More is not necessarily better. That’s how to best assess the 2016 Tennessee Titans offensive strategy.
In the span of just a few months this spring, the Titans went from having seemingly no promising running backs to having two. After acquiring Demarco Murray from the extremely grateful Philadelphia Eagles for next to nothing (Philadelphia swapped fourth round picks with Tennessee if they promised to take Murray and his large salary off their hands) the Titans drafted Alabama star running back Derrick Henry in the second round.
Those two players joining an offense with promising quarterback Marcus Mariota – a wonderfully gifted scrambler and runner who flashed moments of brilliance in his rookie season last year — suggests Tennessee could possess the most potent rushing attack in the NFL this season. Their backfield includes a recent NFL rushing champion (Murray) and the last two Heisman Trophy winners. (Mariota rushed for 770 yards and 15 touchdowns in his final collegiate season.)
Head coach Mike Mularkey has characterized his offensive approach as “exotic smashmouth” football. He learned that term and style as an assistant under former head coach Bill Cowher as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive coordinator. Mularkey and Cowher employed Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis and dual-threat quarterback Kordell Stewart. They were complemented by receivers Hines Ward and , Antwaan Randle-El and a deep arsenal of trick and “gadget” plays in the passing game.
Put aside for a moment the argument over whether or that group of Steelers players (Bettis, Stewart, Ward, Randle-El) was more talented than the Titans’ trio. What matters more is how drastically the NFL has changed in the 15 years in between.
For a litany of reasons — rule changes, innovations, evolution of coaching philosophies, etc. — the NFL is defined by the passing game. That’s not to say running the ball has become an archaic, useless relic from a time long-since past. It’s not. The running game is still essential to every offense and success in the NFL. In 2015, five of the top eight rushing attacks in the NFL (Carolina, Seattle, Minnesota, Kansas City, and Arizona) made the playoffs, the same number as the previous year.
But there’s no denying how much “easier” throwing the football to gain large chunks of yardage and quick scores has become. Just look at all the passing milestones that have fallen recently.
Thirteen of the 14 highest single-seasons passing yard totals were set in the last 10 years. The top-15 names on the list of most completions in a single season earned their rank during that same stretch. And all but four of the 17 greatest single seasons in terms of passing touchdowns occurred since 2004.
In this modern NFL, boasting a great running game — whether it’s one transcendent runner or a trio of excellent ones — is no guarantee of success. A running game alone is not enough to win games and titles. It is meaningless, and ultimately unsustainable, without a consistent passing attack, and the Titans have shown little sign this preseason of having one. Other than a solid tight end in Delanie Walker, the best receiving options for Mariota are an unheralded rookie (Tajae Sharpe), a 35-year-old Andre Johnson — on his third team in three seasons — and Rishard Matthews.
Tennessee’s defense doesn’t seem likely to carry its weight, either. Sure, an effective running game provides the defense a rest, but no one is touting the Titans defense as one of the better units in the league. A rested mediocre defense isn’t much more effective than a tired mediocre defense.
Remember, the Titans finished no higher than 27th in points allowed per game each of the last two seasons and the most significant additions they made this offseason were cornerback Brice McCain and rookie linebacker Kevin Dodd.
But most importantly, no matter how great a team’s running game is, it nearly impossible for a coaching staff to remain patient and measured late in games. If the Titans fall behind by 17 points in the second half or trail by three in the final minute, the “exotic smashmouth” play calling will turn heavily towards no-huddle, four-and-five wide receiver sets that feature passes, not runs. And, considering their investment in Mariota as a quarterback, they should be calling on his arm to stage a comeback, not the running game.
Twenty years ago the intersection of talent possessed by Murray, Henry and Mariota very well might have combined to be one of the greatest rushing attacks the league has every seen. It may have made the early 1970s Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons “DVD” backfield (Warrick Dunn/Michael Vick) from 15 years ago, or even the famous Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson backfield of the Los Angeles Raiders pale in comparison.
But because of Tennessee’s defensive deficiencies and the NFL’s abundance of premier passing games — which the Titans do not possess — they may not get the chance to carve out a place in history.