Rejecting status quo can make Marcus Mariota, Titans true contenders

The Tennessee Titans ended their season with a 35-14 divisional-round loss to the New England Patriots on Saturday. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:

Season grade: Somewhere between average and above average. The Titans overcame a December three-game losing streak to end their nine-year playoff drought and won their first postseason contest since the 2003 season, but their offensive struggles were too much to compete against the AFC's elite. It took too long to unleash the late-season version of quarterback Marcus Mariota, but when we saw it Week 17 versus Jacksonville and in the playoffs at Kansas City, it left a lasting feeling of hope and future promise if some changes are made. Nothing was ever easy or pretty, but they enjoyed more success than failure.

"We used to be the armpit of the NFL," linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "We've come a long way. We've accomplished a lot of goals."

Season in review: The Titans were among the media's preseason darlings due to Mariota returning from injury with a bevy of new offensive weapons in Corey Davis, Eric Decker, Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith. They also added three starting defensive backs to fix a struggling secondary, and while this group did show improvement, it's apparent that there is still growth needed.

The Titans' offense, however, regressed collectively. Delanie Walker and Taylor Lewan were the only offensive players who played as well as they did in 2016. Mariota took a step back, throwing for a career-high 15 interceptions and a career-low 13 touchdowns in the regular season. He graded his Year 3 as "OK." Titans offensive coaches didn't do enough to adjust to their players' strengths. Tennessee's mistake-prone and often predictable offense was typically hard to watch.

Despite the visually unappealing on-field product, the Titans ran out to an 8-4 record. They then lost three straight before needing four turnovers to squeak by the Jaguars and make the playoffs. Their resiliency and toughness showed throughout the season and played a huge role in overcoming an 18-point halftime deficit to win at Kansas City in the wild-card round.

The blowout playoff loss to New England was humbling. Progress was apparent, but now that they've cleared the hurdle, the playoffs should be a minimum expectation for Tennessee.

Biggest play of season: It was Titans ball, third-and-goal from the Chiefs' 6-yard line midway through the third quarter of a wild-card game in which Tennessee trailed 21-3. Mariota scrambled to his left and threw on the run, trying to squeeze the ball to Davis in the end zone. Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis batted it in the air, Mariota caught it like a rebound and smoothly dove into the end zone for a touchdown. Mariota was the first player to catch a touchdown from himself since Minnesota Vikings QB Brad Johnson in Week 7 of the 1997 season.

This play was symbolic because it wasn't how the Titans drew it up, but it was successful because of Mariota's playmaking ability. "He can pass, he can run and he can block," running back Derrick Henry said of Mariota. "Have you ever seen 'Friday Night Lights?' He can do it all. And then he caught the ball, too." The Titans locker room always believed in Mariota despite the rough numbers, and this play, which sparked a Titans comeback victory, defined why.

He said it: "As an offense, I'll be the first one to say that we underachieved this year. To make it this far, that's extremely promising, but we can't do that again in the 2018 season. We have the firepower to do it. It's just a matter of getting it done." -- Lewan

Key offseason questions

What's the status of Mike Mularkey and Titans' veteran coaching staff? Mularkey is entering the final year of his three-year contract, so unless he and the team are willing to make 2018 a "lame duck" season it seems a decision on an extension or potentially parting ways is coming. The Titans gave Mularkey a vote of confidence, but it took long enough to wonder if this issue will linger. Mularkey has gone 19-15 in his two seasons as full-time head coach, but didn't fully take advantage of the offensive weapons he was provided.

Can the Titans win a championship under Mularkey? That's uncertain. If Mularkey stays, the status of offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, quarterbacks coach Jason Michael and a few other offensive coaches might be under evaluation. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 80, will also have a decision on whether to return for his 60th consecutive season in the NFL as a player or coach. It's unlikely the Titans will be able to recruit top-notch assistant coaches if Mularkey has just one year left on his deal.

How to get late-season Mariota all year? We all hear about the sophomore slump, but Mariota's big step back came in Year 3. Mariota will get a much-needed offseason to worry about correcting his flaws -- like footwork and ball security -- and not rehab. The Titans need a plan to make his time extremely useful so he can take the next step. He'll be entering his fourth season, so it's about time to remove the "young QB" label and expect Mariota to consistently perform as the franchise QB the Titans believe he is. We need to see some of the flashes he showed vs. the Jags and Chiefs throughout the 2018 season.

Biggest draft need: Explosive pass-rushing OLB. The Titans top three outside linebackers -- Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Erik Walden -- will be 32, 29 and 33, respectively, to start the 2018 season. Their skill level will soon drop off, and it's time to prepare as if 2016 second-round pick Kevin Dodd will never be the player they hope him to be. We saw pass-rush issues come up big at New England. It's time to bring in the next great, young Titans pass-rusher.

Free-agency targets: The Titans are projected to have over $50 million in cap space this offseason, much of which could go toward extending or re-signing players such as Lewan, Walker, DaQuan Jones, Avery Williamson and maybe even Mariota, although an early extension doesn't make a ton of sense from the QB's perspective right now. They still should have some money to splurge on the market to potentially add one or two top-notch guards like Andrew Norwell, cornerback depth, more speed and reliability at receiver, a complementary back to Henry, and a backup quarterback.