NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On Thanksgiving night, the Titans' offensive linemen will take a rare break from one another, spending the holiday with their respective families.
Most Thursday nights during the season find this gargantuan group marching into local restaurants like Martin's, Sea Salt or The Southern. That's where they consume the mass quantities of grub one would expect from a large collection of 300-pound men.
"It's probably a pretty impressive sight because we can all put down some food pretty good," guard Brian Schwenke said. "But really it's more of a crack-up session. It's just a bunch of friends that like to hang out with each other and enjoy themselves."
Exceptionally tight bonds define the relationship of this Titans offensive line, a group that revels in each others' company on and off the field.
The majority of them share the same age bracket (26-28), the same family status – babies here or on the way – and most assuredly the same warped sense of humor. So in addition to the Thursday-night food demolitions, the Titans' offensive linemen find themselves at times throwing baby showers for one another or sharing tips on how to raise children.
Does all that friendly interaction make the slightest bit of difference on the football field?
Players and coaches say yes, without question.
"There is absolutely no doubt about it," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "That's really important. They like hanging around each other. Don't mess with one because you'll get all of them. Don't mess with the quarterback because you'll get all of them."
The Titans' offensive line was arguably the best in the game last season, when the team posted the NFL's third-best rushing attack and allowed the league's fewest sacks.
There's been slippage this year, as the Titans have dropped to the 12th-best rushing attack and have surrendered 25 sacks in 10 games.
But Titans' offensive linemen believe the same bonds that helped them steamroll the league in 2016 can help them during more challenging times as well.
"I think that's when it really matters – when times are tough," Schwenke said. "I've been on other O-lines before where when things got tough, it wasn't good. But I've never seen anyone in this group go at each other in a way that leaves an open wound.
"If you have different groups on the O-line, you might end up feeling like you're getting attacked when blame gets placed. But that doesn't happen here. We're friends. We know there's nothing personal here. So when things are tough, it's really easy to communicate and get things fixed."
"A pretty unique relationship"
It's not unusual for the members of a team's offensive line to be close, since their success as a group depends so much on how well they work together.
But from all accounts, this particular group of Titans' offensive linemen – which include starters Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Kline and Jack Conklin, along with reserves Schwenke, Dennis Kelly and Corey Levin – appears to be particularly tight.
"I'll say it's a pretty unique relationship our guys have here," Mularkey said. "They're really a fun group to be around. Their coach has a lot to do with it, too. They like playing for Russ Grimm. He has a lot to do with building those relationships."
Spain also credits Jones, signed prior to the 2016 season, for being the group's glue.
"It didn't really click (as a group) my first year," said Spain, now in his third season. "It was nothing like it is now. We might do the O-line dinner, but then it sort of faded away. But when we got Ben, he brought everyone together."
Added Lewan: "Ben's a good-old Southern boy. He gets along with everyone."
It helps, too, that the offensive linemen have a lot in common off the field, especially when it comes to the family angle. Kelly, Lewan, Spain and Conklin are all tending to babies in the household, while the wives of Schwenke, Jones and Kelly (No. 2) are expecting as well.
"We're all in similar stages of life – either married or getting married, have kids or getting kids – so there's a lot of common subjects to talk about," Kelly said. "(Spain) and I had kids first, so we can kind of lead them. But it's just one of things where it's like, `Hey, did you hear about this (piece of advice)?' It's just another person to talk to about it."
Polishing off prime ribs
The weekly offensive line dinners have become fun for both the participants and spectators that spot the big boys gathering around town.
A year ago, the group came up with a rule: Anyone at the restaurant who wanted their picture taken with the group first had to kiss tackle Tyler Marz, who was then a rookie – and single – on the team's practice squad.
Needless to say, it made for some humorous moments.
"It didn't matter whether it was a woman or a man, so even if it was a 50 year-old man, he'd have to give Tyler a kiss on the cheek," Jones said. "He was a rookie. It was just our way of having fun with it and Tyler was a good sport about it."
Asked which offensive lineman is the best eater in the group, Conklin is stumped. He does recall, however, that Kelly once told a story about eating a 64-ounce steak on his own. It's hard to say whether that feat beats Conklin, who once devoured four prime ribs during a food-eating challenge prior to The Rose Bowl.
"I do know that (Spain) can de-shell a crab faster than anyone I've ever seen in my life," Conklin said. "I really don't know how he does it. It's perfect. He gets the whole thing out. When I do it, I fumble around and have to break it apart and cut my hands open. I've never seen anyone do it as well as him."
The Titans' quarterbacks are the only other players invited to the offensive linemen's Thursday-night dinners.
If you're wondering where the wives and girlfriends are those evenings, many of them play on the same flag-football team on Thursdays.
Who's the best player among the ladies?
"Probably Marcus' girlfriend," Jones said.
"I'm going to be there"
The stories are nice, but the bottom line is that the players believe their bonding makes a tangible difference on the football field.
It stands to reason the better one knows the men by his sides, the better the line of communication and understanding between them.
"I think it means a lot on the field," said Conklin, in his second season. "There's not a time where I can't turn to Josh or Ben if I don't know something and they'll tell me what I've got to do. I think that's what makes us so close."
Added Jones: "I think because we spend that much time together, we kind of know what everybody's strengths and weaknesses are. If I know this is a hard play for Josh, I can help him out. I'm going to be there. We help each other out that way."
The Titans have not been as successful up front as they'd like in recent games, held under 100 rushing yards in three of their last four contests. But optimism remains strong among the the linemen as they seek to make adjustments beginning Sunday in Indianapolis.
"When you can talk like we can, it helps," Kelly said. "If you're close with a guy, you can tell him, `You're doing this wrong – be here,' and it doesn't sound like a personal attack. I think the guys here like playing with each other and that shows."
-- Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
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