The Titans cleaned out their lockers and left the facility for the last time this season on Monday, heading into the offseason as a hungry group.
Winning four of their last five games and compiling the team's first winning record since 2011 has the Titans already looking ahead to what will be in 2017.
Here are 11 timely topics – a “starting 11” to start 2017 – as the Titans enter the offseason:
Smashmouth succeeded – The Titans made a massive statistical jump in their run game from a year ago. They finished this past season averaging 136.7 yards per game on the ground, good for third-best in the NFL. That's a huge change from 2015, when the Titans finished 25th in rushing at 92.8 yards per contest. Another way to look at it: The Titans upped their run production per game 47 percent in one year's time. It's clear the team implemented the Smashmouth identity it talked about before the season started.
“I certainly think (the Titans) get where we're coming from in regards to how we want to attack people and our belief in it,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “I'm sure it's been questioned sometimes when we've been down.
“But there's a reason. Because it helps win games. It helps keep the other team's offense of the field if you can run the ball. There's a lot of things positive about it. They definitely get the message what kind of team we want to be.”
Mariota's sophomore season – Mularkey said Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota will likely be using his scooter for the next couple of months, in order to keep weight off his broken right leg.
That injury knocked Mariota out of the season finale, but Mularkey had high praise for Mariota's 2016 overall. Mariota's touchdown-to-interception ratio was 26-to-nine this season, compared to 19-to-as a rookie. He finished with a quarterback rating of 95.6, up from 91.5 as a rookie.
“I think he had a very good year,” Mularkey said. “I think taking a step back with some of the things we did offensively in regards to making it user friendly and play-calling, taking some of the things off (him calling protections) helped immensely. I thought he played faster, made quicker decisions, got the ball out quicker, made some really good decisions to throw it away.
“I thought he got better with his ball security. That's something we'll always be working on. There's no question about that because that had an effect on some of our losses. But he did a lot of good things for this football team.”
First-rounder says goodbye – Titans wide receiver Kendall Wright, a first-round pick in 2011, had to fight back some tears on Monday. Wright was inactive on Sunday and knows that – as a pending unrestricted free agent – he's almost certainly played his last game for the Titans.
Wright caught 94 passes for `1,079 yards in his second season, but he struggled to stay healthy the last two years and appeared to fall out of favor with a couple of coaching staffs. He finished this season with 29 catches for 416 yards and three touchdowns.
“I guess I didn't fit the many systems that came through,” Wright said. “I think they have something good and I think they'll win a lot of games. But for me it's time to grind. I feel like I'm free.
“I knew coming into the season what probably would happen. But I think I handled it the right way and went about my business as a pro.”
Added Mularkey: “It's not for every player, the way we do things here … We're looking for consistency, on and off the field.”
Will rest cure Murray? – Titans running back DeMarco Murray made a huge impact in his first season with the team, as he piled up 1,287 yards. That total led all AFC backs and was the highest total
for the Titans since Chris Johnson ran for 1,364 yards in 2010.
But Murray's season was impacted by the torn plantar plate he suffered in the Titans' win over Jacksonville on Oct. 27. He still plans to play in the Pro Bowl and hopes that rest afterward will fully cure the foot, but Murray didn't rule out the possibility of surgery at some point.
“It's just all about rest,” Murray said. “If it feels good after some time, then I think we'll skip the surgery. But if not, I think it's something that (the training staff) will have to decide and we'll come up with a gameplan. It all depends on how I feel after a couple of weeks.”
Added Mularkey: “I hadn't heard anything about surgery, so that is news to me. I think rest will be good for a lot of these guys. A lot of these guys played with things that were banged up on him.”
Will the staff remain the same? – The Titans have been a model of instability when it comes to the coaching staff in recent years. Almost the entire coaching staff has been overhauled twice since the end of the 2013 season when Mike Munchak was hired. After posting their best record since 2011, it would seem likely that the Titans' coaching staff would remain largely intact. But Mularkey didn't offer a blanket guarantee that there would be no changes.
