Winning Nashville Might Be the Tennessee Titans’ Real Playoff Miracle – The Ringer

They’re asked different versions of the same question, one after another, each player stepping to the lectern at the Tennessee Titans practice facility earlier this week. How has it felt around the city, soaking up the energy from fans in the midst of the team’s improbable playoff run?

Answers vary.

“I don’t go out a whole lot,” says quarterback Ryan Tannehill. His world, he explains, extends from the practice facility to his house and back again. Maybe to the park, to play with his kids. “It’s pretty boring.”

Tannehill pauses, and then, perhaps sensing that this is not the desired answer, continues, a bit tepidly: “But I feel the excitement around the city. It’s been fun to feel that energy as the season has gone on.”

Others are more generous. “I think we have a great fan base,” says linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Others, more honest still. “This year was kind of up and down,” says defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, “but we’re ready for everybody to jump on.”

Tennessee is about to play Kansas City in the AFC championship, the franchise’s biggest game in nearly two decades, a game few around the city or the league believed it could reach. In the past three weeks, the Titans have gone on the road to win a do-or-die regular-season finale at Houston, to eliminate the defending champions in New England, and to blow out the Super Bowl favorites in Baltimore. And now, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, Casey, one of the team’s longest-tenured and most-beloved players, is saying, “We’re ready for the fans to bring it and the city to get rocking.”

The subtext feels clear: It’s about time. In 2018, Emory professor Michael Lewis ranked the Titans’ fan base the worst in the NFL. The first time the Titans played the Chiefs this season, Kansas City receiver Mecole Hardman celebrated a touchdown by leaping into the stands to celebrate with a horde of adoring Chiefs fans—and the game was in Tennessee. Time and again each fall, Nashville fills with fans from other cities, wearing their gear in bars and restaurants all over town, believing that on Sunday afternoon they can make Nissan Stadium feel like it belongs to their team.

After that win over Kansas City, Titans safety Kevin Byard voiced his frustration to local reporters. “We are all we have at this point,” he said. “We can’t control who buys tickets, because there was a lot of red out there in the stands.” Now, though, days before his team travels to Kansas City after knocking off top-seeded Baltimore in the divisional round, Byard has shifted away from the frustration he showed earlier this year. “The change in the community has been incredible,” he says. He tells the story of returning home from Baltimore after an astounding 28-12 thumping of the heavily favored Ravens and finding fans crowded around the Titans facility, cheering the team buses at 2: 30 a.m. “It’s amazing.”

The Titans are one win from the second Super Bowl appearance in team history, their first since Kevin Dyson came up a yard short 20 years ago, in Super Bowl XXXIV. They’ve won three straight elimination road games, starting with a Week 17 victory at Houston, and in between each stop, they’ve returned to a city that is finally beginning to muster the appropriate enthusiasm for what its football team is achieving. But even if that excitement has been slow to build, it’s tough to blame Nashville for its apathy. The Titans have long been one of the league’s most anonymous franchises, one that often only enters the national consciousness when slogging through a Thursday night against the Jags. At the podium this week, Byard continues, as if conceding that point: “You’re talking about having a lot of years of mediocrity in this franchise.”

All of a sudden, in the second half of the season and in these playoffs, that mediocrity has vanished, and the Titans now find themselves one win away from the Super Bowl. Along the way, they’ve begun stirring something long dormant in their city, drawing new fans who’ve never before paid attention, and rewarding the old ones who have stuck with them through season after mediocre season, hoping a moment like this might someday arrive.

I was born here in Nashville, and after spending most of my life in other parts of the country, I’ve been back for about five years. I live a seven-minute drive from the stadium and write about sports for a living, and yet, it has sometimes felt easy for me to forget that the Titans exist. The team is occasionally dreadful (two wins in 2014, three in 2015) and even more occasionally great (the run to the Super Bowl in ’99, the 13-3 season in 2008), but for most of their 23-year history in Tennessee, where they moved in 1997 from Houston, they have been blandly and consistently just fine. They have gone somewhere between 6-10 and 10-6 in 11 of the past 14 years. Even now, on the precipice of one of the biggest games in franchise history, the Titans are in the midst of one of the strangest streaks in football. They’ve gone 9-7 every year for the past four years.

That run, at least, has put the franchise on the right side of mediocrity. For years, they seemed always to land on the wrong one. “My birthday is in early July,” says Braden Gall, who hosts a morning show with former Titan Derrick Mason on Nashville’s 102.5 The Game. “And every year, right after my birthday, we here in Nashville celebrate Jeff Fisher Day.”

It’s July 9. 7-9, get it?

