Wiedmer: Needless gamble early put Titans on the defensive

Wiedmer: Needless gamble early put Titans on the defensive

September 11th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is pushed out of bounds by Oakland Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie during Sunday's game in Nashville. The Raiders won 26-16 in the season opener for both teams.

Photo by Mark Zaleski

NASHVILLE — Right up until the opening kickoff, the start of the 2017 NFL season couldn't have gone much better for the Tennessee Titans.

The sky could easily have been labeled Titans Blue, devoid of clouds, the temperature stuck on 72 degrees. A giant American flag, nearly 100 yards long, covered the field during the national anthem. The Nashville Predators — those icemen who thrilled the entire Music City before falling to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final this summer — were honored as the 12th Titan in the final minutes before the home team faced the Oakland Raiders.

Such hype and circumstance apparently failed to impress Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who continued his recent habit of sitting during the anthem. But for those cheering the Titans, it was pretty much perfect, perhaps too perfect. At least it was until the Titans' Ryan Succop attempted an onside kick to start the game.

Nothing much went as it needed to for the remaining 58 minutes and 58 seconds of action in an eventual 26-16 Raiders win. For after the men in silver and black — the Raiders wore black jerseys for this one, despite being the road team — recovered that onside kick at midfield, they took but four plays and 131 seconds to score on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to former University of Alabama star Amari Cooper.

The Titans bounced back to tie it a few minutes later. Then they tied it again late in the second quarter at 10-all. But they never owned the lead against the team many expect to win the AFC West.

"(Head coach Mike Mularkey) told us last night that he was thinking of calling it," Titans tight end Delanie Walker said of the onside kick. "We were excited about it. The Raiders just played better than us. That's why they won."

Added quarterback Marcus Mariota when asked about the kick: "I love the aggressiveness. I love being a part of that culture."

And there's much to be said for that. Especially when you're trying to build a competitive and confident culture, which the Titans lacked before Mularkey officially took over as head coach in 2016, losing the interim tag after wearing it for nine games in the 2015 season.

Adopting a professional, no-nonsense approach in the locker room and elsewhere, Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson co-authored a 9-7 record last season that was supposed to produce a serious playoff contender this time around.

That isn't yet lost. Not even close. But the Titans were a largely listless 1-3 in the preseason and have now lost their home opener by 10 points. Furthermore, the Titans were but 1-for-3 in red-zone opportunities against the Raiders and ran for only 95 yards while giving up three fourth-quarter first downs via the rush.

So no matter what players may say in laudable defense of Mularkey, one can't help but wonder if the onside kick was an acknowledgement their coach doesn't yet think they're good enough to win without gimmicks and gadgets.

"It's rough," said running back DeMarco Murray, who finished with 44 rushing yards and two catches for 16 yards. "Obviously, it's the first game and we lost. They all mean a lot."

Added Mariota: "When you face a good team like Oakland, you've got to hit on all cylinders, and unfortunately we didn't make enough plays."

The second game comes in Jacksonville next Sunday, and it will force a flashback to bitter Christmas Eve memories of a year ago, given that Mariota broke his right leg there that day and the Jaguars crushed the Titans to end their playoff hopes.

"Honest, I really haven't put much thought into it," Mariota replied when asked about that game and the return to northeast Florida for an AFC South contest. "We didn't play very well in our division last season, and we have to change that."

Whether good or bad, Mularkey didn't seem to second-guess the kick, either, simply saying he "wanted to get the ball, start the game with the ball."

Did he second-guess himself when it backfired?

"Not for a second. I don't do that."

And why not?

"We could have had the ball at the 50-yard line with a pretty potent offense if we execute the onside kick," he added.

Of course, it's only a bad play if it doesn't work. But is the chance for it to become a bad enough play to put your team in a 7-0 hole two minutes into the game a good enough reason not to try it?

The Raiders had the worst scoring efficiency, at 16.5 percent, of all 32 NFL teams in 2016 when starting a drive at their own 20. It's fine to be aggressive and test the law of averages, but if you believe in your defense, wouldn't you like to be at least 83 percent likely to force an Oakland punt on its first possession?

As Carr addressed the media, someone asked if he believed he could face the Titans again in the playoffs.

"With a defense like that, they can go a long way," he said.

If he's right, let us hope Mularkey won't attempt a risky shortcut to victory on the opening kickoff.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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