Tennessee Titans 2014 Season Review: A Low Point for the Franchise
Entering the 2014 season, the Tennessee Titans and their fans should have been feeling fairly confident.
After a 7-9 season in 2013 and the arrival of Ken Whisenhunt as the new head coach, ostensibly promising to shake up the offense, our algorithms gave the Titans a 43.5 percent chance to make the playoffs -- the 12th-best shot in the whole league. But by Week 5, those odds were down to just 7.3 percent.
With the Indianapolis Colts given a 43.6 percent chance, the objectivity of the numbers didn't see much of a difference between the eventual 2-14 team and a team that reached the AFC Championship. That's not to say that our numbers were way off, but to indicate how much injuries and failure to play up to expectation can take two similar teams down very different paths.
Speaking of expectation, at numberFire, we have a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which gauges how far above or below expectation -- or league-average -- a team or player performed in a season. Think of it this way: NEP weights a five-yard rush for a first down and a five-yard rush leading to a punt very differently, as one leads to a higher expectation of points.
So, with all of this in mind, what went well for the Titans in 2014?
Unfortunately, the promising section of this review should end up shorter than the more pessimistic look back -- but that's not to say that there wasn't any promise in Tennessee.
Delanie Walker finished the year ninth in receptions among tight ends in the league with 63. In terms of Reception NEP, he ranked 10th, however, with a score of 63.69. And of the 20 tight ends to see at least 60 targets, Walker ranked just 12th in Reception NEP per target. Walker's Target NEP was just 12.82, which was 15th out of those 20. This indicates that of all the balls directed at Walker, the Titans added only about 13 points. The drop from his Reception NEP of nearly 64 indicates -- typically -- that he was force-fed quite frequently and things didn't always go in favor of the Titans.
Despite the quarterback struggles, really, the only other positive aspect of the Titans, according to our metrics, was Nate Washington, who led the team in Reception NEP (57.12). Sure, he finished just 50th among all receivers in the league in the cumulative version of Reception NEP, but on a per-target basis, Washington finished 18th out of the 87 receivers who saw at least 50 targets, adding 0.79 points per target.
The Not-Quite-So-Good-As-Delanie Section
In addition to our NEP metric, we also have a thing called nERD, which for football indicates how many points a team would be expected to win by or lose by compared to league-average competition. This year, the Titans' nERD was -10.77, the worst mark in the NFL. This was also their worst nERD since 2005 (-9.12), and of the 478 unique seasons by all teams since 2000, the Titans' 2014 campaign ranked just 457th.
The quarterback carousel played a large role in this. The Titans finished the season 30th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, effectively losing 0.06 points on each and every drop back. I could delve into each quarterback's metrics, but none of the three had a top-30 Success Rate (plays adding positively to NEP) among the 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. There's not much to say.
Less promising pass-catchers include Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Wright's Reception NEP of 51.94 ranked 57th among receivers. Hunter, who seemed poised for a breakout season, posted a Reception NEP of just 43.54, 67th among wideouts. Per target, Hunter finished 46th among 87 receivers with at least 50 targets, but Wright was a lowly 68th.
In the backfield, Shonn Greene was the most productive player -- if you exclude Jackie Battle, who saw just five carries. Greene's Rushing NEP was -3.47 on the season, which ranked 36th out of the 79 backs to see at least 40 carries.
Dexter Jettster Dexter McCluster posted a Rushing NEP of -7.04 (46th of 79), and rookie Bishop Sankey finished at -15.17 (69th).
Really, though, on a per-carry basis, McCluster was worst, losing -0.18 points per carry (73rd of 79). Even Greene (-0.04) was 38th. Sankey (-0.10) was 62nd.
In terms of defense, the Titans were, somehow, even worse than their offense. In overall Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, the Titans ranked 30th in the league. They were also 30th in adjusted per-play passing and 29th in adjusted per-play rushing. Based on the numbers, this was the worst overall and rushing defense the franchise has had since 2000, and the only passing defense that was worse was in 2005, which had an Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play of 0.20 compared to 0.18 this season.
Walker proved himself to be the most promising piece of the Titans offense, but there are a lot of question marks on that side of the ball.
The Titans need to figure out how to maximize Justin Hunter. In 2013, he posted the fifth-highest Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 40 targets, proving his big-play ability. This year, it was Washington who filled that role more successfully. Washington -- and a litany of other key players -- could be on the way out, so it's fairly obvious that the 2015 Titans will feature some new names.
Based on the 2-14 season and the unpromising metrics, that might be exactly what the Titans need to compete again in the AFC South after what was the most disappointing season in the franchise's last 15 years.