Gall was born in Wisconsin but moved to the Nashville area in high school and has spent his adult life working in various sports media gigs here in Tennessee. I meet him this week at Southern Grist Brewing in East Nashville. He’s fresh off his morning radio shift, settled into a seat in the corner and, in between sips of a New England–style IPA, he explains where the Titans fit into the local sports landscape. In particular, I ask how they compare to the Predators, the local NHL team. “The Preds are the biggest sports unifier in Nashville,” he explains. Every spring during the NHL playoffs, Bridgestone Arena is packed with one of hockey’s most rabid home crowds, and much of the rest of the city seems to turn gold. The Preds manage to pull off what can sometimes seem impossible—convincing locals to brave the pedal taverns and bachelorette caravans to voluntarily make their way downtown.

Gall has a theory as to why. Nashville is a transplant city. As recently as 2016, more than 100 new people were moving to town every day. “Not that many people show up with an NHL team,” Gall says, “but everyone grew up with an NFL team. If you grew up in America, no matter where, you probably grew up with some tie to a football team.” The NFL is ubiquitous. The NHL, much less so. And so, the thinking goes, the city’s transplants cling to the football teams of their original hometowns, but willingly adopt the Predators as a connection to their new one. “So the Titans have had a tough time unifying the city around their brand,” Gall says. Both franchises arrived in Nashville in 1998, so neither can match the tradition of their leagues’ signature franchises. But the Predators were an expansion franchise, arriving out of nothing. “There’s a difference between a team that was born here and a team that was adopted,” he says.

He points to one more factor. “I think Nashville just likes to be cool,” he says. It’s an image-conscious city, packed with people pursuing their own versions of outward-facing success. Whether it’s the artists and alt-country singers where we’re talking in East Nashville, or it’s the bachelorettes on Broadway or the former SEC frat boys in Midtown, or even the old-South gentility in Franklin or Belle Meade, it can feel at times like everyone in Nashville is performing for an audience of their own creation. “If it’s not a cool party, Nashville will move on quickly,” Gall says. “When the party gets dull, they’ll lose interest. And the Titans have been—let’s face it—very dull for a very long time.”

Until now. The Titans may not possess the offensive pyrotechnics of the Chiefs team they’ll face on Sunday, but they have built their own quietly transfixing identity. They are a team built on contributions from every member of the roster. (Even quarterback Marcus Mariota, the former no. 2 draft pick benched during Week 6, has been on the field for one snap in each of the two playoff games.) They are tough, built around the personality of their coach, Mike Vrabel. (Who is, it should be noted, shockingly understated in press conferences for a man who has publicly entertained the possibility of cutting off his own penis in the pursuit of a title.) And they are deep, with a roster built by general manager Jon Robinson that Gall calls one of the best the franchise has ever had.

Players and coaches speak often about the closeness in the locker room and about the way they’ve built over the course of the season, going from a 2-4 start to winning nine of their past 12 games, including the postseason. “I was a bad coach and this was a bad team,” says Vrabel of the season’s start. “We tried to believe in each other. We tried to improve. We tried to prepare, to trust each other and execute. That’s what’s gotten us here.”

Well, that and Derrick Henry. The massive and monstrous running back has rushed for more than 180 yards in each of his past three games, the first player in NFL history to do so. When asked how he manages Henry’s workload, Vrabel says, “He comes to me and says, ‘Give me the ball.’ I can only take him for his word. And when he looks over and says, ‘I need a break,’ he gets a break. And we go from there.” Chiefs cornerback Tyrann Mathieu told CBS’s Pete Prisco this week that he thought he broke his jaw trying to tackle Henry earlier this season, and that hitting him was like hitting “solid rock.” Titans center Ben Jones says that Henry tends to be quiet in the huddle between carries. “You can see it in his eyes, he’s a guy who wants to touch the ball.” Jones smiles. “We love seeing that look.”

They’ve seen it enough to arrive here, in their first AFC championship game since 2002.

Along the way, they have thrilled their modestly sized but fiercely committed group of loyal fans, including my friend Rashed Fakhruddin. He’s the president of the Islamic Center of Nashville and is heavily involved in local civic life, a man who serves on boards and committees and tends to show up often in photos from high-powered events around town. Sitting in his office this week, he tells an interesting story. “The Titans,” he says, “are the only reason I ever registered to vote.”

Fakhruddin was born in Bangladesh but has lived 49 of his 50 years here in Middle Tennessee. After moving to America, his father took quickly to American football, and he inherited his father’s love for the game. When he was a child, Nashville had no team, so he cheered for the Steelers. But in 1996, Nashville had a chance to get the Houston Oilers. The city just needed to build a new stadium. And for that, it needed to spend public money. And so the city did what many cities have done: It put football on the ballot, with a referendum on funding the new stadium.

Fakhruddin was in his mid-20s. “I’d never voted before,” he says. “But I registered to vote, just so I could vote Yes on getting a team.” Three years later, after a season in Memphis and another playing at Vanderbilt, the team moved into what is now Nissan Stadium. Fakhruddin got season tickets. In those early years, he says, “The whole fan base was incredible compared to now.” Fakhruddin remembers the stadium packed, the atmosphere electric. “They would toss beach balls around, dance to rock music.” He remembers feeling elated when Titans fans got to do the wave. And the team was great, winning 13 games in both 1999 and 2000, led by Eddie George and Steve McNair. After playing four years in four stadiums the franchise officially changed from the Oilers to the Titans and promptly made the Super Bowl.

