NASHVILLE—In GM Jon Robinson’s office the other day, we were talking about how the Titans are regularly disregarded when discussing Super Bowl contenders…yet the team is on a three-year playoff streak and was the AFC’s one seed last year. Robinson smiled and said, “I’m gonna play you a song real quick,” he said, and started fiddling with his iPhone.
“Eric Church. ‘The Outsiders.’ That’s who we are,” Robinson said. Now came Church, the country star.
They’re the in crowd, we’re the other ones
It’s a different kind of cloth that we’re cut from
And so on. This is an interesting team with a braintrust that can patch holes as well as any team in football. Robinson and Mike Vrabel built a rock-ribbed defense and strong run game, with a pretty good pass game too (until divisional weekend), and they survived a ridiculous spate of injuries to lock in the AFC’s top seed. Tennessee used a league-record 91 players last year, won 12 games, and became the first team in NFL history to have eight wins over teams with winning records…despite missing Derrick Henry for half the year with a foot injury.
Vrabel gave a Belichickian response when I asked him about the Titans’ image. “I try not to focus on things that don’t matter,” he said. “We just try to build a foundation to help us withstand the ups and downs of an NFL season.”
The last time we saw the Titans was a down of epic proportions—the 19-16 home loss to Cincinnati to end the season. Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions, one on the Titans’ first offensive play and another, the dagger, on the Titans’ final offensive play of the game. That pick, with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a 16-all game, led to the winning 52-yard Cincinnati field goal at :00. And it led to huge questions about the future of Tannehill in Tennessee. His resume is overall good, but he’s lost three straight playoff games, averaging 17.3 points in the three. It would have cost the Titans a $57.4-million dead-cap charge in 2022 to move on from him, and so that was never an option.
But there’s another part of this story, a mental-health part.
“The game was heartbreaking,” Tannehill told me. “Put me in a dark spot.”
A really dark spot. He’s out of it now, mostly, but for the first time in all his years playing football, the game knocked him for such a mental loop he had to seek professional help.
“I hadn’t really been in that spot before,” he said after a broiler of a practice. “It was weeks and weeks of not really sleeping, and then kind of slowly got better from there, working my way through it. It wasn’t something that I just passively got through. I was intentionally seeking out help, talking to somebody and trying to work through the mental side of it.
“The mental side is such a big thing for everybody in life, but especially in sports. We talk about it as an organization. We have guys that help us with our bodies, help us train. We also have people that help with our minds. Being able to take advantage of that and kind of destigmatize the mental side of things. We’re all gonna go through something at different points in our life. It’s okay, right? Now you have the opportunity to work through it and be intentional about growing through the process and moving forward.
“You’re not pushing away the feelings. You’re acknowledging the feelings. You’re really feeling them and digging through why you’re feeling them, and then moving past it at that point. You’re not stuffing it away and hoping just to never feel it again. You’re acknowledging it, knowing it’s there, and then moving through it.
“Now, it’s a scar. That’s kind of how I’ve described it is that it’s a scar. It’s always there. You remember it. But it’s not a wound anymore. It doesn’t hurt the same. You acknowledge like yeah that sucked. But this is a new year. We have everything out in front of us. What happened last year, whether it was good or bad, it doesn’t matter at this point. You have to take each day as its own and take advantage of it.”
Teammates, staffers, coaches all talk of Tannehill being the same positive guy he’s always been. Now they’ve got to hope he truly is past it and can be the guy who’s gone 30-13 in three Titans seasons. His future in Tennessee probably depends on it.
As for the team, and the mental side of the game, the most important guy in Tannehill’s football life is squarely behind him—and his openness about the mental side of the game.
“We spend a lot of time in this game on our bodies,” Mike Vrabel said. “We need to spend as much time on our minds.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column