by Jordy McElroy
The clock struck midnight and the Cinderella Tennessee Titans had to leave the dance on Sunday.
An improbable AFC Championship run came screeching to a halt in the rollicking madhouse at Arrowhead Stadium, where even fairy tales pale in comparison to the might of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But there were teachable moments that could help the Titans close the children’s book and emerge as one of the expected dance participants next season.
The best way to remember the Titans is through sustained success in the future rather than drooling over a conference title appearance. That means general manager Jon Robinson has some work to do. The first order of business is locking up the human battering ram, All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, to a long-term deal.
There would have been no Cinderella story without the Alabama-bred bulldozer making defensive players run in the opposite direction—literally.
Fee-fi-fo-fum, where did that Henry stiff arm come from?
The Titans won seven of their last nine games in a year where Henry led the NFL with 303 rushes for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns. Their only two losses during that run, including the AFC Championship, came in games where Henry failed to rush for 100 yards.
The fear he has sown into the hearts of opposing defenses is a big reason why the Titans excelled so much with the play-action this season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill deserves a ton of credit as well for helping to turn things around, but Henry is without question the beating heart of the offense. He should be priority No. 1 in the offseason.
Of course, that’s assuming he doesn’t go the Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott route with his contract. The Los Angeles Rams broke the bank for Gurley after he won Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, and there is nothing but disappointment and regret within the organization these days as the once promising back has been reduced to an injury-prone shell of his former self. Elliott bet on himself and held out of training camp before receiving his monstrous extension in 2019. He then went on to average a career-low 84.8 yards per game in the season.
Somewhere in the ballpark of $13 million annually seems about right for holding onto Henry. It’s a fair hit to the wallet for an elite player, while also providing the organization with a little insurance at an undervalued position.
The decision of what to do with Tannehill, the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, is next on the to-do list. His sudden emergence as a breakout option behind center was a revelation for a Titans team that had grown tired and frustrated with Marcus Mariota. He finished the season with career-highs in completion percentage, touchdown percentage and quarterback rating.
The urge to want to lock the former Miami Dolphin up long-term is clearly there after an efficient season of 2,742 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Throw in the splitting headache from five years of riding the Mariota rollercoaster, and one might automatically assume it’s a done deal to give Tannehill whatever he wants.
It’s the type of decision that can make-or-break a franchise.
Nick Foles put up prolific numbers and won a Super Bowl, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are already regretting their decision to hand him a four-year, $88 million deal. Unless Tannehill and the Titans can agree on a short-term deal, the 31-year-old quarterback could be a prime candidate for the franchise tag.
There are other pending free agents that must be dealt with as well, including cornerback Logan Ryan and former All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin. Ryan is essentially the team’s top option at corner with Malcolm Butler on the other side. It would behoove the Titans to keep their burgeoning secondary intact as much as possible. Conklin, on the other hand, could be on his way out the door if the price is too rich for his services. Teams will be lining up for a chance to land him and bolster their offensive front.
The Titans should also have their eye on a dynamic pass-rusher to add opposite of Harold Landry III. There are some intriguing, cost-friendly veteran options in free agency with guys like Adrian Clayborn, Derek Wolfe, Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Jones. Then there is the option to break the bank with Jadeveon Clowney, Arik Armstead and Yannick Ngakoue. However, the Titans could bypass those options by adding a potential high-end 2020 NFL Draft prospect to fill the need on their defensive front.
Robinson has done a tremendous job of pulling the strings from behind the scenes in an effort to rebuild the Titans into a winning organization. The unexpected AFC Championship run also comes with increased expectations. Missing the playoffs in 2021 would bring upon Robinson the sort of scrutiny he hasn’t faced since accepting the job in Tennessee.
The heat from that magnifying glass would be realer than any fairy tale.