Catching up with the Titans, a.k.a. the Patriots of the South
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans made the playoffs last season for the first time in nine years, and even won a road playoff game. But they fired coach Mike Mularkey anyway.
Simply getting to the postseason isn’t good enough anymore. They want to win division titles every year and compete for Super Bowls.
So they went out and bought themselves some championship pedigree.
The Titans have become New England South. Everywhere you look there is a former Patriot, with at least one Super Bowl ring.
There is Mike Vrabel barking out orders; Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler swatting away passes; Dion Lewis spinning off defenders; Josh Kline starting at right guard; Dean Pees running the defense; and Jon Robinson calling the shots as general manager.
It might be difficult to remember which team is which when the Patriots play at Tennessee in Week 10.
“The team’s different, the scheme’s a little different, but I know that these guys can compete,” said Ryan, now in his second season in Tennessee, after Wednesday’s joint practice against the Buccaneers. “I know when live shots are being fired, they’ll have my back.”
Ryan was the first to migrate to Tennessee, signing a three-year, $30 million deal last year after spending four years with the Patriots. Robinson, who became the GM in 2016, helped draft Ryan in 2013 when he was New England’s director of college scouting, and loves Ryan’s versatility, with the ability to play outside cornerback or the slot.
Ryan’s first year in Tennessee was solid, though he didn’t have an interception after securing 13 in four seasons with the Patriots.
“Very mature personality, very smart football player,” Robinson said Wednesday. “And just his daily work ethic and attention to detail, trying to master his craft as a DB and as a Titan.”
Ryan helped recruit Butler to Tennessee in March. The duo reunited after three seasons together in New England, and they should be the Titans’ starting cornerbacks this year, although 2017 first-round pick Adoreé Jackson is in the mix.
Butler signed a five-year, $61.2 million contract in March, with two years and $24 million fully guaranteed.
Tennessee certainly offers a more relaxed atmosphere than New England — not in terms of football intensity, but rather the attention put on the team. The Titans’ media horde is a fraction of the size of the Patriots’. The Titans allow reporters to roam the sideline throughout training camp practices, and players don’t get a million microphones shoved in their faces.
“A little more breathing room,” Ryan said. “I truly like it here, and I told [Butler] that. My family is comfortable here. It’s his job to make his best football decision, and I’m extremely happy that it ended up being here.”
Lewis, meanwhile, signed a four-year, $18 million deal March 16, the same day Butler signed his contract. After bouncing around among four teams — getting buried on the depth chart in Philadelphia, breaking his leg with the Browns, getting cut by the Colts, and tearing his ACL with the Patriots — Lewis finally has arrived with the Titans. His deal pays him $6 million this year and a nonguaranteed $5 million next year.
Robinson saw everything he needed of Lewis in last year’s AFC Divisional playoffs, when Lewis rushed for 62 yards, caught nine passes for 79 yards, and returned kickoffs.
“We thought he could be a unique matchup for us,” Robinson said. “We had to cover him in the second round and he’s a tough cover. A versatile player who can play on all three downs, but a guy we hope can get the ball in his hands and he can make some yards for us.”
Lewis is thrilled to be in Tennessee, where he will share backfield duties with Derrick Henry. They offer a true thunder-and-lightning combination, with Henry listed at 6 feet 2 inches, 247 pounds and Lewis at 5-8, 195.
“We’re going to balance each other out,” Lewis said. “You’ve got a bigger guy who can run you over, and you’ve got a smaller guy who is quicker and can still break tackles.”
Lewis was a fifth-round pick in 2011, and he spent the first seven years of his career trying to prove that he was worthy of an NFL spot, and that he deserved a big contract.
Now that he has gotten a big contract, he seems to have found a different motivation — proving the Patriots wrong.
They got three solid seasons out of Lewis but let him walk away in free agency.
“I’m happy with the decision, and this is the decision I would’ve made even if they did offer,” he said. “If they wanted me, they could’ve had me.
“But obviously, they didn’t want me, they didn’t think I was good enough to be there. I just had to move on and do what’s best for me.”
Lewis also wants to prove that he’s not going to get soft after earning his contract.
“I always carry a chip on my shoulder, always eager to prove the kind of player I am,” he said, “and that’s not going to change just because I got a contract. I’m self-motivated. I feel like I’m a great player and I’m always eager to show what type of player I am.
“I get more mad at myself than the coaches get mad at me. I’m extremely hard on myself and I expect a lot. And I think that I can do a lot better than I did last year.
“That’s what most of my motivation comes from — I know that I could raise my game to another level and I look forward to being able to do that here.”
That’s a scary proposition for opposing defenses. Though he is one of the smallest running backs in the league, Lewis runs with exceptional power, and he averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year while leading the NFL in rushing yards in the second half of the season (625 over his final eight games).
Lewis also led the Patriots with 10 touchdowns: six rushing, three receiving, and one on a kickoff return.
And he expects more fireworks in Tennessee this season.
“I got some more tricks in my sleeves,” Lewis said.