Tennessee has been the worst team in football over the past two years. Good thing the man charged with turning around the team knows a thing or two about coming back from the dead. Plus answers to reader email
INDIANAPOLIS — NFL Quiz. Jon Robinson is:
a. The Falcons long-snapper.
b. The Vikings salary-cap manager.
c. An equipment man for the Buccaneers.
d. The NFL Scouting Combine’s director of operations.
e. The man holding the first pick in the 2016 draft.
Guess I’m a bad quiz-giver. The first four wouldn’t be of much interest right now. The new GM of the Titans, Robinson, 40, was born and raised in the western Tennessee metropolis of Troy (pop. 760), a one-blinking-red-light burb near the borders of Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. Robinson nearly died twice as a child because of kidney failure, grew up baling hay on a farm and rooting for the Danny White Cowboys and played college football at Southeast Missouri. He got his big break in the business at 26, when he got hired to be a southeastern scout with the then-Super Bowl champion Patriots.
And now he’s got eight weeks to decide whose name gets picked first in the draft as he tries to turn around his home-state team. In a hour-long conversation over coffee in the Westin Hotel here about his life and goals for the Titans, Robinson sat at a side table just off the bustling lobby wearing a white Titans cap. Times recognized: zero.
“That’s the way I like it,” he said. “It’s never about me. It’s about what we can accomplish as a team.”
There certainly is a lot of work to do. The Titans are 5-27 in the past two years. They seem to have a franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, but they need help at tackle—they allowed the most sacks in football last year—and at pass-rusher and in the secondary. Lots of help. In this draft, there’s a tailor-made pick sitting there in Mississippi left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who appears to be quick enough to keep the speed-rushers mostly off Mariota for the next few years. But what Robinson really wants to do, unlikely as it seems today, is to create a buzz for the top pick, perhaps by encouraging those beneath him to leapfrog quarterback-needy Cleveland for one of the two top passers in the draft. There’s probably not enough excitement about quarterbacks Carson Wentz or Jared Goff being sure things to make that happen, but lots can change in two months. Players can rise and fall, and Robinson’s certainly going to try to create action around the pick.
“I’m going to be making a pretty impactful decision for the future of the franchise,” he said. “I’ve pondered the significance of the decision quite a bit. It’s big. I’m the kind of guy, when I walk the hallways of our building in Nashville, I get chill-bumps. It’s pretty cool to be working for the team in my home state. I’m a Tennessean, through and through. And I want to do something good for the people of Tennessee.”
I always wonder when I see a story like this—a kid from a small town in Tennessee, who played middling college football, who was a low-level assistant at Nicholls (La.) State—how a person gets to be an NFL general manager. In Robinson’s case, it started with Kalimba Edwards.
Remember Kalimba Edwards? Former linebacker at South Carolina. Drafted by the Lions as a defensive end in the second round in 2002. Had 31 sacks in seven so-so NFL seasons. When the Patriots summoned Robinson—then a Nicholls (La.) State assistant coach and NFL scouting liaison—for an interview for a scouting job in the winter of 2002, personnel chief Scott Pioli handed Robinson three video tapes of Edwards to watch. After Robinson watched, he told Pioli that Edwards had been playing out of position at South Carolina and should be a defensive end, and he took a couple of minutes to explain why. Pioli, as Robinson recalled, looked at him and said: “Just write what you see—like that—when you evaluate players. If you keep doing that, you’ll have a chance in this business.”
Robinson climbed the Patriot ladder for a few years, and when Pioli left to become the Kansas City GM early in 2009, Robinson was made the Patriots’ director of college scouting. In taking the job, Robinson remembers going into coach/franchise czar Bill Belichick’s office early that offseason to tell him how he planned to put together the board.
“I’m not going to be right all the time,” Robinson recalls telling him. “But my role will be to get everything organized for you so at the end of the season you can start the process of learning about these guys. I’ll strive for perfection, but I might make some mistakes.”
Robinson recalls Belichick telling him, “Are you kidding me? You know how many time I’ve been wrong?”
In his four years in New England, Robinson got that reinforced a lot, and it should serve him well in Tennessee.
“We’re going to be a draft-first team,” said Robinson. “I want team-first, coachable guys. I want to stack good draft classes on each other, one by one. When these guys in this draft walk in the door, I want them to make a statement to our team.”
Tunsil, says Robinson, “checks off a lot of boxes for us. But personality-wise, we’re in the infancy stages of getting to know him and whether he’d be a fit.”
I said, “He seems really reserved as a person.”
