Titans' Jon Robinson needs to make like Floyd Reese, 20 years later
INDIANAPOLIS — Awful to decent, that’s done.
Decent to great? It’s time, Jon Robinson.
So those were my questions for the Titans general manager during his session with reporters Wednesday at the NFL combine. To paraphrase while removing the extraneous words like “uh” and “um”: How difficult is that jump and how close is this roster?
“This is a tough league,” Robinson said. “It’s tough to win on a weekly basis. We’re in a good division. There’s a good team here in Indianapolis that, we’ve got to try to find a way to get those guys. All the teams in our division are good, and there’s good teams (in) the AFC. We’ve got to try to continue to build. We’ve certainly set on the right path in having three (straight) winning seasons. But there’s an internal drive in a competitor that once you get a taste of being in the tournament … there’s a drive within all of us to try to get back to that tournament.”
Saying any offseason for any NFL general manager is a “big one” is right up there on the “no duh” scale with saying something like: “This is going to be an interesting offseason for Robert Kraft.”
But, man, is this ever a big offseason for Robinson. He has done good work since taking the job on Jan. 14, 2016, building three straight 9-7 teams – with one playoff qualification and victory – out of a franchise that went 5-27 in the two seasons before he arrived. He’s had his scores and his fails, more of the former than the latter, yet the Titans are going to be a popular pick for fourth in the AFC South in 2019.
Colts then, like Titans now, picked low
The aforementioned Colts held that title a year ago, and all GM Chris Ballard did was revamp a terrible offensive line, find a defensive star in linebacker Darius Leonard in the second round and enjoy quarterback Andrew Luck’s return to health all the way to a 10-6 season and playoff win over the Texans. And Ballard has enough cap space ($122 million) to buy Jerry Jones’ Dallas mansion and the one next to it.
The Texans have Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and the title of reigning AFC South champions. The door is now open for the talented/befuddling Jacksonville Jaguars to solve their quarterback issues with Nick Foles, if they choose to pursue him. Things don’t look favorable for the Titans and their oft-injured quarterback, Marcus Mariota. But that’s where Robinson comes in – he needs to have a winter and spring of 2019 to approximate Ballard’s winter and spring of 2018.
And yeah, he needs better luck than last year. He said as much on the specific question of this roster’s readiness for prime time. Fans won’t want to hear that, but Robinson isn’t wrong. Injuries to Mariota, Delanie Walker, Jurrell Casey, Jack Conklin, Logan Ryan and others were collectively excessive and damaging. Robinson couldn’t control that.
He doesn’t control how players develop after he acquires them, either, but this team and his track record can benefit if they do. To that point, Titans coach Mike Vrabel reiterated Wednesday the belief that rookie inside linebacker Rashaan Evans was coming on strong late in the 2018 season, and Vrabel said of rookie outside linebacker Harold Landry: “He’s in (the Titans’ facility) every day. We have to send him home. He’s in the weight room every day ... so he’s going to do everything we ask him to do, moving forward, to improve.”
Players improve. Players change. Health and growth have to be part of the Titans’ good-to-great pursuit in 2019. And then Robinson has to hit big with his $46 million in cap space and six draft picks, starting at No. 19. It’s harder to get from nine wins to 12 wins in the NFL than it is to get from three wins to nine wins, despite what the math might tell you.
“Much harder,” Floyd Reese said.
Playoffs, pink slips and Reese's score
And Reese, the greatest GM in Titans history, would know. It’s almost weird when you look back at where this franchise was 20 years ago and compare it with today. Reese lifted it out of the NFL basement (2-14 in 1994, while still the Houston Oilers), and as it prepared in 1999 to debut with the Titans name in a Nashville stadium, it was working on three straight 8-8 seasons.
It had a talented, somewhat injury-prone quarterback looking to take the next step. A big, powerful running back. A star tight end. A fan favorite at safety. A head coach with a majestic mustache. Any of this sound familiar? (By the way, Vrabel’s mustache is pretty good, but he’s no Jeff Fisher).
It also had a lot of pressure to move out of mediocrity. Owner Bud Adams said as much during training camp, and then-Tennessean columnist David Climer’s resulting piece was headlined: “Playoffs or pink slips,” in reference to Reese and Fisher.
“All the media ran over to ask about it, and I’m like, ‘Is that really a surprise to anybody here?’” Reese recalled. “If you don’t win, you’re going to get fired. I don’t care if they tell you or not.”
Also during that training camp, Reese’s first-round pick was inspiring almost as much attention. Jevon Kearse, drafted out of Florida with the No. 16 pick, was bringing terror off the edge, snap after snap.
He was so good, Reese said, that other Titans tried to emulate him and improved in the process. Kearse went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for the only Super Bowl team in franchise history. That and many other things – such as Steve McNair becoming a star quarterback – came together.
And this is not to predict that the 2019 Titans will repeat history 20 years later, unless it happens and this column is paraphrased to claim prescience. It is to say this: Robinson needs to find a freak or two for that defense.
Reach Joe Rexrode at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.
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