Look, when your team makes a surprising run to the AFC Championship one year and then wins a division title the next, all while completely rehabilitating a former first-round quarterback, there is going to be something of a “brain drain.”
The Titans are lucky they haven’t lost more coaches than OC Arthur Smith (head coach of the Falcons) and DC Dean Pees (retirement… briefly). But replacing Smith now means the surprising Titan offense will have its third offensive coordinator in four seasons. And very clearly HC Mike Vrabel bit off more than he could chew when trying to double as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2020 following Pees’ retirement.
To fill the empty coordinator spots, Vrabel promoted TE coach Todd Downing to OC, and OLB coach Shane Bowen to DC.
Downing is young, just 40, but he’s been around the block more than once. He’s coached or been in a front office in the NFL since 2001, with his most prominent work as a quarterbacks coach, but he had one season as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator in 2017, when Derek Carr was coming off both a career year and a devastating injury. Carr regressed, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was fired, and Downing has spent the last three years as a tight ends coach, both with the Vikings (2018) and Titans (2019-2020).
Curiously, this is the second consecutive time the Titans have promoted their TE coach to offensive coordinator. I think that speaks to how the Titans still want to play football — they want to build everything around RB Derrick Henry and the zone run game, with play action being a huge focus for QB Ryan Tannehill.
I’m generalizing a bit here, but I would think the average fan expects a QB coach to be the first in line to get an offensive coordinator job if the club wants to promote from within. Despite the Titans still having QB coach Pat O’Hara in their employ, they chose to promote Downing. That interests me because coaching tight ends requires the coach to have an excellent grasp on both passing concepts and run-game blocking schemes, and they’re so intrinsically married in the Titans’ offense, even more so than in the average NFL offense. The thinking here from Vrabel is that Downing will provide continuity. Vrabel referred to “the core system” as one of the reasons Downing was promoted, so I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of changes.
As for Bowen, Titan fans are underwhelmed by his promotion, to say the least. While Vrabel was officially his own defensive coordinator, Bowen was regarded as the guy under Vrabel who had the most control over the defense.
The Titans fell from 8th in defensive yards and 3rd in scoring in 2018 to 21st in yards and 12th in scoring in 2019, then Pees retired. In 2020, the Titans were a disaster defensively, finishing 28th in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed. The dropoff from 2019 to 2020 was even more stark by FootballOutsiders DVOA, as they fell from 18th to 29th.
The Titans are clearly hoping that injuries were a big factor in their defense completely underwhelming in 2020, and Bowen’s promotion suggests they don’t believe it was on him.
Obviously, the hope is there isn’t much impact at all on the Titans’ very narrow but very talented fantasy roster. With WR Corey Davis a free agent, this offense is currently built around Henry, Tannehill, and WR AJ Brown with some talented tight ends thrown in.
The pessimist’s take is that Downing might just run a watered-down version of Smith’s offense. That’s concerning, because while Tennessee’s offense is hyper efficient, it’s also hyper efficient in ways that most NFL teams aren’t — only the Ravens, with perhaps the best running QB in the history of the game, have run the ball more than the Titans over the last two seasons (and again, this was with Tennessee struggling defensively). So while Downing will run the same system, as Vrabel said, will he be able to tap into the sequencing and creativity that Smith exhibited?
At the least, our analysis with Downing’s offense will be simple: we expect the offense to look the same, but we can’t simply assume it will be as effective. I’m hard-pressed to think it could be more effective given Smith coached the NFL’s #6 and #4 offenses by DVOA the last two seasons.