable third and shorts for the offense, the likes of which their young QB capitalized on:
.@Titans QB Marcus Mariota led the NFL in Adjusted Completion % on 3rd down in the red zone in 2016 pic.twitter.com/abVRYGr1lI
— PFF (@PFF) June 2, 2017
It’s not rocket science: if you don’t have a Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees quarterbacking your team, then you’re more than likely not going to ask your QB to drop back 50 times a game and diagnose and dissect a defense. Especially for young QBs still trying to adjust to the speed and complex disguises of NFL defenses, this can lead to them becoming sort of panicky and fidgety in the pocket, and cause them to take off and scramble sometimes before they should – which can put them at higher risk of injury.
This was my issue with the Eagles last year. I get it, Carson didn’t have much to work with – but, come on, the dude threw the ball over 600 times as a rookie, and with quite possibly the worst collective group of receivers in the league.
Of course, part of that is a testament to Wentz. He’s a very cerebral player, and I don’t think Coach Pederson would ask him to do anything he can’t do. And don’t get me wrong, I truly believe Wentz has the physical and analytical skills to be one of the great aforementioned field generals that can drop back 50 times a game with success. But as a rookie? The Eagles certainly weren’t shy about showing Wentz the ropes. Wentz, however, handled the workload well, and never really looked overwhelmed in my opinion.
Which leads me to one guy who will indirectly help keep Wentz healthy, and will directly help Wentz into manageable third and shorts, and one of my favorite 2017 Eagles’ acquisitions: RB LeGarrette Blount. Part of the reason the Eagles relied on Wentz’ arm so much was simply because, well, who else would they rely on? Injury-prone Ryan Mathews? Their other scat backs?
The team did rely on a committee approach throughout much of the season, and they will likely continue to utilize aspects of a committee approach. But make no mistake, the acquisition of Blount gives this team a nasty, punishing 1st and 2nd down runner to keep defenses honest.
In today’s pass-happy league, defenses tend to stay in nickel personnel throughout much of games. As OC Frank Reich pointed out in his recent press conference, the addition of LeGarrette will cause opposing teams to really consider their defensive personnel out on the field for each and every play. Will teams be so eager to only leave two linebackers on the field when the bruiser Blount is in the backfield?
Another aspect I liked about the Titans last year was their use of max and chip protections. Mariota was sacked 38 times in just 12 games in 2015. In 2016, Mariota started 15 games and was only sacked 23 times. So how did Tennessee turn it around? Well, we discussed Mariota’s development, the development of their power-run game and the improvement of their offensive line. But, I think it’s equally important to give the Titans’ coaching staff credit for taking some of the pressure off of Mariota in the form of chip blocks and extra protection. The Eagles could take a note or two in this category, seeing as how Carson Wentz was sacked 33 times during his rookie season:
These teams rarely utilized backs and tight ends in pass protection pic.twitter.com/TZzArIuCD5
— PFF (@PFF) July 26, 2017
I think the acquisition of Blount was a key one for the Eagles heading into 2017. We saw the one-two punch of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and what that provided to Mariota’s health and to the Titans offense as a whole. Here’s to hoping the addition of Blount, along with the committee of Smallwood, Sproles, and Pumphrey, will do the same for Carson Wentz, and for the balance that the Eagles’ offense needs.
First and ten – the Eagles jog up to the line of scrimmage – Wentz is under center with three tight ends, a FB, and LeGarrette Blount lined up in the backfield. Hmmm. If it looks like a run, smells like a run, and tastes like a run, what is it? It’s probably a run.
Last season, we saw the Titans evolve into a true, down-hill running team. As we discussed before, this led to a healthier Mariota, a more efficient offense, and well, more team wins. But it wasn’t just the running game that was so impressive – or so vital to Mariota’s health and success.
The Titans did an amazing job of utilizing multiple formations to keep defenses on their toes. They ran the ball out of every formation imaginable. They utilized one, two, and three tight end sets. They motioned WRs, TEs, and backs across the formation to further set up blocking mismatches.
This is another area that I find similar between Tennessee and Philadelphia. Doug Pederson’s offense, from what we saw last year, also utilizes a plethora of formations, motions, and personnel groupings. I remember watching the first three games of 2016, of which the Eagles jumped out to a 3-0 start, and just thinking to myself: “Man, this Pederson guy can really coach.” It was easy to see how the coaching staff had scripted certain looks for their young QB to help get him in a rhythm. They utilized their versatile TEs all over the field, and Wentz was firing all over the place.
