If you believe in wins as the proper arbiter of the quality of an NFL team, the Tennessee Titans are currently in a tailspin after dropping 5 of their last 6 following a 3-1 start. What, you may wonder, happened to the good Titans team of September, and why are they so much worse now?
I believe wins are a highly imperfect guide to the quality of a particular NFL team, and we can supplement our look at wins with other things. Looking at these things tells us that, rather than being particularly different, the Tennessee Titans team that has lost 5 of their past 6 games is perhaps somewhat different from, but on the whole is basically pretty similar to, that team that started 3-1. The streaks, real though they may have been in the standings, are just another result of building narrativity around a weighted random number generator, about as meaningful as those "Chris Johnson and the offensive line getting together fixed the running game," a story that kind of went away a week later after he had 12 carries for 30 yards after the Jaguars.*
The difference between that early season Titans team and the one that's currently on a two-game losing streak could be summed up by a single statistic. In the first four weeks of the season, there were nine fumbles. The Titans ended up with possession of the ball after eight of them. In the past two games, there have been nine fumbles. The Titans ended up possession of the ball after two of them. From 89% to 22% on fumble recoveries, from 3-1 to 0-2. Combine the two, and you get a .500 team that's ended up with possession after a normal and only perhaps slightly lucky 56% of fumbles.
And that's the Titans team we've seen most of the time. They're good enough they can go about .500 against teams roughly in the same ballpark of how good they are. If they're lucky, as they were against the Steelers, the Chargers, the Jets, and the Rams by recovering 10 of 11 fumbles, they can win the game. If they're not, they'll lose as we saw against the Colts. Against better versions of who they want to be, some luck can keep them in the game, as we saw against the Chiefs and Seahawks, but on the whole Kansas City, San Francisco, and Seattle outplayed them and came away with deserved wins. They're good enough to beat bad teams, as they outplayed Jacksonville, but not so good they can do so if they make crucial mistakes and get unlucky (Jaguars ended up with the ball after 6 of 8 fumbles).
As of right now, the pessimistic view of the Titans seems to be of a team that is on a losing streak that is likely to snowball and could finish the season winning only one or perhaps no more games. The optimistic view is they're still only one game out of a playoff spot, and once they're in the playoffs who knows what could happen. My view, which is one I've tried to keep fairly consistent throughout the season, currently exists between those two extremes (a much happier place for me to be than the extreme pessimist I felt like at the end of September).
The optimists seem to me a bit, well, over-optimistic. The Titans are one of an octet of teams vying for the #6 seed in the AFC playoffs, behind two of them and tied with another five. They'll have to outwin those two and not get outwon by any of the team they're tied with. If you assume those eight teams are all equally as good, the Titans would have a less than 12.5% (1 in 8) chance of making the postseason, since they're currently behind. Their favorable-seeming tiebreakers (head-to-head wins against the Jets, Steelers, and Chargers) would mitigate that somewhat, but that depends on the right tie-break or potential round-robin occurring (as we nearly saw in 2006, when the Steelers and Jets had head-to-head tiebreakers on the Titans but would have lost a multi-way tie). Subjectively, even with the tiebreakers, I don't think they're at even odds with the other 8 teams and have no more than perhaps a 10% chance at the postseason.
I've tried note in this post, though, that the Titans to date have not yet been that bad. If they continue playing roughly as well as they've been playing the rest of the season (some bad teams do seem to get worse as the season goes on; I think the 2008 Lions were a great example of this), they have on their schedule four very winnable games-a slight underdog at Oakland this coming Sunday, probably a tossup hosting the Cardinals, and likely favorites both at home against Houston and at Jacksonville. The other two games are clearly more formidable-to beat the Broncos in Denver, the Titans will likely need at least as much luck as the Jaguars got in their win in Nashville, while winning in Indy seems like a less extreme version of the same sort of scenario. I expect the Titans to go 2-2 or 3-1 in those four winnable games, and I really think they're probably somewhat likelier to finish 3-3 over the rest of the season than 2-4, while other records are less likely.
