By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 30, 2018)
Waking up Sunday morning to news of Marcus Mariota’s inability to play in the season finale against the Indianapolis Colts helped to crush the already fragile hopes of Tennessee Titans fans who already knew the best player on the team, Jurrell Casey, was finished for the year. It was the biggest regular season game in the history of Nissan Stadium, and the talk all week seemed to be that 8 would give it a go.
The rains came on Sunday night, the Colts made some inexplicably bad mistakes, but in the end, they were healthier, they were better, they were balanced, and they were able to finish.
Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the Colts 33-17 victory over the Titans, including parting thoughts on the end of the 2018 season for Mike Vrabel’s football team.
It has to start here, because quarterback play is what football has become, and for the third time in his four professional seasons, Marcus was unable to play due to injury. After limited throwing in Thursday and Friday practices, it seemed likely he WOULD play, but that was not to be the case. It had people openly questioning his heart, which is completely ridiculous, because there’s no doubt he didn’t take himself out of the game.
Ultimately, potential permanent nerve damage if he took a hit was enough, but reports also circulated of a potential tear in the plantar fascia of one of his feet, and a third unconfirmed report mentioned a possible fractured bone in his neck that was reaggravated last week against the Redskins.
His future is much more important than one game, but this was a moment where the old “injury prone” descriptor came back to prominence. I’ve used it for a while, and it’s apt. He’s not “soft,” but his body has proven to be fragile and not dependable, making HIM fragile and not dependable. Soft is a mentality. That doesn’t describe Marcus Mariota in any respect. Injury prone is a reality he can’t control. I feel sorry for him. His body has betrayed him.
But, what it means is he couldn’t go in one of the two biggest games of his career, in a must-win situation that would send the Titans to the playoffs if it went their way. I’ve said it before. You simply cannot pay him big money. If he takes the wrong hit next year, does the nerve issue return again? He’s not reliable enough, even if you think he’s the greatest quarterback of all time when he’s healthy.
- He isn’t. Not by any means.
- If he can’t play, it doesn’t matter how talented he is.
The streak lives on as Luck handled the Tennessee Titans for the 11th straight time. He’s undefeated against them, and particularly early in the ballgame, he looked utterly untouchable – and that’s a literal classification, not just a figurative statement. He made one awful decision deep in his own territory that turned into a pick six, but outside of that, he was 24/35 for 285 yards and three touchdowns. Incidentally, he was 23/29 for 297 and three TDs in the first meeting last month.
He’s someone nobody really wants to see in the postseason, but against the Titans unchallenged (for much of the season) secondary, particularly without Jurrell Casey, Logan Ryan, and Brian Orakpo, the Titans had little chance. They certainly didn’t roll over. They played their guts out. But it was very improbable even a stellar effort would be enough.
Luck picked the DBs apart and used Dean Pees’ blitz against him in the first quarter, as it left a Colts receiver wide open on multiple occasions. Adding in enough Mack and Hines to keep things honest gave him even more time in the pocket, but the Titans barely laid a glove on him…and didn’t at ALL in the first half.
The second year growth and improvement from Jayon Brown was remarkable stuff. He became one of the best players on the defense, particularly against the run, and exuded constant, infectious energy on that side of the ball. 55 was a straight up baller for much of the season, and it continued into the finale, as he picked off Andrew Luck and also was responsible for both the Mack fumble and the recovery.
Since training camp, he seemed like a different guy, and he undoubtedly was. Several young players on the defense showed us something in 2018, and even though the season ended sooner than they might have hoped, there’s a lot to look forward to going forward with guys like Brown, Evans, and Landry, in addition to Byard, Casey, Jackson (not as a punt returner – but we’ll get to that), and others.
Brown was fun to watch tonight.
Brown was fun to watch all year.
Brown will be fun to watch for a while.
Brown is proving to be one of JRob’s best picks.
When Adoree Jackson was back to receive the punt, everyone in the know that’s watched this team all season had to be wondering why this continues to happen. It’s like everybody knows EXCEPT Mike Vrabel and his staff. Blaine Bishop mentioned to us in the press box that on the replay, as the ball bounced on the ground, Adoree’s eyes went up and he looked at what was in front of him, completely ignoring the football itself.
