The Tennessee Titans had a defensive coordinator, after all. They just did not have anyone with that title.
That was the assertion of head coach Mike Vrabel on Monday, a day after the Titans’ season ended with a 20-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC Wild Card contest at Nissan Stadium.
Vrabel identified outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen as the leader of that unit in a way he never had done over the past year.
“I think that this thing kind of took a life of its own,” Vrabel said. “But Shane led the meetings. Shane led the walk-throughs. Shane called the defense. And I think we get caught up too much in titles, and – I guess – I apologize because I clearly didn’t think it would take on a life of its own.”
It sounds so simple now, but Vrabel never even attempted to provide any clarity about the situation throughout the season or the months that led into it. He talked in vague terms about a collaborative effort and indicated that he was more involved on that side of the ball than he had been in previous years.
Any confusion that existed, therefore, is on him, and it is fair to wonder whether that uncertainty found its way into the locker room and meeting rooms as well.
“(Bowen) was obviously the play-caller,” safety Kevin Byard said. “He ran all the meetings and ran the walk-throughs. Just because he didn’t have a title, technically he was the D coordinator. … I’m not sure about meetings with coaches and staff meetings and stuff like that, but as far as what we (saw), he was pretty much the defensive coordinator this year.”
Following the retirement of coordinator Dean Pees last January, Tennessee’s defense was historically bad during the 2020 season. That unit allowed 439 points, an average of 27.4 per game and 108 points more than it allowed in 2019. It was also more than opponents scored in 2014 (438) and 2015 (423), when the Titans tied for the NFL’s worst record in consecutive seasons.
On third down, Tennessee allowed opponents to convert 51.9 percent of the time (111 of 214). That makes it the only NFL defense during the Titans era (1999-present) to be worse than 50 percent for an entire season.
Vrabel never named a defensive coordinator and indicated that he planned to be more involved on that side of the ball than he had been when Pees, a long-time NFL coordinator, was part of the staff.
Bowen, 34, has never been a coordinator at any level and only has been a full-time assistant since 2013, when he was linebackers coach at Kennesaw State. He jumped to the NFL in 2016 as a defensive assistant with the Houston Texans and followed Vrabel to Tennessee in 2018, when he was hired as outside linebackers coach.
In three years with the Titans, his title has not changed. His responsibilities have.
“We’ll coach better, and we’ll play better,” Vrabel said. “But those are things that we have to do in all three phases. There were times that it looked like we put all three phases together and played really well. And then there were stints where we didn’t do that.
“We’re going to evaluate the roster and the coaching staff and the plays that we run and the scheme that we have and everything across the board because we ultimately didn’t win a championship.”