Going 3-3 would leave them with the same 7-9 record I predicted at the beginning of the season. I thought 8-8 or possibly even 9-7 was on the table after beating the Jets to move to 3-1 and 8-8 did indeed seem likeliest after beating the Rams. The loss to the Jaguars in a nigh-certain win reduced my personal win projection by nearly a full game, and I now have the Titans teetering on the 7-9 edge over 6-10. That sort of record would leave the team in that uncomfortable middle-good enough to win their share of games against teams that are not better, but with not much done against superior foes, too many divisional losses, and a dreadful habit of losing to dreadful teams. What would that mean for the future of the team? We'd have to see, particularly as how the final six games play can be a major factor in that perception going forward to next season. Alas, not for the quarterback, though, a whole different ball of wax I'll cover later this week.
*-No disrespect intended to the people who wrote or followed that or any other line of narrative ephemera. I have had the luxury of defining what I do here in a way that intentionally lets me avoid having to do that unless I want to.
Just a quick comment on the Locker decision that has to be made this off-season. I don't think the Titans can rely on him as being the guy next year. He is (very likely) still going to be on the team, but there is no way that the Titans or any other NFL team can assume that he can play all or even most of a 16 game season. He has been injury-prone throughout his 3-year NFL career. It isn't like he has had a few minor injuries and missed the odd game here or there. Nor has he only had one injury. He has had three major injuries in the NFL. This isn't a new thing for Locker either. He was injured often in college. He was carted off the field in a game in 2007 because of a neck injury. He missed 8 games in 2008. And I think he missed a game in 2010 with a broken rib. He isn't like Brees, Rodgers or Luck in this respect. None of those guys have demonstrated a consistent ability to get injured.
Regardless of whether its Munchak (and I doubt that will be the case) or a new coach, the Titans need to have, at least, a new Plan B when training camp starts in 2014. The Fitz experiment has been a colossal failure. And if there is a new coach, he will certainly find his own quarterback ( a new Plan A), and Locker will be relegated to next year's Plan B.
The Titans are simply mediocre. Losing to the Jags the way they did bordered on pathetic. Tom, you are right. They won those first 3 games because they played mistake free football, once that averaged out, they started to lose. I am done with this coaching staff. They obviously are not getting the job done. I am also done with Jake Locker. He gave some reason for optimism in the first few games of the season, but is too inconsistent and injury prone to be the franchise quarterback. It is time to draft a new one and relegate Locker to back up duties next year. I am sure a new coaching staff, which should be priority number one for the organization, would want to move forward with Locker.
Yeah, looks like you're going to be right about this season. I was a little bit more optimistic at the first but I'm pretty much done with this coaching staff. The competent and the confidence is just not there.
Watching MNF, it looks like you were also right about Star. If we had him charging up the middle maybe we would have such a problem with the run and getting pressure. He would probably impact games more than Warmack's falling on the ground all the time. Munchak was dead set on his power-running vision that he seems to have pushed for need instead of BPA in the draft. By the way, how is Warford doing? I don't even remember who drafted him.
@Scott P I agree 100%
@dragak1981 I disagree with you about Locker. Locker has been showing some major improvement in his reads and decision making. He has the work ethic and mentality to really become something special. When you get a guy like that, you bet the house on him. Many fans and analysts only look at the numbers and stats and ignore the human side. It takes a certain kind of attitude and heart - and a love of football - to go out and be a great quarterback. Look at Kaep, last year he was in the Superbowl and this year he don't look to hot. He's not playing that great (although he has had some good games) but one of the most concerning things is his body language and the look in his eyes.
