Why the Titans are one of the most interesting teams in the NFL

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The Titans are one of the most interesting teams in football, even adding no one of major note in the offseason. That includes Tennessee’s pass-rush fix, free-agent Vic Beasley, who is the biggest ghost in the NFL right now. After five years in Atlanta, the Falcons let him go in free agency, and he signed a lowball one-year, $9.5-million deal in Tennessee—amid rumors in Atlanta that Beasley had fallen out of love with football. He was 10 days late reporting to the Titans for camp, costing him a non-forgiveable (by CBA rules) $500,000 in fines. He failed his physical three weeks ago, was put on the non-football injury list, and has yet to practice. After signing more than five months ago, he has yet to talk to the Nashville press, and reporters have seen him around the facility only two or three times. Titans coach Mike Vrabel has given few clues about whatever injury he might have or when he might actually, you know, play football.

The most interesting addition might actually be third-round offensive weapon Darrynton Evans of Appalachian State. He hasn’t practiced in a week because of an unspecified injury, but if he gets right, and if put in the hands and offensive brain of Arthur Smith, Evans, the 93rd pick in the 2020 draft, could be one of the most interesting rookies in the NFL this year. As someone close to the Titans told me the other day: “Not ‘could be.’ It’s ‘will be.’ Darrynton Evans has a chance to be a poor man’s Alvin Kamara.” After the failed Dion Lewis experiment as an all-purpose back, the Titans hope that Evans is the changeup back not to take touches away from Derrick Henry (20.1 touches per game in the regular season) but to be used all over the formation. Like Kamara. In a Smith game plan, Evans could be dangerous.

Think about Gibbs as a coach and offensive designer. Think about winning games with lesser quarterbacks, a rock ‘em running back (as famous as John Riggins, as infamous as Timmy Smith), a stout line, some deep weapons, and imagination. Every game plan a snowflake for Gibbs. “I look back on my season with him,” said Smith, “and I realize how good he was handling the team, how he thought about the game. Thinking about John Riggins late in the year, in the playoffs, I kind of thought about that with Derrick [Henry] in the playoffs last year, and the similarities of how he thought about playoff football. That certainly had an effect on me.” In other words, ride the hot hand. Timmy Smith, a totally nondescript back (22 career regular-season games, 27 rushing yards per game), rushed for 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII.

After watching the Titans last year, I’m convinced Smith’s one of the five best play designers and playcallers in football. In the divisional game against Baltimore, Smith sent wide receiver Kalif Raymond—5-8, from Holy Cross, waived five times—on a deep seam route, and Raymond put a move on a top-10 NFL corner, Marlon Humphrey. The touchdown rainbow from Tannehill broke open that game. Weeks earlier, in a huge division game against Houston, Smith put tight end Jonnu Smith in the backfield and had Tannehill pitch it to him. Gain of 57.

Smith’s favorite weirdo play? It came on the 72nd offensive playcall of his NFL career. Week 2, 2019, home against Indy, ball at the Colts’ 1-yard line. Jumbo package: Linebacker Daren Bates in front of Henry in the backfield; 477 pounds of force to somehow get one yard. Offensive lineman David Quessenberry tight end-eligible outside the right tackle. At the snap, Marcus Mariota looks for Bates, of all people, flaring left. . .

“The first read of the play,” Smith said, “was Daren Bates, our linebacker subbing in at fullback. They just happened to cover Bates and Quiz came wide open. It was incredible and it worked out probably the way it should’ve and Marcus ended up finding Quiz coming in the back of the end zone. He was just a back side read. It wasn’t like he was the primary. But that’s the underrated thing—we were actually trying to get the ball to the linebacker who was helping out at fullback.” Huge play, in the sixth quarter of Smith’s play-calling life, and he calls for a linebacker to be the first option and the 310-pound offensive lineman the second. Touchdown.

“I love the strategy part of it, testing the limits to see what we can do,” Smith said. “I love working for Mike Vrabel. He allows you to push the limits. On the Jonnu play, we put it in in practice, and we ran it—Jonnu thought I was kidding. Mike saw it, he thought about it, and he said, ‘That’s not half-bad.’ “

Smith’s ethos comes in part from being so open-minded. Is it really sensible to have Derrick Henry on the field, needing one yard, and calling a play to throw to a linebacker or offensive linemen? Well, yes. Yes it is. Like his dad, Arthur Smith—one of 10 children—loves learning. “I was pushed by my dad to find my passion and go for it. He’s like, whatever you do, you’re gonna go full steam ahead at it and chase it. He goes to work every day and he’s a very active learner. Always challenges me to keep reading.”

The match with Tannehill was great for Smith, because the sudden backup quarterback—thrust into the lineup for a slumping Mariota in October—was dutiful as a backup, but never believed he was one. And Smith never babied Tannehill. “From the minute I took over he believed in me and just wanted me to go play, wanted me to go cut it loose, not overthink things,” Tannehill said. “That was a lot of fun for me to just go out and play, throw confidently, throw to guys who I believed in to go get the football and make plays. Really at the end of the day, that’s what it was. Arthur does a great job of pushing the envelope of keeping defenses on their toes.”

It helps to have two of the best offensive players in football—Henry and shooting-star wideout A.J. Brown—to build a game plan around. But this team’s fun, and will continue to be, because the offensive coordinator is not afraid of calling anything, and his head coach backs him, and he knows, like his mentor Gibbs, that offensive versatility is offensive strength. Tennessee’s not going to be a one-year wonder.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.