Pro Bowl weekend is upon us, and for most players and fans the game has become nothing more than a glorified two-hand touch exhibition.
But for the Tennessee Titans and the five players representing their franchise, the game has a much deeper meaning.
Tennessee has spent the last several years in NFL obscurity, and that tends to happen to a small market team with few recognizable names and even fewer wins the last few seasons.
In 2016 the Titans had one of the quietest turnaround seasons in the Super Bowl era…increasing their win total by six games in just one year.
A devastating loss to Jacksonville on Christmas Eve prevented Tennessee from winning the AFC South and hosting a Derek Carr-less Oakland Raiders team in the wildcard round.
And as a result, they were robbed of the opportunity to showcase their progress on the national stage.
With players participating on both sides of the ball Sunday, the Titans will get some long-overdue praise from the national media as a young team on the rise.
The Pro Bowl has a special meaning for the Titans’ players as well.
For running back DeMarco Murray the game represents redemption after a dismal 2015 season in Philadelphia. A season that ended with people fearing that the 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year’s best days were behind him.
Murray quieted his critics by leading the AFC with 1,287 yards rushing in his first season in Tennessee. More importantly to the Titans, Murray’s physicality and locker room presence gave Tennessee a much needed identity on offense…exotic smash mouth football.
Sunday’s game also serves as redemption to left tackle Taylor Lewan and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, albeit for different reasons.
Lewan’s redemption speaks to his maturity and offseason dedication in 2016. Drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Lewan became known more for his bone-head plays and penalties than for his attributes on the field.
Things got so bad that he was demoted from being a team captain and had his banner removed from the outside of Nissan Stadium.
If not for the untimely draft night release of the “gas mask” picture, then prized rookie left tackle Laremy Tunsil could have been donning two tone Titan blue this season while Lewan played elsewhere.
Maybe it was the wake-up call that Lewan needed, because he lived up to his lofty draft status and turned in his best season to date in 2016.
Orakpo’s redemption speaks to his ability to persevere. Rak earned Pro Bowl honors his first two seasons after being drafted by the Washington Redskins in 2009. He went on to become a three-time Pro Bowler in DC, but multiple season-ending injuries caused the Redskins to ultimately go in a different direction.
Orakpo arrived in Nashville via free agency in 2015, and brought the “injury prone” tag along with him. But since becoming a Titan, Rak has played in all 32 regular season games and racked up (no pun intended) 17.5 sacks in that span.
For last year’s Pro Bowl participants, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and tight end Delanie Walker, Sunday’s game serves as the reward for sticking through the lean years and believing in the process.
Casey and Walker were the best players on two of the worst teams in franchise history…the 2014 and 2015 squads. Not once did they throw their teammates under the bus, or attempt to force their way out of the Music City.
Both signed well deserved contract extensions, and both are finally starting to see the fruits of their labor. The fact that they are joined by three others this season speaks to how the team improved by surrounding them with better talent.
Nope, it’s not and will never be the Super Bowl, and nope, it will not erase the sting of missing the playoffs by such a short margin.
But this year’s Pro Bowl has special meaning for the new-look Tennessee Titans, and is worth watching and supporting for Titans fans.