Also, I have an issue with calling someone "injury prone." What do you mean? That he has some sort of low muscle or bone density? It's football - people get hurt. Look at Aaron Rodgers. Can he work on not doing things to get himself hurt? Yep - that's been one of his problems. Can the coaching staff NOT put him in positions to get hurt - like not calling naked bootlegs? Yep.
I just don't understand how fans have suddenly turned on Locker after showing so much improvement from last year. It's not his fault that we're mediocre. What happened when he went out? We lost. Heck, in the first four games he was in the top 10 in QBR. What else do people want?
@Joshua C Yeah Josh, in my eyes Warmack has been a disappointment so far
@dragak1981 @Scott P I agree to some extent. But when you hear people like Bill Polian not even considering giving up on him that's got to give you pause. To me, there's two fears in this situation. There's the one fear that - if we give up on Locker right now then we might be throwing treasure in the trash. Franchise QB's are very rare in the NFL.
Also, giving up on Locker this year means that we use yet another 1st round draft pick on a QB. Some teams have been going through this cycle for years (Miami, Cleveland, etc.). There's the chance that we hit on the next Rodgers and there's an even better chance that we don't
The opposite fear is that we stay with Locker and he continues to get hurt and not be able to finish the season. To me, this is the wisest course of action. We give Locker another chance, pick up the BPA with the 1st round pick, and try to fix some of the weaknesses on this team.
I don't even advocate picking up a mid to late round QB unless there's tremendous value. Those guys rarely ever stick - mainly because they never get playing time.
@Joshua C @dragak1981 Being injury prone can be caused by a number of factors, including style of play (which seems to be Locker's problem) and things such as muscle flexibility, joint flexibility (tendons and ligaments), and speed of recovery. I don't care what the reason is, Locker gets injured too much to rely on him.
After the first injury this year, Locker came back and looked more like the Locker of last year than the first 4 games of this year. He needs to show he can be healthy and play well consistently, which he has not yet. he still makes bonehead throws.
That is great he has heart and the right attitude, but so do a lot of players who get much better results.
@dragak1981 @Joshua C It's football - players do get injured a lot. QB's that run around and try to get plays get injured a lot. The only way to reduce the chances of these types of injuries is for the QB to get the ball out of his hand quickly.
And what to do you mean, you can't compare Luck and Rodgers and Locker? They are all NFL quarterbacks - that is a category that is very comparable. And that one example you gave of a "boneheaded" throw was from last year. I agree that it wasn't a wise decision but that was really his rookie season and rookies are going to make mistakes. Also, why the heck were we passing in that sort of situation? Could it be that Locker has not had a very good run game to complement him?
Locker is going to be just fine. He could take too many hits and his career be ended early. That's a real possibility. But he showed some major improvement early on this season and, despite playing on a mediocre team and experiencing some bad injuries, he doesn't mope around and show that "woe is me" body language like QB's who are on their way out of the league.
I understand your aggravation with Locker but he has shown some qualities that could lead to him becoming a really good NFL QB.
There is no comparison between Luck and Rodgers and Locker. Yes, Locker makes a lot of boneheaded throws. see the colts game last year with his interception at the 1 yard line...
I agree the coaching on the team sucks...need new coaching all around. Warmack needs to play better and stewart seriously needs a replacement.
@dragak1981 @Joshua C I've watched all of Locker's games closely and the injuries have been pretty freak. He injures his shoulder trying to tackle a guy, he gets blindsided and drilled in the Texans game, the Jets injury was a little weird but the dude comes back early, and then he gets a linsfranc from running a naked bootleg. It's not like he's getting hurt just running around without contact. T
And what are you talking about - boneheaded throws? Yeah, he's had some bad throws. Watch Andrew Luck, he has too. But Locker didn't have a turnover the first four games against some good defenses.
Every time I think about fans giving up on QB's who had heart and talent but were just too "injury prone" I think of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. This team doesn't need a new QB - it needs a coaching staff who can field a decent O-Line and run game and won't put the QB in situations that will probably cause injury.