Last season, the Titans shocked the NFL by turning around their season after a 2-4 start and notching the sixth seed in the AFC. Against all odds, they beat the Patriots in Foxborough in round one and beat the Ravens in Baltimore in round two. They finally fell to the Chiefs in the AFC championship. How did the Titans improve so much from the start of the season?
Derrick Henry: Not the Key Player
Many would point to Derrick Henry when asked where the Titans’ success stemmed from. He put up a combined 377 rushing yards in the first two rounds alone. He led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in the regular season. In the playoffs, Henry’s 446 rushing yards set a new record for rushing yards by a player in a single postseason (not including the Super Bowl). Yet, Derrick Henry’s EPA/rush in the regular season was just 0.01, meaning that his effect on the game was negligible. Yet, the average run play in the NFL has a negative EPA/play. So, while Henry may be good as far as running the ball goes, running often in the NFL is an inefficient way to play offense. Because of this, Henry was not the main reason for the Titans’ offensive success.
Tannehill’s Breakout Season
Marcus Mariota started the Titans’ first six games but was benched for Ryan Tannehill after leading the Titans to a 2-4 start. Tannehill had been on the Dolphins for the prior seven years and was very mediocre. But, he was brilliant for the Titans last year. He led the league with a 9.6 Y/A and a completion percentage above expected (CPOE) of 8.0 percent. He also was third in the league in EPA/play, behind only Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
It is worth wondering if Tannehill’s brilliant 2019 regular season was an anomaly. It stands in stark contrast to other seasons in his career and will be very hard to maintain moving forward. Potential regression began to rear its head in the playoffs, as Tannehill’s Y/A fell to 6.2. And, breaking down Tannehill’s EPA/play by play type a bit more also points to a likely regression. Tannehill had an EPA/play of about 0.65 on play-action passes, but less than 0.15 on other pass plays. This massive variance is very unusual, and Titans’ 2020 opponents will likely be prepared to shut down the play-action game after digesting film on Tannehill.
An impending regression for Tannehill is very worrisome for the Titans’ 2020 hopes. Derrick Henry, being but a running back, will not be a viable main engine of an offense. But, it’s not all bad for Tennessee. The AFC South is a division that is up for grabs this season. The Colts are currently the favorites to win the division after acquiring Philip Rivers. But, the Titans are second-favorites to win the AFC South after signing potent defensive players in Vic Beasley and Johnathan Joseph. With the Texans losing Deandre Hopkins, Bradley Roby, Barkevious Mingo and others, there could be a window of opportunity for Tennessee. Based on 2019 records, the Titans have a slightly weaker schedule than both Indy and Houston. Expect the AFC South to be a hotly contested division, but without very many outstanding records. Thus, the Titans are in an excellent position to be in the race for the division crown. Whether or not they can win the AFC South will come down to whether or not Tannehill can play like his 2019 self. If not, the Titans won’t be able to keep up.
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