First In Line for Criticism if Offense Falters

Fingers will point to first-year coordinator Todd Downing if Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, Ryan Tannehill and the rest don't produce as expected.
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NASHVILLE – It’s a dream job.

Unless something – no, make that anything – goes wrong, of course.

New Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing is likely the envy of his peers around the league as he takes over a unit that steamrolled much of the NFL in 2020, tied for second in yards per game and scored more points than all but three other teams. The Titans racked up 30-plus points nine times in 16 games last year, setting franchise records for most net yards and most first downs along the way.

Were there significant losses for the Titans during the offseason? Sure, everyone will acknowledge that tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Corey Davis played major roles for the team in 2020, combining for 106 catches, 1,432 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.

But look at all the toys in Downing’s playpen:

• There’s Derrick Henry, who last season became just the eighth back in NFL history to run for more than 2,000 yards. Enough said.

• Then there’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who set a franchise record with a combined 40 passing and rushing touchdowns last year. He’s thrown 55 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions since taking over as the Titans’ starter.

• Did we mention the flanking wide receiver positions, which will be occupied by seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones opposite A.J. Brown, who’s topped 1,000 yards in his first two seasons?

• Just for good measure, the Titans return their entire veteran starting offensive line aside from right tackle Dennis Kelly. In fact, this punishing group should be even better in 2021, as Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan returns from a torn ACL that limited him to five games played in 2020.

There seems no reason to believe this Titans offense won’t be every bit as prolific as it was in 2020, when it piled up a whopping 491 points, the second-highest total in franchise history.

But if it’s not? If the offense does not hit on all cylinders Sunday against Arizona -- if the offense is merely good instead of great – who will be blamed? Hint: It’s not likely to be the players, considering most return from last year’s highly successful group. It’s probably not even going to be head coach Mike Vrabel, whose forte is defense.

It’s far more likely to be Downing, the man who replaced offensive mastermind Arthur Smith, the two-year Titans offensive coordinator who is now the Falcons’ head coach.

So, no pressure, Todd, as long as you live up to some very lofty expectations.

“There are going to be expectations, I understand that, but there are no higher expectations by anybody on the outside of this building than the inside of this body,” Downing said of his role. “I expect a lot out of myself, and I will work hard to try to fulfill what Coach Vrabel and Jon Robinson want out of this role.

“If I were to focus on outside voices, I would be cheating everybody inside this building. I really try to focus on day-by-day fulfilling the role that they hired me to do, and if I do that to my best of my abilities, then I believe that would be enough.”

Ugly Oakland Experience

So just what do we know about the 41-year-old Downing, who’s coached for six NFL franchises since 2005?

In wondering what kind of offensive coordinator he will be for the Titans, it’s only natural to look back at the lone time Downing has held this rank in the past. Things didn’t go well for Downing in 2017, when he served as offensive coordinator for Oakland. The Raiders dropped like a rock in multiple categories after a successful 2016, falling from sixth to 17th overall offensively, from seventh to 23rd in points, and from sixth to 25th in rushing yards. Quarterback Derek Carr threw for just 22 touchdowns with 13 interceptions that year, posting an 86.4 quarterback rating that remains the second-worst of his career.

To be fair, the Raiders were a train wreck overall in 2017. Oakland’s defense was so bad that coordinator Ken Norton was fired in November, which preceded by a month the dismissal of head coach Jack Del Rio and his entire staff following a 6-10 season. It didn’t take Downing long to land on his feet, however, as he coached Minnesota’s tight ends the following year, then took that same position on Mike Vrabel’s staff starting in 2019 when Smith was promoted to offensive coordinator.

“I hope so,” Downing said, when asked if he’s changed since the not-so-great year as Oakland’s offensive coordinator. “I’ve learned from my experiences.

“I think the first discussion I ever had (with Nashville media) is that I try to learn from every single day, from every single experience I have. I hope I’m a better version of myself today, not just as a coach, as a man, as all sorts of different titles, than I was back in 2017.”

Quarterback Whisperer

We have to look at more than just Downing’s lone year as an offensive coordinator in order to get the full picture of him as a coach.

Specifically, he’s found plenty of success with quarterbacks over the years. In Downing’s two seasons as quarterbacks coach for Detroit, Matt Stafford threw for an average of 4,800 yards and 25 touchdowns. As Oakland’s quarterbacks coach in 2015 and 2016, Downing helped shape the career of a young Carr, guiding him to consecutive Pro Bowls and earning the Quarterbacks Coach of the Year award from Pro Football Focus in 2015.

Downing’s expertise at the game’s most impactful position has not gone unnoticed by Titans quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Logan Woodside.

“I think Todd is more of a quarterback guy,” said Woodside, asked how Downing differed from Smith. “He’s coached quarterbacks for a long time, so that’s definitely been good for me in the sense he’s coached the position, coached a lot of great quarterbacks, gives me tips and kind of sees it from a quarterback’s set of eyes. I think that’s been great.”

Added Tannehill: “He is a great mind. I think we think about the game similarly and we get along personally. He has a good process of creating plays and drives, and on what we want to accomplish throughout the day.”

A Servant’s Heart

Here’s another thing to know about Downing, or at least an impression gained at a professional distance: He doesn’t appear to have a sizable ego. Asked about his success with quarterbacks, for example, Downing said he appreciated the compliment, but called himself “a work in progress,” continually learning and adapting himself to each quarterback’s different personality.

“I try to remain as consistent as I can be, so I can relate to those guys at whatever level they are on,” Downing said. “I try to have a servant’s heart in that role and find out how I can best help them succeed.”

Whereas many new offensive coordinators feel the need to put a personal “stamp” on their group, Downing has said on more than one occasion that’s not a goal of his. He’s smart enough to understand what worked well the last two years under Smith, practical enough to realize this is not an offense that needs to be overhauled.

“One thing I love about Todd is that he’s told us he’s going to stick to what we are as an offense,” Lewan said. “You’ve had guys go in, either on this team in the past or other franchises and say, `This is the offense that I run. This is what we’re going to do.’

“(Downing) sees the skillset we have and tries to tailor it to that. So, we have embraced Todd as our OC. We miss Art obviously because he is a good guy, and we love him. I’m super happy for him to be head coach of the Falcons. But yeah, we love Todd.”

Playing To A Standard

What could possibly sidetrack Downing and what appears – on paper -- to be a potent Titans offense in 2021?

Maybe more than we might have imagined heading into training camp.

The wide receiver group, for example, is loaded with talent, but has also been stung by injuries. Jones missed about three weeks of training camp, valuable time on the field with a new quarterback – and new team – that can’t be replaced. Brown has been in and out of practice for a couple of weeks with a lingering knee issue. Josh Reynolds has been limited with a foot injury. And Marcus Johnson will miss at least the season’s first three games on injured reserve.

That veteran offensive line? Starting center Ben Jones and starting right guard Nate Davis missed time due to injury and to the COVID-19 virus. Lewan started lightly in camp, then worked his way back into form coming off the reconstruction surgery. The starting right tackle spot is theoretically still up for grabs, with David Quessenberry, Kendall Lamm and Ty Sambrailo all in the hunt.

The Titans played very few offensive starters in the preseason. So, might this group look a little rusty starting out, still seeking continuity?

“The way we prepare and the expectations we have around here, the standard we have around here, I expect our guys to go out and play to that standard,” Downing said. “We don’t make room for a lead-up or a ramp-up or knocking the rust off. We expect our guys to go out and play hard, play physical, play with great effort and finish.”

High expectations from Downing. The same kind that will follow him into the season.