NASHVILLE — After five straight winning seasons, a run that includes three playoff berths and one division title, the Tennessee Titans have made it clear that more of the same simply isn't enough.
Not this season.
Reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in 22 seasons is squarely in the Titans' sights. Coach Mike Vrabel isn't shying away from the lofty goal for a franchise that has reached the league's championship game only once in its history.
"Our job is to continue to raise expectations for our football team, for our coaching staff, for just our entire organization," said Vrabel, who is 29-19 entering his fourth season as head coach. "That is what we have been charged to do, that is our job. There is a plan to doing that."
The Titans see no reason why they can't contend for the AFC championship, having lost the conference title game in January 2020 to the host Kansas City Chiefs, who went on to win the Super Bowl that season and returned to the big game last season. Tennessee has managed to retain its backfield core of Derrick Henry, who has led the NFL in rushing the past two seasons and was the league's offensive player of the year for 2020, and Ryan Tannehill, who quarterbacked the offense that ranked fourth in scoring last season.
The franchise ended one drought last season, winning the AFC South for the first time in 12 seasons, but the Titans lost in the wild-card round when the visiting Baltimore Ravens found a way to smother Henry and the offense.
That's why general manager Jon Robinson traded for wide receiver Julio Jones, hoping the seven-time Pro Bowl selection can help 24-year-old A.J. Brown — a Pro Bowl pick last year in his second NFL season — provide balance in the passing game. Robinson also revamped a defense that was among the NFL's worst in several categories last season with six new starters.
"Being able to win the division was good, but that is not why we compete in this game," Tannehill said. "It's not to win the division. It is a step, but ultimately it's to win a championship."
Henry's steps have made a big difference in that process.
Last season he became the first player to lead the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons since LaDainian Tomlinson for the San Diego Chargers in 2006-07, and Henry also became just the eighth player in league history to run for at least 2,000 yards. Nobody in the NFL has carried the ball as much as Henry the past two seasons, and the Titans limited his work this preseason to keep the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder as fresh as possible as the league shifts to a 17-game regular season.
Asked about his motivation this year, the 27-year-old back made clear he remembers the Ravens holding him to 40 yards on 18 carries.
"You're only as good as your last game," Henry said, "and that's the last time I played."
Tannehill set a franchise single-season record with 40 touchdowns (33 passing and seven rushing) as the trigger man for an offense that tied the Buffalo Bills for the second-most yards per game (396.4) and ranked fourth in scoring (30.7 points per game) last season. Only the Chiefs averaged more yards per play over the past two seasons than Tennessee, and Baltimore is the only NFL team with more touchdowns in that span.
But the Titans didn't want to stand pat in the passing game, and by trading for Jones, they hope they upgraded from Corey Davis, now with the New York Jets. Jones, who spent his first 10 NFL seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, has a career average of 95.5 receiving yards per game — the best in NFL history. Davis left the playoff loss with an injury, allowing the Ravens to focus on Brown and Henry on their way to the 20-13 upset in Nashville.
Tennessee hopes the addition of Jones forces opponents makes it even harder for opposing defenses to focus on a single player, giving everyone more room to work.
As for their defense, the Titans struggled to get off the field on third down all last season, when they ranked last in the NFL by a long shot at 51.8%. They also were last in sacks in the league until the final week of the season — they wound up 30th — and ranked 29th against the pass.
That's why Robinson signed outside linebacker Bud Dupree and defensive lineman Denico Autry along with cornerback Janoris Jenkins as part of a complete makeover of the secondary. He also drafted two cornerbacks: Caleb Farley, the No. 22 pick overall, and Elijah Molden.
Vrabel did his part, giving Shane Bowen the defensive coordinator title he lacked last year and giving his job coaching outside linebackers to Ryan Crow. Vrabel also brought in Jim Schwartz, the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator and Detroit Lions head coach, as a senior defensive assistant.
On special teams, kicker has become an adventure for Tennessee, which has used seven players at the position over the past two seasons. The Titans tried to let Tucker McCann and undrafted rookie Blake Haubeil fight for the job before claiming Sam Ficken off waivers from the Jets during training camp.
Ficken may have the job for now. He kicked well in joint practices and a preseason win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, including making a 58-yard field goal. That prompted Tennessee to waive McCann a couple of days later.
TENNESSEE TITANS 2021 SCHEDULE
All times Eastern and p.m.
Sept. 12 — Arizona, 1 (CBS)
Sept. 19 — at Seattle, 4:25 (CBS)
Sept. 26 — Indianapolis, 1 (CBS)
Oct. 3 — at N.Y. Jets, 1 (CBS)
Oct. 10 — at Jacksonville, 1 (CBS)
Oct. 18 — Buffalo, 8:15 (ESPN)
Oct. 24 — Kansas City, 1 (CBS)
Oct. 31 — at Indianapolis, 1 (CBS)
Nov. 7 — at L.A. Rams, 8:20 (NBC)
Nov. 14 — New Orleans, 1 (CBS)
Nov. 21 — Houston, 1 (CBS)
Nov. 28 — at New England, 1 (CBS)
Dec. 12 — Jacksonville, 1 (CBS)
Dec. 19 — at Pittsburgh, 1 (CBS)
Dec. 23 — San Francisco, 8:20 (NFLN)
Jan. 2 — Miami, 1 (CBS)
Jan. 9 — at Houston, 1 (CBS)