NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans reached the AFC Championship Game last season. But instead of chasing expensive free agents to put them over the top, they decided to mostly stand pat and rely on quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry -- both re-signed this offseason -- to lead another postseason run.
In all, Tennessee is returning 19 starters from 2019 -- including 10 of 11 starters on offense.
"We hope that having those pieces in place for another year -- the familiarity with the program, the system, our coaching, each other most importantly on the field -- that they will have success," coach Mike Vrabel said. "I think just everybody's comfort level coming back in the system, knowing how [second-year offensive coordinator] Arthur [Smith] is going to operate, and knowing the coaches that we have coming back, what their expectations are, and how they're teaching the details and how the players are learning."
The Titans didn't make any flashy additions other than signing free-agent outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks (15.5) in 2016 for the Atlanta Falcons. Beasley is off to a rocky start after missing the first 10 days of camp and then being placed on the non-football injury list. GM Jon Robinson focused this offseason on re-signing key players to retain their nucleus.
"That’s something that we talked about, trying to keep the continuity together," Robinson said.
Continuity will be even more important this season because of limitations brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Teams weren't able to hit the field for OTAs or minicamp, making it extra difficult to install a new scheme. Preseason games were canceled, which means a new coaching staff will have its first game experience in the season opener.
Tennessee is entering its third season under Vrabel, who led the team to a 9-7 record and the AFC Championship Game last season. Smith is back, as is Tannehill. It has been three seasons since the Titans had the same starting quarterback and offensive coordinator returning from the previous year (quarterback Marcus Mariota and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie in 2017).
"Any time you have continuity from year to year it helps a lot," Tannehill said. "Bringing back a lot of familiar faces is a good thing. We're jumping back into the same offense with minor adjustments and we're really able to lock in on smaller details that we never got to. We're able to fine-tune things to a point that we weren’t able to push last year."
Getting the quarterback and playcaller to think as one is critical. Most of the NFL's top offenses have quarterback-coordinator duos that have been together for several seasons, such as the New Orleans Saints with coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees and the Kansas City Chiefs with coaches Andy Reid/Eric Bieniemy and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Tannehill believes he and Smith developed synergy last season. Tennessee's offense had averaged 19.6 points per game through Week 6, when Tannehill took over. From Week 7 on, the Titans averaged 24.8 points per game. Having most of the same pieces in place gives Smith plenty of reason for excitement heading into the 2020 season.
"In a lot of ways, it certainly helps. There's clarity, there's recall," Smith said. "You've been through a whole season with them and through the game plan, so when you're making tweaks or you're trying to try something new, you've got some, ‘Hey, remember when we did this this week when we're playing in Baltimore? This is something we want to try.’ And there's a lot of recall, and you're showing them doing it and you're trying to evolve. That certainly helps, and we understand just because you got everybody back on it's [still] going to be a hard climb."
The Titans are banking on second-year receiver A.J. Brown to team with Tannehill to anchor the passing attack. Brown had four of his five 100-yard receiving games with Tannehill last season.
The line is the only unit on offense that lost a starter from last season. The Titans replaced Jack Conklin, who signed with the Cleveland Browns, by re-signing tackle Dennis Kelly and using a first-round pick on tackle Isaiah Wilson.
The strength of their line is on the left side, where tackle Taylor Lewan and guard Rodger Saffold hit their stride, clearing the way for Henry, who was nearly unstoppable in the playoffs, rushing for 446 yards in three games.
"You can put up a play, 95% of guys will be able to rattle off the keys of that play, what the scheme is and everything," Lewan said. "The continuity, how close we are as a unit, is huge. The closer you are, the more you understand your teammates and how their personalities work. It's easier for us to all push the cart in the direction we want to go. That's what we want to do and it's just about when we have the opportunity to get on the field together, working through small, minute details."
There will be plenty of details to work out on defense, where the Titans saw the most turnover. Starters Logan Ryan and Jurrell Casey are gone, along with defensive coordinator Dean Pees (retired), inside linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie and defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs.
Second-round pick Kristian Fulton and Beasley were added. The coaching staff was retooled by adding inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett and defensive backs coach Anthony Midget.
Vrabel will oversee the defense with an assist from outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen. That's where the continuity on defense comes in. A lot of the same concepts Pees implemented two years ago will be retained. Additionally, veterans such as safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are in place to help the secondary and defense overall.
Continuity breeds chemistry and accountability. Inside linebacker Rashaan Evans believes that will help the Titans.
"The No. 1 thing is keeping chemistry ... having those guys in the locker room that are mature and understand that everybody holds themselves accountable for their own mistakes and the things that they do and to know that each individual person has to be at the peak of the game for everybody else on the team to be great," Evans said. "It always comes down to guys holding each other accountable and just making sure that we don't point any fingers and we make sure it's fun."