Mapping out the Blueprint for a Tennessee Titans Playoff Run in 2013-2014
It may seem early to be talking about the Titans' playoff chances next season, considering the Super Bowl hasn't even been played yet, but the team hasn't made the playoffs since 2008-09.
Since then, the Titans have posted a disappointing 29-35 record. The 2012 season never looked promising and the team's defense was dismantled to the tune of a league-worst 471 points allowed.
Despite all that, if there's anything we've learned from the past few seasons in the NFL, it's that teams can go from worst to first in one year. There's a perfect example within the division in the Indianapolis Colts.
The question is: How can the Tennessee Titans finally re-emerge as a playoff-caliber team? What follows is a comprehensive guide for how they can make a drive for Super Bowl XLIII.
Fix the Defense
It's been a bit controversial as to how defensive coordinator Jerry Gray managed to keep his job on the coaching staff after his defense allowed a franchise-record and league-worst 471 points. ESPN's Paul Kuharsky touched on the subject here.
Coming into the season, one of the main points of focus on the defensive side was improving on a lackluster pass rush. The Titans finished 2011 tied for 31st in sacks with 24. After this past season, their sack number jumped up to 39 giving the team a 12th-place ranking.
That stat may come as a surprise to many, because watching the Titans throughout the year, this team's defense did not seem like it was consistently putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
That's because they didn't.
Twenty of the team's sacks came during the month of December when the unit was playing its best football of the year. If the defensive line can add another strong pass-rusher to the rotation, the unit could take another step forward next season.
The big issue now is the safety play. Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux were two of the league's worst safeties in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus (paid subscription only).
Griffin is only entering the second year of a five-year contract, but Babineaux is in the final year of his deal and is only costing the team $1.8 million. The team can either choose to keep him as depth or cut him and eat the cap hit.
We know the team is stuck with Griffin, but the strong safety position is a must to be replaced.
Jake Locker Must Improve
One of the common traits of teams that have made sudden turnarounds from one year to the next is the play at quarterback. This past season alone we saw the Redskins, Colts, Seahawks and Broncos surge up the standings based on improvement at the position.
The Titans, on the other hand, have been stuck in neutral with Vince Young and now the still-developing Jake Locker. Locker's first season was marred by injury, but he did manage to look like a quality quarterback from time to time.
Unfortunately, however, he finished the year looking progressively worse, averaging 147 yards passing over the last three weeks of the season while throwing only one touchdown and two interceptions.
Locker's twice-separated shoulder may have hindered his play as the season wore on, and it's no coincidence that his play suffered when the only remaining healthy starter on the offensive line was Michael Roos.
A full season with a fully healed Locker could do wonders for the offense's development, despite all the question marks surrounding No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt.
Continue to Improve the Offensive Line
Last offseason, the key focus was improving the play at center and guard, as seen in this Pro Football Talk article. The Titans brought in a parade of centers, but settled on trying to coach up who they already had on the roster and signing All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson.
Hutchinson was a shadow of his former self in his first year with the Titans and failed to help solve the team's poor interior line play. Starter Eugene Amano suffered a torn triceps injury before the season even started, opening the door for Fernando Velasco.
Velasco turned out be a major upgrade at the position, according to Pro Football Focus (paid subscription only), before suffering a season-ending injury himself.
The coaching staff could choose to risk going another year with Leroy Harris in the starting lineup, but after two subpar seasons in three years as a starter it's tough for Coach Munchak to do that with this likely being a make-or-break year for him.
An improved season from Hutchinson and either a free-agent signing or early draft pick could significantly improve the interior of the offensive line, help keep Jake Locker upright and stop Chris Johnson from getting stuffed in the backfield so often.
Imrpove Record Within the Division
The Titans finished the season with a miserable record of 1-5 in AFC South games, dropping two very winnable games to the Colts and somehow losing one to the Jaguars.
If a team can't even beat the teams within its division, it's going to be extremely difficult to pull off a playoff-caliber season. If the Titans want to make their first playoff appearance in five years, they will need to finish with at least a .500 record in division games.
The Titans will also be facing the AFC and NFC West next season which ends up balancing out with the AFC West being as poor as the NFC West is strong.
It's hard to predict schedule difficulty from one season to the next, but it should be easier with Tennessee finishing one place worse than the season before. All of these factors should help contribute to the Titans making a push toward the postseason.
Head coach Mike Munchak decided to take the interim tag off of offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains after making several changes to his coaching staff. Loggains has the support of his players, according to John Glennon of The Tennessean, despite the offense showing no improvement when he took over play-calling duties.
The Titans have also been rumored to be interested in hiring the now infamous Gregg Williams as an assistant head coach and to obviously help out with the defense, according to Sports Illustrated.
The interest in hiring Williams is completely dependent on commissioner Roger Goodell ending his suspension and allowing him to return to the sidelines, but his assistance on defense can only help.
Loggains will benefit from having a full offseason to install his offense and simplify former coordinator Chris Palmer's very complicated option-based receiving routes. Loggains showed that he plans to emphasize the offense's key players (Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt, etc.) during the short amount of time he was given to coordinate.
The Titans need the coaching staff to develop some schemes that will consistently put the team in position to succeed.
Draft and Offseason Signings
The Titans have done well to find some key contributors through the draft over the last two offseasons in the form of Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, Akeem Ayers, Colin McCarthy, Kendall Wright, Zach Brown and Mike Martin.
This team's recent success in the NFL draft is a trend that the team badly needs to continue, because they have struggled to find solid contributors through free agency since bringing in Chris Hope, David Thornton and Kevin Mawae back in 2006.
A strong draft and free-agent class could provide just the right infusion of leadership and skill that the team has been lacking over the last few seasons.
There's no exact blueprint to becoming a playoff-caliber team in the NFL. Every season seems to bring new challenges and ways to rise to the top. Right now the big thing seems to be having great linebackers (thank you Ravens and 49ers) and running a high-tempo offense.
There are many formulas to success, but these are some keys to what the Titans will have to account for if they hope to accomplish every team's goal of reaching the Super Bowl.