NASHVILLE – The Titans packed up their belongings and went their separate ways earlier this week.
Instead of preparing for a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, they're now at the start of what's for sure to be a long offseason.
The Titans team that takes the field in 2021 is certain to look much different, and that's not lost in the minds of players, or coaches.
"Everybody is still disappointed and sick about Sunday," Titans safety Kevin Byard said as he cleaned out his locker on Monday. "It's almost kind of saying your final goodbyes to guys that you're not really sure will be back here next year. I am not really a 'goodbye' person honestly. I really hate saying goodbye to anybody. I am always really like a 'see you later' type deal, but you don't honestly know. You could be having your last conversation with some of these guys that you'll ever have. So, it is a bad feeling for sure.
"But at the same time (the last day also provides) a moment of reflection. We had a lot of challenges this year, we became a team, we dealt with COVID issues, we dealt with social justice stuff and guys trying to promote change around the world. So I am definitely proud of the guys for that. But it is not a good day for guys in the NFL, when you are getting passed trash bags and boxes to clean out your locker."
The Titans finished the 2020 season with an 11-5 record, winning 11 games for the first time since 2008, when they went 13-3. The Titans won the AFC South for the first time since 2008 in the process, and the franchise hosted its first playoff game since that season.
The Titans finished the season with the most total yards in franchise history (6,343), the most first downs in franchise history (381) and the second-most total points in franchise history (491), scoring 30-plus points a franchise record 10 times, and scoring 40-plus points five times, the most in the "Titans era."
The Titans became the first team in NFL history with a 2,000-yard rusher and a 3,500-yard passer in the same season (2,027 rushing by Derrick Henry, 3,819 passing by Ryan Tannehill).
But it came during a season when the team fell short of its overall goal – to win the Super Bowl, one year after making it to the AFC Championship Game.
It also came during a year when the team dealt with adversity on and off the field, from losing players like Taylor Lewan, Jayon Brown, Adam Humphries, Ty Sambrailo, Jadeveon Clowney and others to season-ending injuries to tragedy and loss off the field. During the course of the 2020 season, receiver Corey Davis lost his brother, and so did linebacker David Long. Guard Rodger Saffold lost his sister, and his father.
"The best way to describe (the feeling as we leave) is appreciation, and hunger," Saffold said. "Everybody wanted more in the season, and of course we didn't get it, and we fought like hell to get where we were, battling through injuries, and a lot of other factors. Guys had a lot of off the field issues, including me, losing my sister and my father, other teammates losing their brothers, family members and friends. It was a tough year this year. Just to be able to get where we are, I think we just really appreciate the fact we are very supportive of one another, and the fact we played for one another. Just knowing your boys, your brothers, however you describe the team, had your back."
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said it's going to take a while to get over the disappointment.
"Unless you win it all, it's a bad feeling, whether it's at the end of the regular season or like it is (after the first round of the playoffs)," Tannehill said. "You don't accomplish all your goals. It's a tough feeling. The understanding that the year is done and the team will look different next year, guys that you really care about, you love playing the game with, you enjoy coming to work each and every day with might not be here next year, just the way goes. It's tough. It's a tough feeling, especially with a bad taste in your mouth of how things went. As time goes, to try to reflect and look back at the great moments that we shared together, all the hard work that we put in together and the good things that we did, but definitely a sour taste (now).
"It's going to take a little time. You don't really just turn the page in one day on something like this that you put months and months of work and effort and sacrifice into, just to come abruptly ending and not realizing the goals that you set out for. Time will help and then leaning on my faith, leaning on my family, eventually be able to reflect on the good things that we did this year and then start preparing for next year."
The 2021 Titans will face a tough schedule, with home games against playoff teams from 2020 in the Bills, Dolphins, Chiefs and Colts and road games against the Rams, Seahawks, Steelers and Colts, among others. According to NFL.com, plans include 17th regular season game in 2021, and for the Titans it would be against another playoff team in the Saints, per the scenarios that have been previously reported .
The Titans will be a different team in 2021. The team has roughly 20 free agents, a group that includes Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, Jayon Brown, Jadeveon Clowney, DaQuan Jones, Desmond King, Stephen Gostkowski, Daren Bates, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser, Jack Crawford, Will Compton and more.
The Titans will add during free agency, and the draft.
In his season-ending press conference, Titans Coach Mike Vrabel looked back, while also thinking about what's ahead. The Titans have advanced to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons while producing at least nine wins in five straight years.
"It's a tough day for 31 teams that don't win a championship," Vrabel said. "We're going to look to try to build a new team in 2021. There's going to be some players that are the same and there's going to be some that are different. They'll be coaches that look differently. The front office may look differently. That's just the nature of it. We have high expectations here every year."