Tennessee Titans fans are like 30 other NFL fan bases, preparing to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday without their hometown team representing them.
The annual extravaganza is back in Atlanta, and the NFC Champions are the Rams.
For those old enough to remember, that was the venue and opponent for Tennessee’s only appearance…and we all know how that ended….
So I’ll digress.
On the surface the Titans seem as far away from a return trip to the Super Bowl as the distance between Boston and Los Angeles, but a closer look at that magical 1999 season should give fans hope.
Because this rendition of the team and the ones that preceded that run are eerily similar.
No one expected much from the Titans in 1999 after three consecutive 8-8 seasons prior to their arrival in Nashville. They were praised for their physicality but that’s about it.
The current Titans will enter next season coming off three consecutive 9-7 seasons. They are currently praised for their physicality, but that’s about it.
The 96-98 Oilers (as they were called then) were led by a young and inexperienced quarterback in Steve McNair, who was seen a nothing more than an athlete playing the position.
The national media was not sold on his ability to read defenses, stay healthy, or make plays from the pocket.
Those questions surround current qb Marcus Mariota, who has more starts under his belt than McNair did in 1999.
The franchise philosophy on offense was to pound the ball with their mammoth Pro Bowl running back (Eddie George), and their top receiving threat was their Pro Bowl tight end in Frank Wycheck.
This year’s team will also feature a run game powered by George’s protege, Derrick Henry, who is also a mammoth physical downhill runner (when he sets his mind to it).
Henry showed glimpses of George’s prowess as a dependable every down back late in the season and almost powered the team to a playoff berth himself.
In the passing game, tight end Delanie Walker (who has surpassed Wycheck on the franchise leader board) will once again be Mariota’s favorite target if he is able to return to form after missing 2018 with a fractured ankle.
The Oilers’ defense was their calling card through those transition years, which allowed the team to stay true to their offensive identity, much like today.
Tennessee finished the 2018 season ranked 8th in yards allowed and 3rd in points allowed, which kept the team in enough games to win more than not…even with an inconsistent and sometimes anemic offense.
And ironically enough, the two key acquisitions that turned a middle of the road franchise into title contenders in 1999 are what the current Titans desperately need today….
A game-changing pass rusher and dependable back up quarterback.
In 1999 the Titans selected defensive end Jevon Kearse with the 16th overall pick of the draft, and his impact was immediate.
Kearse led the AFC in sacks with a rookie-record 14.5, and led the entire NFL with 8 forced fumbles on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl, and First Team All Pro honors.
Kearse’s arrival turned a good defense into an elite one, and his teammate’s confidence in themselves soared along with their confidence in him.
The secondary was able to play far more aggressive with Kearse on the field, because they knew the opposing qb would have little to no time to go through his progressions.
The good news? This year’s draft is literally filled with pass rushing specialists with first round grades. And if the Titans can hit on another mid first-rounder, then the defense (which is good) can also make that jump to elite…a la 1999.
On offense, Tennessee signed veteran free agent qb Neil O’Donnell who enjoyed success as a starter and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl appearance.
When McNair went down early in the 99 season with a back injury, the team didn’t miss a beat with O’Donnell under center. Tennessee went 3-1 in McNair’s absence, and O’Donnell played at such a high level that fans wanted him to remain the starter when McNair was cleared to return to action.
This wasn’t lost on the embattled starter who heard the boos and cries for his replacement. He returned with a fire in his belly and put together a string of games to close the season unlike any time in his career up to that point.
Mariota’s injury-proneness has been well chronicled, but Tennessee’s inability to find a suitable backup could be attributed to the team not reaching the playoffs in 2016 and 2018.
A suitable backup that could put real pressure on Mariota would also be good for his development, especially with a make or break season on the horizon.
Competition brings out the best in true competitors, and we have yet to his job challenged to the point of fire in the belly.
While the casual or cynic fan would scoff at this notion, remember, no one saw the Titans coming in 1999, and they returned basically the same team along with those key additions.
And if you ask an honest Rams fan, they would admit that they never envisioned rooting for their team in the Super Bowl three years ago when they were 4-12.
The Titans are a lot closer than that.