Is Titans management pursuing a winning strategy?

Houston Texans v Tennessee TitansI’ve watched way too much professional football — hundreds of hours over thirty-two years — over my lifetime. This doesn’t make me an expert, but I think I know a thing or two about the NFL.

I’ve concluded that the differences between an NFL champion and the NFL cellar-dweller are solid coaching and three great players. This may sound ridiculous when comparing the porous defense of the Detroit Lions with the number one defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t think I have to make a case that solid coaching is important. Bill Belichick is Exhibit A. I wouldn’t necessarily want to have dinner with the man, but he’s one of the all-time greats. Belichick has had one losing season (his first) while coaching the New England Patriots, and led his team to a 10-6 record in 2008 without Tom Brady.

My “three great players” theory is debatable. But consider this.

What if Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu played for the 2008 Detroit Lions? That team would have won at least six games.

What if you added head coach Mike Tomlin to the mix? Is he worth an additional two or more wins? Would the Lions make the playoffs?

“The competitive level in the NFL is such that the difference between 10–6 and 3–13 is really not all that much,” says Kuharich. “You can call it parity or mediocrity or whatever you want, but it’s a big reason the league is so popular.” – Bill Kuharich

The above quote is from an excellent Sports Illustrated article about the hopes of NFL fans for their favorite team at the beginning of every season, and whether or not those hopes are realistic.

One thing football fans must keep in mind is that the salary cap and the NFL draft are forces that pull franchises to the middle of the pack. In light of this, the challenge for general managers and coaches is to rise above the middle and keep their team above average as long as possible.

At the start of the 2009 season, Fisher’s record was 128-102-0. However, of Fisher’s 14 full seasons as coach of the Oilers/Titans, he has had eight seasons with a record of 8-8 or worse (glass half empty). He has had ten seasons with a record of 8-8 or better (glass half full).

For the sake of this article, I’m looking at the glass as half empty, because in most years, 8-8 will not earn you a trip to the playoffs. Also, fans are not buying tickets and sitting in front of the tube to watch their favorite team lose games.

Under Jeff Fisher, the Titans have been a conservative franchise, from its playcalling, its offensive and defensive philosophy, and, with Mike Reinfeldt as GM, its fiscal management style.

Given this, I was not surprised that Tennessee let go of high-priced free agent Albert Haynesworth. I understand the move, but I don’t totally agree with it.

Haynesworth was the best player on the team and the anchor of the Titans’ championship-level defense. The Titans are without one of its three great players from 2008 (Chris Johnson is one of them; the other great player is debatable — Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Michael Roos, and, potentially, Vince Young).

I have no idea whatsoever if the Titans could have fit a fat Haynesworth contract into its salary structure without seriously compromising their short-term fiscal health. But for a conservative franchise, letting Haynesworth go appears to be a very risky move.

It’s a move that may result in Tennessee moving to the middle of the pack. This is not what fans expected, and I’m beginning to wonder what owner Bud Adams is thinking.

It’s early in the season. We will see whether or not Titans management pursued a winning strategy in the 2009 offseason.

In the meantime, the vultures have not taken flight, but they are on alert.

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