“We thought, ‘Hey, this is gonna be a normal thing,’” Fakhruddin says. “‘We’re always going to be this good.’” Instead, the elite roster slowly disintegrated. Among the fans, lethargy took hold. After getting an immediate taste of success, Tennessee fans had to settle for the reality faced by fans of most franchises across the league: No matter who you root for (unless it’s the Patriots over most of the past two decades), most years, your team just isn’t going to contend for a title. “I think the fact that they found so much success so early might have stunted their growth,” says Gall. “Very few teams do that. It’s not sustainable.”

Over the years, Fakhruddin grew disappointed by the mediocrity, but even more disappointed by the city’s response. “It’s frustrating when I go to the games and see so many fans cheering for the other team.” He points, in particular, to October’s takeover by Bills fans. “That was really bad.” The Titans tend to draw more opposing fans when playing non-division opponents, whose fans use the opportunity as a rare chance to spend a weekend in Nashville. This year, Bills fans took over the city in a way few others have. I ran into them in my local grocery store and in nearby restaurants and bars, a few miles away from downtown. “We pulled in on the buses and I looked to my left at a couple parking lots from here, and it was all Bills fans,” Buffalo coach Sean McDermott said after his team’s win. “It was awesome, just awesome.”

During this run, there has been no opportunity for opposing fans to swarm this city. Tennessee has arrived at this point by winning three straight games on the road. For the Titans to reach the Super Bowl, that will need to continue on Sunday in Kansas City. Even so, this run has begun to awaken something in Nashville, though it feels different from the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup final in 2017. That year, the city had several seven-game series to process the fact that its team was morphing into a contender. Because this is football, and because the Titans went only 9-7, this run has felt more abrupt. They beat the Patriots, and the city celebrated the slaying of a giant. They beat the Ravens, and on Sunday I sat in a Midtown sports bar surrounded by transplanted fans of the Packers and Seahawks and other varied NFL franchises, all spending commercial breaks discussing a newly-raised question. Wait, is Nashville’s team actually good?

Fakhruddin has loved it. He has built his Sunday routine around the Titans for two decades. He’s been to nearly every home game, has gone to see them play on the road. Once, while in Bangladesh for a wedding, he woke up in the middle of the night just to listen to a feed and watch the live box score refresh online. This moment feels like validation for all those hours, all that emotional energy. “This is awesome,” he says. He points to the fact that the team had won only two playoff games in the past 17 years. Now they’ve won two in the past two weeks. “I’m glad everyone is excited in the city. I hope it carries on beyond just this year. If the bandwagon fans are what we need to bring us back to our senses, then I’ll take it.”

I know one more die-hard Titans fan. My brother. His name is Nathan. He was born in Atlanta but grew up here. (I’m 11 years older, and I had just graduated high school when he and the rest of my family returned to Nashville.) Nathan and I share most of our fan identities—rooting for the Braves, the Hawks, and the Georgia Bulldogs—but when it comes to the NFL, I chose the Falcons and he chose the Titans. With each, we are bonded by our shared pain.

Over the years, Nathan has found the Titans thrilling in ways that defy my comprehension, and he has tried, desperately, to convince me to find them thrilling, too. In 2009, he called, breathless, after Vince Young led a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive against Arizona in a regular-season game. Two years later, when Young flamed out and left the team, he asked, hopeful, whether I thought no. 8 draft pick Jake Locker could become one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He has sung the praises of Kerry Collins and expressed appreciation for Jeff Fisher. This very season, he told me he believed that if given some time, Marcus Mariota would turn things around.

It’s been dark.

Time and again, he and I will be together, running through our hopes and our grievances over the potential and the failures of the Atlanta teams we both love, and eventually he always asks, half-joking, “How ‘bout them Titans,” and then he smiles. He knows this is the point when our sports conversation has ended, that I have no answer to any question about the Titans. He knows that I am like most of America and a decent chunk of Nashville: Only faintly aware that the Titans even exist.

Until this past Sunday. I saw him in the morning, hours after the Titans stunned the Ravens, and we talked through the previous night’s game. We relived Jonnu Smith’s miraculous catch and Derrick Henry’s jump pass touchdown and all of the forced turnovers and red zone stands in between. We talked about what was next, assessing the team’s chances against the Chiefs in the title game, and then, for a brief moment, he entertained what might lie just beyond.

“When I think about winning the Super Bowl,” he said, “I can’t help it. I always tear up.”

I looked over and saw that he was telling the truth. Right then and there, his eyes filled with tears. Like all Titans die-hards, he years ago learned to be electrified by the mundane. Now, when faced with something actually thrilling, the thought overwhelmed him.

He’s a Titans fan. That means finding a way to love everything this franchise has long been. And now, it means barely comprehending the reality of what it could soon become.

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