Titans made the playoffs but won’t last with that unimaginative offense they got
Unless Mike Mularkey’s ‘Exotic Smashmouth’ offense gets better, Tennessee is one-and-done
I laughed when Mike Mularkey used those two incongruent words to name his offensive system, after the Tennessee Titans went 2-7 with him as the interim head coach in 2015. The Titans lifted the interim portion of his title, making him the team’s head coach for the foreseeable future. Handing the reins over to a holdover from the failed regime seems unwise, especially after he mustered only two wins in his nine-game audition. That’s not funny. However, when that guy’s name sounds like malarkey, a word defined as meaningless talk, and he spits out something as meaningless as “Exotic Smashmouth,” I can’t resist the homophonic hilarity.
By the end of the 2016 season, though, he had shut me up. His team was 9-7, barely missing the playoffs, and in the final game of last season, without their starting quarterback, they beat the playoff-bound divisional champion Houston Texans. Offensively, they were first in the league in red zone efficiency and third in third-down conversion percentage and rushing yards per game. Exotic Smashmouth appeared to have been a success. The Titans were on the right track.
They ended this season in better shape than last, yet few analysts feel optimistic about this team. Again, they ended the season with a record of 9-7 and a win over the divisional champs, but this year they are in the playoffs and have a healthy Marcus Mariota at quarterback. So, why was Mularkey’s name on the coaching hot seat list last week?
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Because the “Exotic Smashmouth” offense is failing. After watching Sunday’s 15-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, I realize there is nothing exotic about their offense. Their formations and plays were basic. They did run a reverse, a tight end screen and a couple of designed quarterback runs. Maybe those plays were considered exotic at some point, but they are fairly standard in the modern NFL. Power back Derrick Henry was the primary running back because of DeMarco Murray’s injured knee. Pounding Henry behind their bruising offensive line qualifies as smashmouth, I guess, but it wasn’t effective. Henry averaged just 1.8 yards per carry on 28 carries.
Their passing attack was equally ineffective and uncreative. With Mariota under center, they ran a lot of three-step quick routes, which seemed foolish given the smashmouth nature of their running attack. A running strategy like theirs, which is designed to get 3 to 5 yards and set up manageable third downs, should be paired with a deep-shot passing game. They need to make their opponents pay for overloading the box. Instead, they throw 5-yard passes when the defense is compromised. The opposing defensive coordinator is never forced to worry about whether to commit to stopping the run or pass. He will just load the box on every play. Worst-case scenario, they give up a 5-yard out route. The lack of a deep pass threat also means Henry will rarely get the chance to run against a light box.
The passing strategy is also incompatible with Mariota’s skill set. He threw for just 134 yards and one touchdown. Sadly, his passing performance was even worse than those meager numbers suggest. His lone touchdown and 60 of his passing yards came on a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage to Henry. Mariota’s best plays came when he used his legs. He led the team in rushing with 60 yards. His best opportunity for big plays through the air were created because of his Russell Wilson-esque ad-libbing. Receiver Eric Decker dropped the potential big plays, but it was exciting to see Mariota overcome his coaching.
The Titans’ offensive scheme is even wrong for their defense. Yes, their defense. Their plodding, grind-it-out offensive style is not likely to produce a lot of points. Yet, they have above-average coverage linebackers and Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo excel when they know the opponent has to pass the ball. And if Logan Ryan returns in good condition from his injured ankle, he and rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson could make a tough tandem.
Let me suggest a new offense for the Titans. Since Mularkey likes catchy names, I’ll call it the “Nah-fence.” It’s simple: No matter what play is sent in to Mariota, he says nah and just plays backyard ball. That’s their only hope this week against the Kansas City Chiefs, who will score much more easily than Blake Bortles and the Jags did.