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VOL. 131 | NO. 181 | Friday, September 9, 2016

8-8 Mediocrity Sounds Good to Titans Fans

DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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On an August morning in 1999, the Tennessee Titans coaching staff and front office personnel awoke to this headline in the local newspaper:

The Music City Miracle remains the Titans’ defining highlight more than 16 years later. This year, 8-8 might seem like a divine blessing to hungry fans.

(Ap Photo/Al Messerschmidt)

Playoffs or Pink Slips.

It got their attention. Things were quite tense before, during and after practice on that particular day.

The message was loud and clear from franchise founder Bud Adams. His team had gone 8-8 for three straight seasons during the Houston-to-Tennessee transition.

That wasn’t good enough. And he wanted everyone to know it.

It’s a refresher course on how much things have changed. Remember when an 8-8 record was considered unacceptable for the Titans?

Gee, you have a good memory.

These days, an 8-8 record would be deemed a noteworthy uptick for a franchise that has won a combined five games in the last two years, has endured four straight losing seasons and has made zero playoff appearances since 2008.

Go 8-8, and Mike Mularkey would be a legitimate NFL Coach of the Year candidate. Heck, he might get a lifetime contract.

That’s where we stand as the Titans embark on the 2016 NFL season. For most teams, the goal is the playoffs, perhaps even the Super Bowl.

While the Titans brain trust might harbor such dreams, the reality is far different. Considering where this franchise has been, getting to 8-8 should be the goal.

It’ll take some serious improvement. While the overall talent level has been upgraded by first-year general manager Jon Robinson, much work remains.

The consensus over/under in Las Vegas lists the Titans at 5½ victories in 2016. Only Cleveland is lower at 4½. So 8-8 is stretching it.

Consider: Even if you throw in those 10 years in the American Football League, this franchise is 404-442-6 since its inception in 1960 – a winning percentage of .473.

Historically, the Oilers/Titans are a losing team.

Another way of looking at it: A 7-9 record in 2013 was deemed good enough for Mike Munchak to keep the head coaching job – if he would make changes on his coaching staff. When Munchak balked at firing offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, he was dismissed by Adams.

It’s food for thought for those who hopped aboard the Titans bandwagon in 1999.

That’s the year they landed at the stadium on the west bank of the Cumberland River and promptly made a run to the Super Bowl.

That was the first of four playoff appearances in five seasons. In those heady days, many Titans fans considered postseason football a birthright. Then reality set in. The franchise settled back into its sub-.500 comfort zone.

It really shouldn’t work like this. Modern NFL rules were written to create a level playing field. The salary cap is supposed to distribute talent equally. The worst teams from one season get the highest draft picks the next.

Even the schedule is adjusted so the bottom-feeders get a break.

For one reason or another, though, the strong tend to stay strong and the weak remain weak.

And over the last handful of seasons, the Titans have been among the weakest of the weak.

There comes a time when you have to break the cycle. And that time has come for the Titans. They’ve been too bad for too long. Something has to give.

Despite recent history, I sincerely believe an 8-8 record in 2016 is do-able. Here’s why:

Quarterback play. Everybody knows the NFL is a quarterback league. Well, the Titans finally have one for the first time in a decade.

Granted, Vince Young was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2006 and Kerry Collins had his moments, but there hasn’t been a true franchise quarterback on site since the Steve McNair days.

Marcus Mariota appears much more comfortable and in command in Year 2. While it is dangerous to read too much into preseason games, he showed greater pocket presence and did a better job delivering throws down the field. His teammates have raved about his leadership skills. The key, of course, is keeping him healthy.

Offensive system. In the latter days of Jeff Fisher and throughout the tenures of Mike Munchak and Ken Whisenhunt, we never really knew what the Titans were trying to accomplish on offense. They had no real identity.

That’s different now under Mike Mularkey, who is aided and abetted by the personnel moves of first-year general manager Jon Robinson.

After ranking 26th and 25th in the NFL in rushing offense in the last two seasons, the Titans are committing to the run. By trading for DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry, they now have two go-to running backs.

Meanwhile, things look better up front, where rookie Jack Conklin appears to be a major upgrade over his immediate predecessors at right tackle and Ben Jones has solidified things at center.

Yes, the wide receiving corps is lacking, especially with Kendall Wright’s continuing hamstring issues, but rookie fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe could wind up being the steal of the draft.

Defensive direction. Throughout the 2015 season, nobody in the media ever thought to ask who was calling defensive signals during the games. Everybody assumed it was Dick LeBeau, who had been brought in with the title assistant head coach/defense.

We came to find out Ray Horton was still in charge. While Horton had worked with LeBeau in the past and borrowed liberally from his philosophy, his approach was different from LeBeau’s. With Horton gone, it’s now LeBeau’s baby.

Don’t expect the second coming of the ’85 Bears. Outside of Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo and maybe Jason McCourty, the Titans don’t have defensive playmakers. But at age 79 and in his 58th year in the NFL as a player and coach, LeBeau has a gift for getting the most out of the available talent.

It’s the AFC South. A recent vote by contributors to the NFL Network ranked this as the second-worst division in the league, behind the NFC East.

While the division has gotten better due to the arrival of some quality, young quarterbacks, it’s far from a murderer’s row of competition. And the Titans play six of their 16 games against division opponents.

In sum, I think 8-8 is a reachable goal.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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