Monday, October 5, 2009

Upon Further Review: Titans Lose 17-37

Bad NFL lived up to its name this week, as the Titans not only failed to cover, but they were annihilated 17-37. Essentially every prediction contained within Bad NFL's pick this week was proven incorrect, as this game was over by halftime. On the bright side, these sorts of games provide a unique opportunity to learn something, and thus Upon Further Review is a particularly must-read feature in these weeks where the prediction went wrong. Why did the Jaguars annihilate the Titans, and what lessons should we draw about predictions in the future?

1. The Titans pass defense was atrocious.

The Jags offense steamrolled the Titans pass defense, as they put up 37 points, scored on their first 6 drives, and routinely gashed the Titans secondary for explosive 20+ yard plays, allowing Garrard to put up 8.73 yards per attempt. The superlatives were free flowing after the game, with one Jags blogger noting that Garrard played his "best game in years," while a Jacksonville paper celebrated the Jags domination of the entire game. And why not? Garrard was brutally effective on deep passes, and afterward Garrard joked about how his WRs were so open all over the field that he could scarcely believe his eyes. He started off patiently hitting short throws, coupled with a couple of intermediate-to-deep seam routes to his TE Mercedes Lewis, and then in the early 2nd quarter, when the Jags basically put the game away, began hitting budding fantasy star Mike Sims-Walker, for whom the Titans had zero answer. The Jags ended up generating more yards than they had in almost 2 years.

To be fair, I was correct that the Titans would effectively take Maurice Jones-Drew out of the game, who rushed for a terrible 14 yards on 6 carries. But when I wrote that Garrard and the Jags mediocre WR corps were ill-suited to exploit the injuries in the Titans secondary, I was very wrong.

2. The Titans do not have an offense that can play from behind.

Chris Johnson wasn't bad at all, putting up 5+ yards per carry. The problem was two-fold, in that he a) failed to rip off one of his patented game-breaking long TD runs, and more importantly b) only ran the ball 16 times. The Jags, while not having a great run defense, are pretty fast on defense, and didn't allow Johnson to break off the big run. And fundamentally, once the Titans dug themselves a huge early hole, their best offensive weapon--and the reason I thought they would win this game--was rendered essentially irrelevant.

Once the game was put in Kerry Collins's hands, the Titans were essentially dead in the water. He overthrew open WRs consistently, and he continued the Titans trend of turning the ball over incessantly. They were never able to climb closer than 30-20, and ended up turning in one of their worst performances since they moved to Tennessee. The early deficit pretty much put the game away. I would write more, but this is not a difficult one to analyze; the Titans were dominated in every phase of the game.


1. Pay more attention to the "you are what you are" mantra. I made a big deal last week of the Titans talent and how good they have looked on film in their close losses. I was not alone: the conventional wisdom before the game noted how the Titans had a massive edge in talent, and they were supposed to be desperate coming in at 0-3. I was also blinded by the residual hangover of their success last year; after all, they had the 9th-rated pass defense and the 2nd overall defense in terms of points allowed in 2008.

But this is 2009, and at some point, results and not talent become what define you. These Titans just do not look very good. I stand firm behind the basic predicate of my pick this week that a primary vulnerability of betting lines is the overreaction to one good or bad game. But three games constitute a trend, not just a fluke, and the Titans, far from putting everything together, turned in their worst performance in years. They also came out very flat and without desperation.

Here are the parallels I might be looking for in the future, embodied by these three factors:
a) A team that has never won anything before in the playoffs: the Titans do not have any players left from that '99 Super Bowl losing team, so they have never been deep in the playoffs before. They don't have that experienced veteran core that really knows what it's like to win.

b) They are coming off a fantastic regular season but one that involved a brutal loss in their first playoff game.

c) They lost probably their most important player in Albert Haynesworth

d) They have an old QB that has had a mediocre career. Stats geeks will probably all tell you that Kerry Collins's 2008 season should have thrown up warning flags, as it's not like he's a Kurt Warner type that finally got into a good system. Instead, it looks like he just caught lightning in a bottle last year. It was a lot to expect him to repeat that performance, and he has not. He is not even playing like a good game manager anymore.

Perhaps those 4 factors do not suggest a team that is capable of bouncing back, even against what looked like a bad Jacksonville team. If it had been a normal 13-3 team that had gone on and had some success in the playoffs, maybe that would change things. But right now they do not at all look like a team that went 13-3, and I was clearly giving them too much credit carried over from last year. To be sure, the collapse of their defense has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, but as I started out this segment, you are what you are. Next time, with all due acknowledgment of the obvious truth that we should be hesitant to take too much from this one game, I will look more carefully at teams that are being overrated because of irrelevant success from the year before.

2. Mediocre passing beats bad pass defense.

I foolishly thought Garrard would be totally unable to exploit the Titans glaring weaknesses in the secondary. Of course, the most obvious counter-argument against this bet going in was the injuries to Finnegan and Fuller in the secondary. That argument should have been decisive; I erred in not scrutinizing the Titans depth and seeing how their rookie replacements would fare. Subconsciously, because I respect Jeff Fisher so much, I assumed that their replacement DBs would operate kind of like the Giants have this season, filling in seamlessly. They did not. Right now, the Titans secondary looks atrocious, and the Titans are looking like a poor pick to cover against any team that has a capable QB and smart WRs. I will be following the Titans lines for the next several weeks, looking for perhaps the oddsmakers and the public to make the same mistake I did in week 4.

Check back on Friday as Bad NFL tries to get back on track with a week 5 pick.

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