Rexrode: Hiring Mike Vrabel’s OC means firing him, which isn’t as bad as it sounds
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The least exciting thing about Tim Kelly as the Titans’ new offensive coordinator is that he was part of the Titans’ 2022 offense.
I have no idea how much of that stain belongs to his hands. Not much, I think. But then I’m of the controversial opinion that the guy who was fired to create the opening actually knows that soccer balls are oblong and how to design plays to throw them. Todd Downing wasn’t good enough. Plus, Todd Downing is better in 2022 with the help of a functional offensive line and the star receiver who will try to bring a title to Philadelphia in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
I understand there’s an old buddy-buddy feeling about Mike Vrabel’s elevation of Kelly to OC after a season as the Titans’ passing game coordinator. As mentioned, it wasn’t really a passing game. And Vrabel continues to stay mostly in the inner/inner circle with his big hires. But until we see much more than the seven-fight losing streak Vrabel questions his own training, I’m going to assume he does things to win and not to hang out with his buddies and see how many 1 yards races they can call second and 10 before they are all fired.
Yes, it seemed like a great opportunity to bring in someone from outside the clubhouse, sacrificing trust based on personal experience for new ideas and concepts. Especially considering Downing, to repeat, wasn’t good enough.
Matt Nagy? Eric Bieniemy? Is anyone willing to ignore the fact that this 7-10 team needs a complete offensive line overhaul and a serious talent upgrade at receiver? It would have been more exciting for Titans fans. More like the hiring of Ran Carthon as general manager, away from the San Francisco 49ers.
I’m not here to suggest they should call a parade for this one. But I’m going to ask this: If Kelly had been somewhere else in 2022, associated with attacking football that wasn’t an assault on the eyes, how would you feel right now? If you’ve watched a Houston Texans football game in recent seasons (speaking of eye violation), you might actually enjoy it.
Davis Mills has been an NFL quarterback for two seasons. In the first, with Kelly as OC, he caught fire as the season progressed and finished with the league’s second-best QB rookie rating (88.8) and best red-zone rating of all. quarters (116.8). The guy nearly kept the AFC No. 1 seed Titans on the final day of the season, throwing for 333 yards and three touchdowns – 113 of those yards and two of those touchdowns to Danny Amendola of all the people.
In Mills’ second season, with Kelly fired as an OC and moved to Nashville, his numbers went down in every area, including a 10-point drop in QB rating. I don’t know if it’s because he missed Kelly or not. I know Deshaun Watson has been an NFL quarterback for five seasons and has career highs of 112.4 QBs, 8.9 yards per attempt and 4,823 passing yards – the last two leading stats in the league – with Kelly as OC in 2020.
Watson threw for nearly 1,000 fewer yards and had a 98.0 rating the previous season, Kelly’s first as the Texans’ OC, for the record. Analyze and interpret any of these numbers as you wish. Just know that Kelly had substance on her resume before coming to Nashville. And that Vrabel praised Kelly’s “meaning, his energy, his leadership” when speaking about him Tuesday shortly after the hiring announcement.
Vrabel answered questions about being too “insular” in his hiring and why he hadn’t considered giving Kelly some of Downing’s responsibilities during the season. The former is fair, though so far Downing is the only real dud among Vrabel’s top recruits. Still, lose seven games in a row and any status quo deserves closer examination. As for this second, it’s a bit too much in the realm of fantasy football.
Just as I don’t believe Kelly’s arrival a year ago ultimately guaranteed this day – despite the Titans requesting to interview Kelly when Downing was hired and were blocked by the Texans – I don’t see the advantage of undermining Downing during the season. There’s a lot more to the division of labor here than showing up and shouting a few coins into a headset.
“I have to make decisions and I don’t know if during the season anything would have really mattered,” Vrabel said. “I really do not know.”
But it’s easier to believe that Downing has no idea and that his departure will fix everything, isn’t it? If only it were that simple. There’s too much information we don’t have right now to know if this decision will work. That tells us a couple of things, I think.
First, Ryan Tannehill is the overwhelming favorite to return as a starting quarterback in 2023. I wouldn’t rule out the Titans falling in love with a draft prospect and deciding they need to take the chance to move up from No. 11. to see her. I guess I won’t completely dismiss Aaron Rodgers’ business fantasy. But the continuity of personnel, in tandem with the scheme, makes sense here. It’s worth noting that Kelly wasn’t running an exact replica of the Titans’ West Coast offense in Houston, so this shouldn’t be full continuity.
Asked what this means for Tannehill, Vrabel replied: “I don’t think anything. I spoke to Ryan, let him know which way we were going. I don’t want to speak for him, but he looked excited.
And then Vrabel added the disclaimer that he and Carthon were evaluating everyone on the list. I expected Tannehill to be on this list, #1 on the QB depth chart, and now that expectation is stronger.
Secondly, this decision and the others announced on Tuesday suggest the centuries-old story of a manager forced by his owner to fire assistants following a lost game. We know dominant owner Amy Adams Strunk made the rash and unproductive decision during the season to fire general manager Jon Robinson, and now we know Vrabel replaced fired offensive line coach Keith Carter with…Jason Houghtaling, who has backed Carter as an offensive line assistant for the past two years. seasons.
Vrabel didn’t answer my question about what these two movements together suggest, but said Houghtaling gave “probably one of the best interviews I’ve had in five years.”
Perhaps the decision to fire Downing was entirely up to Vrabel. It’s harder to believe in light of greater continuity, and in the wake of words like these from Vrabel on Tuesday about that infraction: “I don’t think it’s all broken. I don’t know. I do not believe it.
Not that everything is the same. The Titans hired Charles London, Atlanta’s quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons, to be the new passing play coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Kelly worked with tight ends on the training ground and mostly advanced scouting and game planning last season as passing game coordinator, but a source said when he was hired the title was “agent shit”.
London — who previously worked with Vrabel under Bill O’Brien in Houston — will work primarily with quarterbacks. Running backs coach Tony Dews was moved to tight ends coach, a position that typically leads to more coach searches as offensive coordinators. Former quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara is now a play analyst and former tight ends coach Luke Steckel is a play analyst, moves that can only be considered demotions. This after the Chargers interviewed Steckel for their CO opener.
The Titans also formalized their hiring of Chris Harris from Washington to replace fired Anthony Midget as cornerbacks coach (Harris is also “defensive passing game coordinator,” you gotta love those agents). And Lori Locust is in charge of defensive quality control after four seasons as the Bucs’ assistant defensive line coach.
But the choice of OC, the most criticized coach in the sport, is the big news. The Titans are essentially coming back after finishing 30th in total offense (296.8 yards per game) and 28th in scoring (17.5) last season. Downing was utterly mediocre after Robinson traded AJ Brown to the Eagles and Taylor Lewan ripped an ACL to empty an offensive line already hampered by multiple bad picks.
Two seasons earlier, Arthur Smith was so impressive at the helm of this program that he landed the Falcons head coach job. He was a good playmaker. Better than Downing. Plus, he had Brown thriving, Jonnu Smith on tight end, a line excelling when healthy, Derrick Henry at his peak and Ryan Tannehill playing the best ball of his career. The Titans finished third in total offense (396.4) and fourth in points (30.7).
So maybe this offense can still work, and doesn’t need to be the football equivalent of a mule trying to play beach volleyball. Kelly was affiliated with this mule in 2022, which makes it less exciting. Here’s what will make it more exciting, more than anything he could imagine: Carthon having a magical first offseason.
(Photo by Tim Kelly speaking with Titans tight end Austin Hooper during training camp: George Walker IV/USA Today)