As motivational ploys go, the idea of recoiling at being blamed for lackadaisical COVID prevention methods that played a part in suspending your practice schedule and upending parts of the NFL calendar might seem unusual, or at least very 2020ish.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.
In professional football, you take what they’re giving. For the Tennessee Titans, that means turning the NFL’s scolding attitude toward their behavior into an “us against the world” rallying cry.
“They hate it. They’re angry at us,” Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan shouted as he walked off the field Tuesday night following a satisfying statement of a victory, 42-16 over Buffalo. “They felt we did everything wrong.
“Don’t put us in adversity,” he warned.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) October 14, 2020
“They” is apparently the NFL league office. Or other teams. Or the media. Or … who the heck cares?
“They” don’t even have to exist as long as the players are fueled by it.
Due to a coronavirus outbreak, the Titans weren’t allowed to practice (officially, at least) for a couple of weeks, had their facility closed down, and saw their Week 4 game against Pittsburgh postponed until later in the season and this one against the Bills pushed back a couple of days.
They were the scourge of the league, a surge of positive tests when so many other teams were managing things well. The focus became what did or didn’t occur inside the team facility. There were reports that the NFL was going to significantly punish the Titans for their lax ways.
Yet there may be no better motivational ploy than playing the victim, so the Titans are somehow playing it, to the tune of a 4-0 start on the season.
“Yeah, we were under a lot of heat,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Honestly, I didn’t quite understand why we were under such heat. But we stuck together, believed in each other and knew that the guys in our building on our team were all we needed.”
Head coach Mike Vrabel wasn’t as bold in his postgame comments, but there is no question this attitude has his fingerprints all over this.
Vrabel was an All-Pro linebacker for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, where he won three Super Bowls. He never worked as an assistant to Belichick, but he carries that Patriot attitude more than any of Belichick’s former assistants who have mostly flopped as head coaches.
Everybody is against us, always. That’s especially true of the establishment in New York. This is right out of the Patriots’ manual. If a chance to rally the team is presented, no matter how or why or even if it’s real, you seize it and succeed with it.
As a player, Vrabel never took crap from anyone. As a coach, his team isn’t going to either. If that means being the black hats of the league, hey, all the better.
“We said a lot of things [in meetings] throughout the past couple weeks and things are being said, personal things that were said against our team, our guys and it really felt uncalled for,” Tannehill said. “So yeah, we were a little ticked off about how we’ve been treated, how we’ve been looked at over the past couple weeks.”
Buffalo arrived unbeaten, only to get beaten up physically — most tellingly via a brutish Derrick Henry stiff arm of Josh Norman. It was part of a 139 yards and three touchdowns rushing for the Titans.
Meanwhile, Tannehill continued his strong play with three touchdown passes of his own. The defense suffocated a previously high-powered Bills attack. All this despite just three walkthroughs and whatever “informal” gatherings the players staged while banned from the facility.
For Tennessee, that’s part of the drill here. Be the rebel.
“I learned a long time ago is the definition of a pro is they make the hard look easy, so whatever situation we’re presented with we got to all come together and make the best decisions for the team each and every time,” Vrabel said.
Actually, the NFL had been clear that the Titans weren’t making the best decisions when it came to preventing a coronavirus outbreak. On the pregame show Tuesday, however, commissioner Roger Goodell softened things by saying that whatever mistakes Tennessee made, it had not been done “willingly.”
The rest of the league can roll their eyes at the Titans crying about being persecuted and picked on.
For Tennessee, none of that matters. Coaches and athletes use all sorts of slights, doubts and criticisms — real or invented — to reach peak performance.
Everything is on the table. Always.
In 2020, that means even catching COVID-19.
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