When you compare the Titans to the three other unbeaten teams, they aren’t as explosive as Green Bay and Seattle. They don’t have the tradition of Pittsburgh. They have a good quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, but he’s not on a Hall of Fame path like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger. Still, the Titans may best encapsulate all of what’s good, what’s bad and what’s troubling about the NFL right now.
Because of an outbreak that infected 13 players and 11 staff members, the Titans went 16 days between games. Then, in a makeshift Tuesday Night Football showdown of unbeaten teams, they stomped the Buffalo Bills, 42-16. They took out the frustration of being limited to just three walk-through practices during their time off. And they barked back after being labeled too callous about the league’s covid-19 protocols.
“They hate it,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan declared while walking off the Nissan Stadium field on a video the team posted on Twitter. “They were angry at us. They thought we did everything wrong. Don’t put us in adversity. Scratch all day. Match all weight.”
Yeah, um, this isn’t a chest-thumping accomplishment. There’s no doubt this team exudes toughness, which everyone should have learned during Tennessee’s run to the AFC title game last season. There’s no doubt that blowing out Buffalo, after all this worry and disruption, says plenty about the team’s resolve. But the larger message is still that Titans must be smarter and more careful. One emphatic victory doesn’t erase concern about multiple reports of the franchise failing to adhere to several preventive measures. It doesn’t excuse the ill-advised risk players took in organizing an off-campus workout when the team facility was closed.
Stop short of considering the Titans some irredeemable misfits, though. Their saga represents an inevitable reality check for the entire sport. Covid-19 is an opponent more disciplined than even the NFL, which prides itself on orchestrating and executing plans. Success in the sport is all about the consistent repetition of sound strategy. But on the field, effort and persistence can help players overcome mistakes. In trying to play through a pandemic, all errors cost dearly. If Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are having trouble managing this crisis, then the NFL must deal with the growing belief that it is asking teams to exhibit a level of discipline that may not be humanly possible.
Nevertheless, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will keep making the request. And the league will keep making up the rest as it goes, revising the schedule, adjusting the protocols, threatening teams, encouraging teams, planning privately for worst-case scenarios.
Is it a sustainable approach? Maybe, with extreme flexibility. Or maybe it’s futile. The coronavirus vs. NFL convention is the most intriguing and unnerving matchup of this strange time in sports.
“We cannot grow complacent,” Goodell reiterated Tuesday. “Not the players, not the coaches, not the rest of our personnel. Ninety percent [compliance] is not good enough in this environment. We have to be incredibly diligent and disciplined.”
Now would be a good time for sports to live up to its cliche about giving 110 percent. But we know that’s not possible. So NFL teams will grind, as best they can. Maybe the Titans’ disaster will end up being the blip that the Miami Marlins’ drama proved to be in Major League Baseball. After a coronavirus scare and severe criticism about its flippant early-season approach, the Marlins recovered, made the playoffs and became an entertaining part of this truncated baseball season. In the NFL, the Titans look to be an even more formidable contender if they stay healthy.
“I learned a long time ago the definition of a pro is they make the hard look easy,” Tennessee Coach Mike Vrabel said. “So whatever situation we’re presented with, we got to all come together and make the best decisions for the team each and every time.”
For a team with a zero in the loss column, the Titans have a deep understanding of trauma. That’s a different kind of status for a different kind of year. They have yet to be taken as seriously as the other unbeatens, and for that, blame the virus more than their throwback, smash-mouth style. Even though they rallied and dominated Buffalo, they still must endure snickering.
Tweeted Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin: “I don’t blame the bills. All that Covid the titans had I’d b out there running away from they [a–] trying not to get touched ewwwwww don’t bring that [s—] over here.”
In sports, we try to have fun with everything, but covid-19 is no joke. It terrified the Titans. For more than two weeks, it took over their season. Despite celebrating a statement win, they will spend the week hoping, day to day, that new cases don’t arise and interrupt their season all over again. And the Bills must live one test at a time, too.
This is the life the players and league chose. They negotiated the terms and put together a smart plan. They respect the challenge, just not enough to fully avoid the danger and flush away billions of dollars in revenue.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “We went through a lot these last two weeks dealing with this virus, and I just think it made us closer, made us just go out there and play hard for each other. It’s all about winning.”
Actually, it’s all about surviving. This year, in every sport, on every field of play, the wins and losses are the reward for hanging in there. After 16 trying days, the Titans should know not to take that for granted.