The unexpected run of this year’s Titans to the AFC championship game reminds me in many ways of the Tennessee team of 20 years ago, especially with a big power back who is dominating the playoffs in Derrick Henry who looks like the reincarnation of the star of the 1999 team, Eddie George.
I was president/COO of the 1999 Titans, the only team in franchise history (including the Houston Oilers years) to make it to the Super Bowl. After road wins at Indianapolis and Jacksonville following our home victory over Buffalo, we fell inches short against the Rams in Super Bowl 34.
This year’s Titans have that opportunity to win an AFC title as underdogs Sunday in Kansas City and head to Miami for Super Bowl 54. They’re coming off impressive wins at defending Super Bowl-champion New England and then at top-seeded Baltimore.
The similarities are striking between these Titans teams that are two decades apart. Both coaches are former defensive players for Super Bowl teams — Jeff Fisher as a safety with the 1985 Bears and now Mike Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls as a linebacker with the Patriots. They both were defensive coordinators in Houston — Fisher for the Oilers and Vrabel with the Texans — before moving up to become head coaches.
Fisher and Vrabel share a fondness for having a run-based offense, which brings us back to Henry and George and their amazing similarities. They’re both former Heisman Trophy winners and physically imposing backs of virtually identical size, George at 6-3, 240 pounds and Henry at 6-3, 238 pounds.
In 1999, George was the top playoff rusher (449 yards in four games) as is Henry thus far with an astounding 377 yards in two games.
In the AFC divisional playoff round, George and Henry had huge games with George gaining 162 yards rushing in Indy and Henry picking up 195 yards on the ground last week against the Ravens. George could and Henry can run over defenders as a workhorse back who thrives on lots of carries, plus the benefit of breakaway speed. George’s 68-yard touchdown run broke open that win over the Colts, and Henry’s 66-yard run set up his surprising 3-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis that gave the Titans a 21-6 third quarter lead over the shell-shocked Ravens.
The running games of the two teams are aided greatly by outstanding bookend tackles. It was Brad Hopkins and Jon Runyan in 1999 who both became Pro Bowl tackles. This year’s Titans O-line is led by two former No. 1 draft picks who became All-Pros, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin.
The quarterbacks of these teams, Steve McNair in the past and Ryan Tannehill today, experienced their first postseason success in their respective playoff runs. Neither QB threw the ball much in the postseasons of 1999 and 2019. McNair had just 112 yards passing in the win at Indy, and Tannehill only threw for 88 yards with two TD passes at Baltimore.
McNair was the more mobile of the two, as he rushed for 91 yards and 2 TDs in our AFC title game win, but Tannehill did have a TD run in Baltimore.
It’s a good thing both teams had former starters in the league as their No. 2 QBs entering the season and used their two QBs during the regular season leading to their playoff runs. For our 1999 team, it was out of necessity that ex-Steeler Neil O’Donnell replaced McNair when the starter missed five games with a back injury. O’Donnell went 4-1 in his place.
Marcus Mariota was benched after the Titans were shut out in Denver in Week 6. Tannehill replaced him and has gone 9-3 as the starter after being traded from Miami, leading the league in passer rating at 117.5. He has had the best season of his career, but he clearly has benefited from teams trying to stop Henry.
Defensively, both teams are solid with forcing turnovers a strength. The 1999 Titans had five fumble recoveries and two interceptions in the postseason. This year’s team has three interceptions and two fumble recoveries through the first two playoff wins.
Each team boasts a talented defensive end with multiple Pro Bowl selections. Jevon Kearse was our star pass-rusher in 1999, when he was Rookie of the Year with 14.5 sacks and was constantly pressuring QBs in the playoffs. Jurrell Casey leads the way for the Titans defenders today, and he had two sacks of Lamar Jackson last week, one of which resulted in a forced fumble that led to the clinching TD.
The biggest difference between these two Titans teams is the regular-season record. Our 1999 Tennessee team went 13-3 and earned the No. 4 seed. So we did have a home game in the wild-card round, which turned into our famous Music City Miracle win over Buffalo on Kevin Dyson’s fantastic kickoff return after two laterals.
This year’s Titans had to beat Houston in the regular-season finale to finish 9-7 and earn the final AFC wild-card spot partially due to the Steelers’ collapse down the stretch. That has forced Tennessee to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl, but it has gotten hot at the right time. And what an accomplishment it would be to beat New England, Baltimore and Kansas City and in the process knock out Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.
As we felt in that magical playoff run 20 years ago, the current Titans know the pressure has been on the other team each week. Like our 1999 Titans, who went into Jacksonville knowing we had already beaten the Jags twice that season, this year’s team goes into the title game with confidence after having defeated the Chiefs 35-32 in Nashville on November 10 behind a 188-yard, 2 TD rushing day for Henry.
The Titans also knocked the Chiefs out in the wild-card round of 2017 with a 22-21 comeback win in KC as then-rookie Mahomes sat on the bench and watched Alex Smith get shut out in the second half while Mariota led the rally.
That leads us to another difference between the 1999 team and the 2019 Titans as they seek a Super Bowl berth. We were facing Mark Brunell, who was a Pro Bowl quarterback that season, but he had a tough time with our defense in all three losses to us in 1999. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in that AFC title game.
This year’s Titans must beat Mahomes, the best QB in the NFL today who rarely turns it over and is coming off the terrific comeback win over Houston in which he threw five TD passes. He also passed for 446 yards and 3 TDs with no turnovers in the November meeting with the Titans.
In the 1999 playoffs, our Titans ran on 57 percent of the offensive plays, but this Titans team has surpassed that by running on 70 percent of their offensive snaps this postseason, an amazing amount in a league that is supposed to be pass-oriented (by comparison, the Chiefs had 29 percent of their plays as rushes last week).
To achieve what our 1999 team did and win the AFC championship, Tennessee must lean on its roots and try to limit Mahomes’ possessions with Henry continuing to lead a ball-control attack. Just as we always tried to do with George back in the Titans glory year that can now be equaled or exceeded by this year’s team.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.