Was he scared of the footsteps beelining in his direction? Probably, because he clearly doesn’t want to be doing that job anymore. He was great at USC. This ain’t USC. Special teams in 2018 was largely a disaster for the Titans, and Jackson was its biggest culprit. It is flat out inexcusable not to just go with Darius Jennings, who had done some good things in return work during the season.
Tennessee MUST find someone to return the ball this offseason, whether it’s Jennings or someone not on the roster currently, and it needs to be someone who believes THAT job is why he’s in the NFL. It can’t be a starting cornerback afraid of contact that could lead to injury. I don’t even blame Adoree Jackson. I blame the team for putting him out there. How many times did we have to see this movie?
I tweeted on Sunday morning that a friend of mine who worked in sports for several years and is a gigantic Colts fan had told me on Thursday he and those he knew feared Blaine Gabbert more than Marcus Mariota, because of how the Indianapolis defense is made up and because of Gabbert’s ability to make the mid-range throws from the pocket.
After the game, he asked for a mea culpa, saying he was dead wrong and that Blaine Gabbert was abysmal.
He was right. 7 overthrew Dion Lewis on a three yard out route, threw one of the worst INTs you’ll ever see in under throwing Taywan Taylor by around 25 yards on a rollout – attempting to throw it across his body – which a vet should know better than to try in the first place.
18/29 for 165, a TD following a Derrick Henry-heavy drive, and two interceptions. He was bad. He was really, really bad. I had said in preseason he looked terrible in camp, but he did play okay earlier this season. But in the must-win spot, he was a practice squad QB at best, nothing approaching a backup.
The Titans have got to address not just Mariota, but the depth behind their starting QB (regardless of who it is) before they play another game.
16 carries for 93 yards, including some work taking snaps himself, just as we saw against the Houston Texans in Week 2. 16 carries in a game with Blaine Gabbert starting, but he still did some damage. He should have had over 20, if not 25. It was raining and they did go to him more, but not much more. He had seven first half carries for the second consecutive game, but only nine in the second half.
It didn’t matter that Indy was committed to stopping him, because he was still pushing forward. It was a far better, more believable way to try and win than relying on the arm and decision making of Gabbert on this night.
However, Henry did eclipse 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, with over half of his season total coming in the month of December. If there’s a spot for hope on the offense, it’s Derrick Henry, who went from “trade him” to “crown him” in short order. He went from fantasy bench to first round draft pick next season.
And what he does isn’t something coaches “catch up to,” because it’s an uncanny mix of power and patience, mixed with just enough finesse to make people miss. If they don’t miss, he trucks them. If they do, he takes it to the house. He should have been used more in the finale, but the Titans played from behind almost immediately, didn’t handle the early stretch of the game well, and made that task more difficult.
But he was a BEAST in the second half of the season.
Impressive @KingHenry_2, just hugely impressive.
THE LAST WORD
9-7. It’s not terrible, but it needed to be 10-6 and it wasn’t. Marcus Mariota’s health remains the biggest question surrounding the franchise, and I’m on record – you can’t pay him. I hate it for him because he’s a competitor, but if you’re not available, you’re not worth much. The Titans will likely give him 2019 and make their assessment afterward, but not being able to play tonight is yet another blemish, even though it’s totally out of his control.
The lack of discipline and the penalties in the final few minutes of the game was a bad look to end the season on, but the Titans finally just ran out of patience and ran out of composure points. Titans fans probably did as well, and as disappointing as this season was, it was still a nine win season in Mike Vrabel’s first year, and as a head coach, he did a lot of things right. I second guessed him at times, first guessed him at others, but he was by no means ill-equipped for the job, nor was he combative with media or his own locker room like at least one other rookie coach – Matt Patricia.
The concerning thing for the Titans is the Colts and Texans, the two best teams in the AFC South, have a plethora of money to spend in the offseason, with Indy holding over 119M and the Texans over 100 themselves. Both are in the top ten in the NFL and the Colts are number one. So, those two teams aren’t going anywhere, and will only get better.
Jon Robinson is going to have to knock his draft out of the park here in Nashville as the Music City hosts the event in April. If he doesn’t, the talk goes past Mariota to HIS job security…if it hasn’t already.
In the rain, the downpour stunk, but the end of the season stunk worse. On to 2019, as Titans fans face a familiar sight.
They watch 12 other teams play in January.
Maybe next year. There’s always another season.