“Yeah,” said Robinson. “I think he likes to block people more than he likes doing talk shows.”
Great line. True line.
Last point: Robinson knows he’s pretty lucky to be alive, never mind running the NFL franchise 167 miles from home. When he was in fourth grade, he was struck down by the kidney disease nephritis. His heart stopped, and paramedics started it again before putting him in an ambulance for the hospital in nearby Union City. On the way to the hospital, his heart stopped again and he had to be saved. After being comatose for days, Robinson began to recover and lived a pretty normal boyhood. “What I remember,” he said, “is my first question to the doctors: Am I still gonna be able to play football?” The answer was yes.
• CARSON WENTZ, PRIDE OF NORTH DAKOTA: The boy from Bismarck took the NFL combine by storm and has a governor and senator in his corner as he tries to become the first quarterback taken in the 2016 draft.
He played well enough, and was honorable enough, to get an appointment to the Air Force Academy. But he said he was miserable there, and got a discharge, moving to Southeast Missouri, where he was a play-making inside linebacker. The coaching bug bit him, and he climbed the ladder at Nicholls (La.) State. And then came New England, and then Tampa Bay for two years, and now the Titans. His home team.
“Jon is a proud Tennessean who is excited to be coming home,” said the owner, Amy Adams Strunk, when Robinson was named GM. She’s right. Now he’s got to get his Titans out of the biggest hole in franchise history.
Now for your email:
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With the announcement that Tom Brady’s contract has been extended until 2019, doesn't that make it more realistic for the Patriots to entertain trade proposals on Jimmy Garoppolo? If you’re a QB-needy team at the top of the draft, wouldn't it make more sense to reach out to the Pats, dangle a high second-round pick this year, a pick tied to a performance escalator for 2017 and use the first-round pick to fill another need? Let's face it, this is pretty weak QB crop to gamble a high pick on! Team would get a backup who has apprenticed under Brady, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. Two years at second-round money on Garoppolo's rookie deal. Pats recover the lost pick. Seems like it would be a win-win-win for all involved.
—Don D., Mansfield, Mass.
What makes you think that the Patriots would want to trade Garoppolo, who was a second-round pick for New England, for a second round pick? I don’t believe there is any way the Patriots would do that. Garoppolo is a very good insurance policy for the next two years for Brady, who will be 39 in 2016 and 40 in 2017. I believe the only way New England would trade Garoppolo is by getting a first-round pick in return. And I doubt sincerely anyone out there would do that.
THE LINDLEY STORY
Interesting to hear about Ryan Lindley working out two of the top quarterback prospects for the draft. Could we see a story on how Lindley, a current quarterback in the NFL, evolves into such a role? How does he develop a training/workout plan? Why did he consider the offer? How does it impact his preparation for the upcoming season?
Yeah, I probably should have written a bit about Lindley the other day. He certainly is an interesting story. He told me that he still wants to get into an NFL camp this season as a QB. The agent for Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, Ryan Tollner, approached Lindley last fall in Arizona and asked him if he might be interested in a tutoring role with combine-bound top prospects. At the time, Lindley was unemployed; he accepted and then got signed by the Colts for the last week of the season. He told me if he doesn’t get signed as a player, he will continue to work out with that goal in mind, and he probably will consider going into coaching. He has really enjoyed working with Goff and Wentz and thinks he has some knowledge to pass to young quarterbacks.
TITANS AT NO. 1
Let’s assume that no one offers the Titans a trade for number one. Any of the prospects in this relatively star-less draft would be a reach as the top pick. Why wouldn’t Tennessee go for the best power runner with good hands to take pressure off Marcus Mariota and to give the offense more balance?
I think the answer to that is it’s a lot harder judging by recent history to find a really good left tackle than it is to find a really good running back. Todd Gurley (10th overall last year) looks like he will be a very good pick for the Rams. Trent Richardson (third overall in 2012) was a disaster for the Browns, then the Colts. You can find examples of running backs taken high, low and even undrafted who succeed in the NFL. That’s not necessarily the case at left tackle, though that’s no sure thing either. I think unless you believe that Ezekiel Elliott is going to be the second coming of Adrian Peterson, I would not take him with the first overall pick in the draft.
Wondering why you guys haven't mentioned Tony Romo's lawsuit against the NFL regarding the fantasy football convention which was canceled and a hundred or so NFL players were going to attend. Seems like a big news story of player vs. Goodell which I haven't seen you guys explore.
Good suggestion. That is an interesting story and something I hope we can put on the agenda this offseason. Thanks for the reminder.
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