Lions’ matchup with Titans offers look at what might have been and what could be

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans couldn’t be on more different paths.

The Lions, set to miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, are in the early stages of a search for a new general manager and head coach, while the Titans, at 9-4, are in the driver’s seat for their first AFC South crown since 2008, one year after making a run to the conference championship. 

And to think, five years ago, the two franchises were at nearly identical starting points and would follow remarkably similar blueprints to get to where they are now. 

A week apart in January 2016, the Lions and Titans hired new general managers. The Lions brought on New England Patriots director of scouting Bob Quinn, while the Titans went with Tampa Bay Buccaneers director of player personnel Jon Robinson.

The two had long been friends, both groomed in New England, where they worked together for more than a decade. The biggest difference is Robinson left in 2013, spending three seasons working in Tampa Bay for Jason Licht, another branch off Bill Belichick’s front office tree.

And while it’s common for a new GM to hire his own coach, both men opted to stick with the coaches they inherited, Mike Mularkey and Jim Caldwell. And for those decisions, Quinn and Robinson were each rewarded with mirroring, back-to-back 9-7 seasons. 

One key difference is the Titans actually managed to escape the wild card round of the playoffs one of those seasons. Still, 9-7 wasn’t good enough for either Quinn or Robinson and both forged ahead with a coaching change heading into the 2018 campaign. 

And that is where the franchise paths split. Five days after parting ways Mularkey, the Titans hired Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel. The Lions interviewed him as well, but Quinn always had his sights set on Vrabel’s old position coach in New England, Matt Patricia. 

And while there are dozens of decisions that impact the success and failure of an NFL franchise, none have come anywhere close to defining the current separation between Detroit and Tennessee. 

While Vrabel was able to sustain the success of the team he inherited while implementing his culture — even while changing quarterbacks — the Lions collapsed under Patricia’s personality, going 13-29-1 before he was canned following an embarrassing thrashing at the hands of the Texans on Thanksgiving

So while optimism in Detroit is once again rooted in the same place it was in 2016 — the introduction of fresh faces to hopefully lead a long-awaited resurgence — they’ll be forced to watch Sunday and wonder if things might have been different had Quinn been more open to hiring Vrabel three years ago. 

They’ll also get a closer look at what could be in Arthur Smith, the Titans offensive coordinator who is expected to be one of the league’s hottest candidates this offseason. 

Unlike so many candidates, Smith isn’t just some intriguing branch off a successful coaching tree. A former college offensive lineman, he worked low-level jobs at his alma mater North Carolina, Ole Miss and Washington, in the NFL, before joining Tennessee’s staff as a quality control coach in 2011. 

Remarkably, through four different head coaches, Smith has survived and climbed through the ranks, going from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator when Vrabel’s first OC, Matt LeFleur, left to become the Green Back Packers coach last year. 

And all Smith has managed to do in the two years since inherited a unit that was 25th in total offense and 27th in scoring in 2018 is develop the group into one of the NFL’s five-most productive. 

Like you might expect from a former offensive lineman, it’s an old-school approach, built around a strong running game and the play-action pass. Running back Derrick Henry has a reasonable shot to top 2,000 yards this season, which is almost unheard of in an era of backfield rotation, while Ryan Tannehill, a reclamation project for Smith, has been one of the NFL’s most-efficient passers the past two seasons, with a quarterback rating well north of 100. 

Smith’s resume is certainly uncommon but merits strong consideration from any team looking for new leadership this offseason. 

“I’ve gotta lot of respect for Arthur,” Vrabel said during a conference call this week. “I’ve gotta lot of respect for the entire coaching staff. He works hard. He’s prepared. He communicates well with the players and him and I have a very good relationship to talk about what we want and the vision that we want for our offense and how it can relate to our football team.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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