Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is nothing if not loyal.
Despite the tangible proof that the Titans offense backslid in 2021, as did quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Vrabel still stood up for Todd Downing as he was asked to assess the first-year offensive coordinator’s season performance during locker clean out day on Monday.
“I think Todd does a great job,” Vrabel said. “He is a great coach. I think he is a hard worker.”
While Downing may be a hard worker, it’s hard to argue he gets results.
The 41-year-old took over a Titans offense that ranked No. 2 overall in the NFL last season (396.4 yards per game), scored the fourth-most points per game (30.7), and added future Hall of Famer Julio Jones.
And yet, Tennessee averaged nearly 54 fewer yards per game and a full touchdown less than it did the previous year. The Titans finished ranked 17th in total offense and 15th in scoring offense.
Tennessee’s scoring output as a whole fell off as well, dropping from 47.9 percent of drives ending in an offensive score in 2020 to just 38.9 percent in 2021.
And that’s without even mentioning the noticeable regression of the Titans’ offensive line, which allowed 23 more sacks and 63 more QB pressures than it did last year.
He produced similar subpar results the last time he was an offensive coordinator as well. Taking over the Raiders offense in 2016, Downing inherited a unit that ranked sixth overall in total yards and seventh in scoring. And in one season, the Raiders plummeted to 17th in total offense and 23rd in total points, averaging 49.2 fewer yards per game and 7.2 points per game less in 2017.
But Downing did have injuries working against him. He was tasked with designing an offense to be functional without Jones for seven games, A.J. Brown for four, and Derrick Henry for nine.
And he did do some things right. The Titans finished third in rushing touchdowns, fifth in rushing yards and red-zone scoring, and eighth in third-down offense this year.
While it may never have been realistic to expect Downing to put up similar numbers to Arthur Smith’s 2020 offense, it’s hard to defend all the areas Tennessee’s offense got worse in this year.
The Titans had 10 games of 30 or more points in 2020; they had just five such games this year. The Titans had nine games with 400 or more yards of total offense in 2020; they had only four this year. They had just 12 offensive turnovers in 2020; they had 25 this year.
Tannehill, who threw just 13 combined interceptions in his first two seasons with the Titans, had 14 this season — 17 if you count the three that he threw in Saturday’s AFC divisional round loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
He also had his worst passer rating since 2015, his worst yards per completion since 2014, and he had the fewest touchdown passes in a season when starting 16 or more games since his rookie season.
“Things have to be better in all three phases each and every year,” Vrabel continued. “But I love the relationship that Todd has with the assistant coaches and the players. We will all continue to improve.”
Now, it’s hard to fully discount the possibility that Downing could have a Shane-Bowen-bounce-back type of year in 2022. But just like Jon Robinson gave Bowen better players to work with this year, he’s going to have to do the same for Downing next year.
Tannehill likely isn’t going anywhere, so it would behoove the Titans to surround him with more durable receivers, a tight end who can actually catch passes, and perhaps another offensive lineman or two who don’t crumble in pass protection.
As we saw with Bowen, sometimes having the right personnel makes a world of difference.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_