“There's a lot of things we haven't had a lot of discussions on,” Mularkey said. “There will be discussions about (potential changes) every year. I'm going to sit down with all the coaches in the next couple of days.”
Those discussions will include defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who will turn 80 next September. The Titans' defense improved from 18th to 2nd in the run this year, but tumbled from seventh against the pass to a tie for 30th.
Pass defense a priority – The Titans' inability to defend against the pass with any kind of consistency this season is something that will have to change in 2017. After finishing seventh against the pass in 2015, the Titans dropped to into a tie for 30th in 2016 – allowing almost 270 yards per game through the air. In the second half of the season, Chicago's Matt Barkley, Denver's Trevor Siemian and Jacksonville's Blake Bortles all topped the 300-yard mark against Tennessee.
“We have a high expectation in everything,” Mularkey said. “But if you look at it, we had a number of changes in our secondary. I thought our safeties played well. Our corners, there was a rotation there all the way through yesterday. We struggled. There's no question about that. We had bigger expectations than ending like we did.”
Lewan credits Grimm – Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan credited offensive line coach Russ Grimm with making things much simpler for the offensive line this season. In addition to helping Murray capture the AFC's rushing title, the Titans allowed just 28 sacks this season, a huge drop from the NFL-high 54 they surrendered in 2015.
“There was a lot of rules and a lot of things I had to do, just from an individual standpoint, that was just over the top,” Lewan said of the previous system. “There's only so much you can pay attention to before the ball is snapped.
“(Grimm's approach) is just simple and that helped us forge our identity. When you don't have to think as much, you're able to play at a higher speed. That's just how it works. It goes from playing to reacting. That's where this team really took off.”
Prime-time appearances? – The Titans haven't played on Monday night since November of 2014, and they haven't played on Sunday night since October of 2009. But Titans tight end Delanie Walker thinks the team's upward trend this year – as well as its talented young players – might just result in a prime-time appearance or two in 2017, aside from the mandatory Thursday night appearance.
“I think we will get prime-time games next year because I think everyone realizes what the Titans
are about to become,” Walker said. “It would be nice to get some. I think the opportunity is coming.”
Get ready, rookies – Including undrafted free agents, a total of 12 rookies played for the Titans this year. Safety Kevin Byard, running back Derrick Henry and receiver Tajae Sharpe made the biggest statistical impacts. The group appears to be a very good foundation for the Titans moving forward, and Mularkey hopes the experience gained as rookies this season will help in the near future.
“I wanted them to understand that when they come back, it's going to be a little bit of a different feeling,” Mularkey said of his talk with the rookies on Monday. “They're not going to be wide-eyed and shocked that they’re in the NFL. Now they know what's expected from them. They know the message that they've been hearing is clear. They know what's going to take place and that expectations on them will be much higher when they come back in here.”
Dodd's offseason – One of the few disappointments in the Titans' strong rookie class of 2016 was second-round linebacker Kevin Dodd, chosen with the 33rd overall pick. Dodd missed much of the offseason following foot surgery and that same injury wound up cutting his season short. He played just nine games before going on injured reserve, totaling nine tackles, one sack and four quarterback pressures.
But the Titans remain optimistic about his prospects once he regains full health.
“He feels like he let us down because of the expectations that were on him,” Mularkey said. “I said, `Look, that's the nature of the business when you're picked where you were. People are expecting things. Then you put more pressure on yourself, then all of a sudden it doesn't happen.'
“We're not disappointed in him. He's excited to come back, wants to come back and be the player we think he can be, a force coming off the edge.”
Greater expectations – After returning to relevance by posting their first winning record in half a decade this season, the Titans know there will be higher expectations on them in 2017. Opponents will know they're facing a team that defeated five playoff squads – Detroit, Green Bay, Kansas City, Miami and Houston – as well as Denver in 2016.
Linebacker Brian Orakpo, who's only played on two teams that recorded winning seasons, said he welcomes the increased expectations for 2017.
“Expectations are going to be high and that's going to be good because it makes sure your level of play will be greater as well,” Orakpo said. “So I think that will be great not only for myself but a lot of younger guys on this team.”