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VOL. 40 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 16, 2016

‘Crazy stuff’ threatens to kill another Titans season

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Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had looked like a veteran in the preseason, but his performance against the Vikings was more a throwback to his rookie year with big plays and big mistakes.

-- Ap Photo/James Kenney

By most accounts, the Tennessee Titans won the offseason thanks to a strong draft and some smart moves in free agency.

The preseason was more of the same, a 3-1 record that included some impressive football.

The Titans even won the first half of the season-opener against Minnesota, sprinting to a 10-0 lead and looking like a solid team in the process.

Then the reality check arrived. The Titans self-destructed in the second half, reverting to recent form and letting a very winnable game get away.

All of which begs the question: Where now, Titans?

The temptation is to write off another season. If you can’t hold a 10-point lead against a team that is quarterbacked by career backup Shaun Hill, what’s going to happen when you step up in competition? History tells us it’s not going to be pretty.

I’m not ready to give up. Look, the Titans are not Super Bowl material but they’ve got to be better than the last two editions, which combined for a grand total of five wins. Things are going to turn around eventually, right? Right?

“It’s a long season,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “We have to learn from our mistakes and move forward.”

There is no choice. Self-pity gets you nowhere in the NFL. A game at Detroit awaits. The hits keep right on coming.

Season-openers can be misleading. Case in point: Ken Whisenhunt won both of his openers as Titans head coach. Last year, the Titans dominated Tampa Bay in the opener. The year before, they whipped Kansas City.

Whisenhunt was Coach of the Year material in Week 1. It was all those other weeks that got him fired at mid-season last year. Those opening victories in 2014 and ’15 accounted for two-thirds of his wins as Titans coach.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if these Titans more closely resemble the team that dominated the first half against Minnesota or the team that self-destructed after intermission. Recent history tells us it is the latter. Time will tell.

On the positive side, the first-half performance was right out of Mike Mularkey’s script. The Titans showed just how effective a ball-control offense can be. They ran 35 plays to the Vikings’ 29 and had the ball for five more minutes on the way to a 10-0 halftime lead.

Then the Titans went belly-up thanks in large part to a horrific second-half performance by the offense. Two turnovers – a Mariota interception and a DeMarco Murray fumble – were returned for touchdowns by Minnesota. The Vikings won the game without scoring a touchdown on offense.

“Crazy stuff happens,” said Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo. “That’s what this NFL is all about.”

The turnovers weren’t limited to the Titans’ offense. On the sideline, Mularkey had one of his own.

After the Titans finally broke their second-half scoring drought with Mariota’s four-yard touchdown pass to Murray, cutting Minnesota’s lead to 25-16, Mularkey inexplicably chose to go for a two-point conversion. Mariota’s pass toward Murray fell incomplete.

Conventional wisdom, not to mention the chart that every coaching staff carries, indicates that you kick the PAT in that situation, cutting the deficit to eight points. If you score another touchdown, then you go for the two-pointer that would tie the game. By going for two – and failing – after Murray’s touchdown catch, Mularkey left the Titans hopelessly behind by two scores.

Granted, only 28 seconds remained when Mularkey made the poor decision. But you never know what might have happened if the Titans had recovered an onside kick.

To his credit, Mularkey said he should have kicked the PAT. His rationale that the Minnesota defense appeared fatigued and might not be capable of stopping a two-point conversion simply didn’t hold water.

“If I had it to do over again, I’d kick the extra point, yes,” he said.

But you can’t wait until after a game to reflect on the situation and reconsider a decision. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder why Amy Adams Strunk, the team’s controlling owner, felt strongly enough about Mularkey to remove the “interim” label and make him permanent head coach during the offseason – despite his career record, which is now 18-40.

Did Mularkey’s strategic gaffe lose the game? Of course not. Turnovers were the Titans’ undoing. Just the same, with such a narrow margin for error due to personnel shortcomings, the Titans can’t afford a brain cramp by the coach.

Beyond that, Mularkey’s so-called “exotic smashmouth” philosophy failed to materialize on offense. The Titans ran for only 64 yards.

Mindful that the Titans lack playmakers at wide receiver, the Vikings ignored any deep threat in the passing game and ganged up against the run. Look for future opponents to adopt a similar approach.

But at least the Titans found a counterpunch. Last season, Titans running backs were a mere afterthought in the passing game, averaging just 4.5 receptions per game.

Murray and rookie Derrick Henry combined for seven catches. Henry’s 29-yard catch and run was the Titans’ longest gain of the opener.

On the plus side, Dick LeBeau’s defense played well enough to win. Minnesota managed only 236 yards. Adrian Peterson gained just 31 yards on a whopping 19 carries.

“I thought we played as solid as we could but we just have to get turnovers,” said linebacker Avery Williamson. “That’s the only thing we didn’t do. That can change a game.”

So it’s one down, 15 to go for a team that needs to reinvent itself instead of inventing new ways to lose football games.

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

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