A division crown or double-digit win total for a struggling team typically defines a breakout season in the NFL. Meeting such markers allowed the Cowboys to become the darlings of 2016, with the Raiders achieving similar recognition for breaking their 14-year playoff drought.
The Tennessee Titans accomplished neither goal in 2016, managing nine wins and finishing outside the playoff field for the eighth consecutive year. At times, the franchise became the subject of ridicule for their head coach's disinterest in modern football offenses. In a division as woeful as the AFC South, many understandably concluded that the Titans remain far from their goal of returning to the Super Bowl.
However, while the franchise appears stuck in neutral by traditional measures, a closer inspection reveals that it turned the corner last season. Furthermore, Tennessee has the means to build upon its breakthroughs and become the biggest surprise of 2017.
Last offseason, the Titans hit the reset button on their front office, firing general manager Ruston Webster after a mostly unremarkable four years at the helm that culminated in a league-worst 3-13 record in 2015. Webster's replacement, Buccaneers director of player personnel and one-time Bill Belichick disciple Jon Robinson, quickly transformed the franchise's approach to team building. Just months after taking the job, Robinson traded the No. 1 overall pick to the Rams for a cavalcade of premium selections, including multiple first-round draft choices.
While the move to trade the top draft pick received ample support and approval, Robinson's choice for head coach garnered less favorable reviews. Rather than bring in a new face to roam the sidelines, the new general manager took the interim tag off of Mike Mularkey, a former headman with the Bills and Jaguars with a career record of 16-32.
The pessimism around Mularkey reached its apex when the veteran coach declared his intentions to bring "exotic smashmouth" football to Nashville, coach jargon for a run-focused offensive approach that had long gone by the wayside in favor of wide-open aerial attacks. The idea seemed to disparage the team's centerpiece, Marcus Mariota, a Heisman-winning quarterback baptized in the up-tempo spread offense at Oregon. Rather than stimulate Mariota's development by maximizing the number of pass attempts, Mularkey would instead redirect the ball to his top running backs.
At first blush, such an approach seemed exceedingly counterintuitive. The Titans invested the second overall pick in Mariota just a year earlier, effectively committing to build their offense and franchise around his talents. Now, they instead expressed willingness to take the ball out of his hands in favor of a group of ball carriers led by DeMarco Murray, who so thoroughly disappointed in 2015 that the Eagles cut ties with him one season into a five-year deal.
Mularkey's gambit paid off in a multitude of ways. The Titans enjoyed a revival of their ground attack, finishing fourth overall in both rush attempts (476) and yards per carry (4.6) and sixth in rushing DVOA. The reliance on the ground game forged Tennessee's offensive line into a cohesive unit more quickly than it might have under a pass-happy offense, with offensive tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan delivering All-Pro and Pro Bowl seasons, respectively. Though stylistically out of step with most of their contemporaries, the Titans developed a meaningful offensive identity for the first time since Kerry Collins and Chris Johnson led them to a 13-3 record eight years earlier.
While improved rushing felt like a natural result of Mularkey's plan, the exotic smashmouth also had the unintended consequence of freeing Mariota and fast-tracking his growth. Coming out of college, a sizeable percentage of talent evaluators feared that Mariota would struggle without the surplus of manufactured simple throws that form the backbone of Oregon's offense. While he didn't exactly stumble his rookie season, Mariota didn't produce the volume of passing yards or touchdowns (2,818; 19) delivered by the quarterback selected before him, Jameis Winston, in the same year (4,042; 22).
Now with Murray and a hard-nosed offensive line establishing dominance, the potential that made Mariota such an intriguing prospect began to manifest. In a key October matchup with the playoff-bound Dolphins, Mariota completed just under 70 percent of his passes and accounted for four touchdowns. He looked even stronger a month later against the eventual NFC North-champion Packers, converting seven third downs (including a difficult third-and-14 situation) and tossing four scores. By season's end, Mariota amassed 26 touchdown passes while reducing his interception total to nine.
Between the powerhouse running game and Mariota's strides, the Titans performed like one of the best teams in the NFL. The offense ranked in the top 10 in both passing and rushing DVOA and ninth overall, easily topping the rest of the AFC South. Tennessee also defended the run well (10th in DVOA) despite facing Adrian Peterson, Jay Ajayi and Spencer Ware over the course of the season, as well as multiple matchups with Frank Gore.
However, the Titans' pass defense proved less capable. The unit yielded more than twice as many touchdowns (25) as it produced interceptions (12) while allowing opposing quarterbacks to combine for an 88.3 passer rating. Tennessee ranked 26th in pass defense by DVOA, a mark worse than all but one playoff team (Lions). Even in a winnable division, making the playoffs can prove a monumental task when opponents can toss the ball all over the field, and it proved to be the Titans' undoing.
Still, if not for some particularly poor fumble luck -- the team recovered the fifth-fewest fumbles and finished 17th in turnover differential -- Tennessee likely secures the extra win or two necessarily to earn the division crown and quality for the postseason. While players can learn to force fumbles, recoveries have statistically proven to be more random. Teams that greatly struggle or thrive in that area one season tend to regress toward the mean the following year. Accordingly, the Titans can reasonably expect to see better recovery results in 2017.
And even without improved fumble luck, the Titans have plenty of reasons for optimism heading into the new season. Mariota enters his third year in the league and second with continuity along the offensive coaching staff, significantly raising the prospects for elevating his play to the next level. Further aiding those efforts, the team spent the No. 5 overall pick on record-setting wideout Corey Davis and signed steady veteran Eric Decker in free agency. Those weapons, combined with the possibility for increased snaps for 2016 second-round pick Derrick Henry at running back, could help the Titans become one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL.
Tennessee's front office also spent heavily on the defensive side, with considerable resources invested in the secondary. The team signed Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan and drafted USC Adoree' Jackson to settle the pass defense, with nose tackle Sylvester Williams arriving to anchor the D-line. Those additions alone won't likely result in the Titans turning into a defensive juggernaut, but they should allow the unit to move closer to league average.
In a division as winnable as the AFC South, those improvements might prove more than enough to take home the crown. The Texans remain a potentially dangerous team, but quarterback is a question mark until first-round pick Deshaun Watson or holdover Tom Savage proves otherwise. The Colts finally moved on from woeful general manager Ryan Grigson, but they lack sufficient talent despite the presence of Andrew Luck. And while the Jaguars have "won" multiple offseasons of late, starting Blake Bortles under center should effectively eliminate them from the playoff conversation by November.
Meanwhile, the Titans finished 2016 as the superior team in the AFC South despite the final records and have more working in their favor now. Despite the low profile, not only should Tennessee receive the recognition as the favorite to win the division, but a deep playoff run appears possible if it catches the breaks it didn't last year.