I really grew to appreciate Pederson’s offense as the season went on. As offensive line woes and under-achieving receivers and runners hurt the offense, Pederson was able to get creative. He really made a point of utilizing the short and sideline-passing game as an extension of their running game.
Now, throw LeGarrette Blount into the mix. I can’t even begin to think of the various personnel groupings that the Eagles might soar out in. But one thing is certain, the Eagles were already creative last year with their formations, and it led to productive matchups and easy reads for their young QB. So now, with a punishing 250 lb. workhorse to account for on first and second downs, defenses will have their hands full.
- Alshon Jeffery
- Torrey Smith
- Jordan Matthews
- Nelson Agholor
- Zach Ertz
- Brent Celek
- Trey Burton
- LeGarrette Blount
- Darren Sproles
- Donnel Pumphrey
- Mack Hollins
The Eagles have the potential to be really creative this year, especially with their quarterback/HC entering their second seasons together. While I think the coaching staff is largely responsible for scripting their game plans etc., it would be silly to disregard the notion that Carson had/has major input as well – which is something he didn’t get enough credit for last year. Quite frankly, I think it’s hard to quantify just how good Wentz was last year. Let’s take a quick look at Pro Football Focus’ Rookie QB grades:
Rookie QB grades
Dak Prescott, @DallasCowboys 84.9
Carson Wentz, @Eagles 76.8
Cody Kessler, @Browns 74.2
Jared Goff, @RamsNFL 39.7 pic.twitter.com/VHZ3snM0pd
— PFF (@PFF) February 14, 2017
Dak Prescott played awesome last year. However, contrary to what the numbers suggest, I don’t think he played better than Wentz. Subjective opinion or not, Dak had the luxury of playing behind arguably the best o-line in the league last season. I don’t even need to mention Zeke or Dez (oops). He had the luxury of the best play-action attack in football. He had the luxury of seeing 8-9 men in box frequently, leading to quicker, easier, more defined reads:
Work smarter, not harder pic.twitter.com/mBFgIrvWxd
— PFF (@PFF) July 26, 2017
Don’t get me wrong, I really like Dak, and I think he’s a great fit for what Dallas seems to be doing – building around Zeke and their talented offensive line, playing power run/ball control offense, and working off of that deadly play-action. But the Cowboys simply didn’t ask him to do anything that special.
As for Wentz, well, he had the luxury of playing with a spotty o-line for much of the year, an under-achieving running game, and a group of receivers who sometimes forgot they were playing professional football. Nonetheless, the Cowboys went 13-3, and the Eagles went 7-9. It’s not Dak’s fault he landed in a great situation for him to succeed right out of that gate.
However, even with all of the deficiencies around him, Wentz still outshined Prescott in terms of throwing the deep ball:
Carson Wentz led all rookie quarterbacks with 654 yards on passes 20+ yards downfield in 2016. pic.twitter.com/wurV4pHLTE
— PFF (@PFF) June 26, 2017
In any case, in 2017, I look for the Eagles to resemble somewhat of the 2016 Titans. A power running game, a young dynamic QB, and the use of various formations to take advantage of defenses – via the run AND the pass.
The Big Picture
With Mariota entering year three, and Wentz year two, both franchises have set themselves up for the future. They both have identified their franchise QBs, plugged key personnel gurus into the front office [Joe Douglas, Jon Robinson], and have identified and addressed roster weaknesses heading into the upcoming season.
I don’t anticipate the Eagles becoming quite as run-heavy as Tennessee. After all, like I mentioned above, the Eagles put Carson Wentz on the fast-track to development. Wentz showed real promise and command at the line of scrimmage as a rookie, and while I might have earlier criticized the team for putting too much on the young man, I will still acknowledge that his biggest benefit heading into this year is that he DID throw 607 passes last season. I truly believe that Carson’s experience analyzing defenses last year, combined with his new weaponry and Pederson’s creative schemes and philosophies, will lead to special things for this team.
As 2017 training camp gets underway, the excitement and sense of direction surrounding both teams is as immense as it has been in quite some time. The Eagles and Titans are showing the rest of the league how to rebuild, and how to rebuild fast.
Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports