Skip to main content

What to Make of Downing's First Season in Charge of Offense?

The first-year coordinator did not produce the numbers his predecessor, Arthur Smith, did, but he also faced some unique challenges.

NASHVILLE -- The autopsy of the Tennessee Titans’ divisional playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals clearly begins with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose three interceptions doomed his team to defeat in a game that was eminently winnable.

But the mystery of what happened to the offense overall in 2021 must go beyond Tannehill, despite the significant drop in productivity by the team’s most important player this season.

Questions must also be raised about first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who oversaw a Titans offense that dropped from second to 17th overall in yards, from fourth to 15th in points per game. The Titans scored an average of one touchdown less per game in 2021, falling from 30.7 points per game in 2020 to 24.6 per game in 2021.

In fairness to Downing, there was a bit of a “no-win-situation” element to his new job this season.

Former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, now the Atlanta Falcons head coach, had taken Tannehill and the Titans’ offense to a lofty peak in 2020. The unit posted a 2,000-yard rusher in Derrick Henry; a 1,000-yard receiver in A.J. Brown; and a quarterback in Tannehill that threw 33 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions.

So, if the Titans had maintained their level of offensive success in 2021, it was bound to be explained as Downing sticking with Smith’s system.

But if the offense faltered in 2021, who else but Downing would have fingers pointed at him, especially after the addition of Julio Jones gave the Titans another potent weapon in the arsenal, seemingly enough to offset the losses of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith?

“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 days before the 2021 season opener. “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.”

It would be hard to find anyone, Downing included, who feels as if he – and the Titans offense – lived up to those expectations this year.

Are there factors that must be included in trying to account for the offense’s precipitous production drop this season? Absolutely.

The loss of Derrick Henry, the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, for more than half the season was a massive blow. In addition, most of the Titans’ top receivers – players like Brown, Jones, and even Josh Reynolds and Marcus Johnson – were in and out of the lineup, starting in training camp and continuing through almost all the regular season.

Still, do those very real factors completely excuse the massive stumble on the offensive front this season, one in which the Titans were held to 20 points or less in five of their last seven regular-season games?

Among the offensive lowlights this year:

• Tannehill, as has been well documented, regressed to his Miami form all too often this season, his 14 interceptions one more than his last two years with the Titans combined – and that total doesn’t include the trio of picks he tossed against Cincinnati on Saturday. In addition, his 7.0 yards per completion average this season was Tannehill’s lowest since 2014, nearly a yard less than he posted last year.

Should we believe Tannehill’s 180-degree turn this season was completely his fault, or was he uncomfortable in Downing’s system?

• One of Brown’s best attributes – and one of the Titans’ best weapons -- during his first two seasons was his ability to pile up yards after the catch, as his crossing routes often led to big gains and scores. He averaged 5.9 yards after catch in 2020, per Pro Football Focus, but that averaged dropped by nearly 40 percent in 2021 – to just 3.6 yards after catch. Brown forced 18 missed tackles in each of his first two seasons, but just eight in 2021.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

So, we’re left to ask a similar question as we did about Tannehill: Was the drop in Brown’s very significant yards after catch solely on him, a product of a season that saw him bothered by a couple of injuries? Or is there blame to be placed on the types of routes he ran, perhaps not offering him the same kind of space he saw before?

• Even Henry’s production dropped in 2021, prior to the injury that sidelined him for nine weeks. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his first eight games, a pretty good number for most running backs. But that average was 5.4 yards per carry last year, 5.1 in his first season when Smith was the coordinator.

Did the wear and tear begin to show on Henry this season, as the stress increased on his foot? Was he impacted by the frequent shortage of receivers? Or was there an element of poor play-calling involved in the slippage?

• Even the Titans’ offensive line took some literal steps backward in 2021, surrendering 47 sacks, nearly double the 2020 season total of 24. Pro Football Focus had the Titans allowing 226 quarterback pressures this season, way up from 163 in 2020.

That line changed only one starter from last season, swapping David Quessenberry for Dennis Kelly at right tackle. In addition, left tackle Taylor Lewan played 13 games in 2021, just five in 2020.

Those are just some of the big-picture facts and figures that come to mind when questioning the state of the offense under Downing this season.

As for the pluses and minuses of individual play calls, we could all argue about them until we’re blue in the face. It’s a little too easy to dismiss any play that doesn’t work as a bad call, any play that does work as the right call.

Two examples on Saturday: On the two-point try after the first touchdown, Downing would have been crucified had the Titans failed by doing anything aside from giving the ball to Henry with 36 inches to gain. There’s nothing wrong with relying on your best in that situation. The second situation was the third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, when Tannehill failed to pick up a first down when keeping the ball on an inside option with Henry. That play has been money in the bank nearly every single time the Titans have run it over the years, so how do you criticize Downing for going to it there?

One possible reason for increased concern with Downing, though, is the track record he had – in just one season – as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator in Oakland in 2017.

There were plenty of factors involved, but the Raiders’ offense dropped like a stone from 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.

Thus, some might consider the Titans’ offensive showing in 2021 not as strike one for Downing, but strike two.

Does that mean the seat of the 41-year-old Downing is hot heading into the offseason? Doubtful.

When it comes to his coaching staff over the years, head coach Mike Vrabel has more often chosen patience than pink slips.

How many fans, for example, were screaming one year ago for the head of Shane Bowen, who presided over the atrocity that was the 2020 Titans defense. Instead of firing Bowen, Vrabel went in the other direction, making him officially the defensive coordinator and freeing him up from the responsibilities of coaching the outside linebackers. Bowen’s defense, bolstered by some personnel additions, responded with a massive leap forward in 2021.

So, it seems more likely that Vrabel gives Downing the same kind of opportunity to prove himself in 2022.

Priority One for the Titans will be making sure Downing pushes this group of proven – and hopefully healthy – playmakers back to previous levels in 2022.

Producing more than 20 points in a game – something the Titans failed to do seven times in 18 games this year – would be a pretty good place to start.