No Secret, No Fluke

Ryan Kang via AP

“Let’s go win it.”

That’s all I said to the guys before we took the field in overtime against the Texans last Sunday. I didn’t need to say anything else. The whole second half had been an emotional roller coaster, and honestly, it was draining. But looking around at the guys in the huddle, I could see that everyone knew what we had to do. We had an opportunity to end it, and we had a common belief and confidence in each other that we could march down the field and finish with a win.

And that’s what we did.

I’ve always said that there’s nothing that this team can’t handle. That game — and this whole season, really — has been a perfect example of that. It’s been a year full of adversity. COVID. Quarantine. Limited practice. Zoom meetings. Games rescheduled. If you would have told me after last season that these would be the kinds of challenges we’d face in 2020, I would have said you were crazy.

But here we are. 

And through it all, we’re 5–0.

None of the wins have come easy. But if this team has proved anything, it’s that we thrive in those types of situations. That’s one of the things I love about this group. Adversity doesn’t faze us. It excites us. We don’t make excuses, and we welcome every challenge.

That’s especially true for me. I mean, I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t faced so much adversity throughout my career. It brought me here. It made me.

Since coming to Tennessee, I’ve had a lot of people asking me what I’ve been doing differently. They assume that I made some big adjustment to my game, like there’s no way that the guy who used to play for the Dolphins could possibly be the same quarterback they’re seeing now. I must be a different player. So what had I changed

The truth is: I didn’t do anything different. I didn’t change anything.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing’s changed.

Look, I don’t care what your job is. Nobody likes to get demoted. And that’s what happened when the Dolphins traded me to Tennessee. I had been the starter in Miami my entire career, and after the 2018 season, when they fired the head coach, I knew I was done there. Nobody explicitly told me that, but it didn’t take much for me to read between the lines. I didn’t know if I would be cut or traded. I just knew I wouldn’t be back.

The toughest part was probably that everything was out of my control. I remember looking around the league and thinking that there were a few teams in the market for a starting quarterback, which I still believed I could be. 

Then free agency started, and one by one those spots got filled. And I was just kind of sitting there, helplessly, waiting for something to happen.

When I got word that I had been traded to Tennessee, I knew it was to be a backup. And that was a tough pill to swallow. I remember having some difficult and very real conversations with my wife, Lauren. We never talked like I was done with football, but we did consider the possibility that maybe, moving forward, this was my future — being a backup. That would likely mean moving from team to team, changing cities, moving our family every couple of years … who knows?

That was a real fear. I mean, how many times do you see a starter go to another team as a backup and then work his way back into a starting role?

I don’t know the answer.

All I know is, it’s rare.

Perry Knotts via AP

Lauren likes to make fun of me for being eternally optimistic. She says that I live in an alternate reality where life is always good and everything’s going to turn out great. And she’s right. I’m the kind of person who likes to look on the bright side of things. 

That’s the mindset I brought with me to Tennessee. 

It was a one-year deal. So even though I knew I was going to be the backup, I was still optimistic that an opportunity would come for me to be a starter again the following year — maybe in Tennessee, maybe somewhere else. I didn’t know. 

I just had faith.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was going to like it in Tennessee. 

From the first time I walked into the building, I loved the vibe of the place, the tone that had been set. And that starts with Coach Vrabel. He’s a straightforward guy. He’s going to say what’s on his mind. No sugarcoating. He lets his players know exactly what’s expected of them. And if you can’t get the job done, he’ll find someone else who will. 

I love that mentality.

And as I got to know my teammates, it became pretty clear that they had bought into Coach’s philosophy. I saw that this was a group of men who love the game, love each other and want to win.

I also saw that they loved their quarterback, Marcus Mariota. I grew to love him, too.

And that leads me to probably one of the biggest adjustments I had to make in Tennessee.

Not being the starter.

I remember my first game in a Titans uniform. It was Week 1 last season, on the road in Cleveland. I was in the locker room before the game, and while I was getting dressed, I saw that the guys around me all had their headphones on, getting into whatever zone they needed to get into to perform on the field. 

But not me. 

I was just … getting dressed. I wasn’t preparing to start. I wasn’t preparing to lead.

I was preparing to stand on the sideline. 

And be ready.

Just in case.

That was kind of a low moment for me. As football players, we live to compete on Sundays. When I wasn’t being asked to do that anymore, it was humbling. And all I could really do was swallow my pride and do whatever I could to get better so I would be ready when an opportunity presented itself. I didn’t have any other choice.

In Week 6, I got that chance. I took over for Marcus against Denver, and a few days later, I was named the starter for Week 7. And I’ll be honest … it was a little awkward at first. I had seen how much these guys loved Marcus, and now he was sliding into that support role that I had played for him the first few weeks. It was the kind of situation that — if you don’t have the right guys, the right leadership and the right culture — can tear a team apart.

But I think it actually brought us closer together.

Because I knew how much the guys loved Marcus, I didn’t come off the bench guns blazing like I was taking over the team. I just took it game by game. I listened to my receivers and we talked about what we were seeing on the field and what we expected from each other. We grew together as an offense and, over time, I earned their respect.

And through it all, we were able to string together a few wins and earn a playoff berth.

Wade Payne/AP Photo

When the playoffs came around, a lot of people asked me about the fact that I had never played in a playoff game before. Was I feeling the pressure? Was I worried about my lack of playoff experience? Was I nervous?

What those people didn’t realize was that I had basically been playing the equivalent of playoff games all season.

For my job.

When I took over as the starter in Week 7, nobody told me I would remain the starter. Nobody said it was my job to lose. We just took it week by week. So I went into every game knowing that if I didn’t play well, Marcus was right there, ready to go. One bad game and it could all be over for me. One loss and I could be out.

And when you’ve gotten accustomed to basically playing for your football life every week, the pressure of a playoff game doesn’t faze you.

Also, I had Derrick Henry to hand the ball off to, and he was heating up down the stretch in a way that I had never seen before.

Derrick is a special player. He has the size and physicality to get the tough yards between the tackles, but if you get him in the open field he also has the speed to take it to the house. And he’s the kind of player who wears defenses down. I mean, if he gets to his fourth or fifth step clean, that’s 250 pounds coming downhill at you. You might feel good about tackling that in the first quarter. But in the fourth quarter, when you’re tired and beaten down ... he’s just getting going. So it’s like he gets stronger as the game goes on.

He showed that in the playoffs last season.

He made my job easy.

Obviously, we came up short against Kansas City in the AFC championship game, which was tough because we knew we had put everything we had into it. And while we were proud of what we had accomplished, we also knew we had a lot of work to do, and we couldn’t wait to get back to it this season.

David Eulitt/Getty Images

We know that some people look at what this team did last year as a fluke. And that’s fine. The only thing that matters is what the people inside our building think. Last season was a year of growth. But looking back on it now, I think it prepared us perfectly to handle the adversity and uncertainty we’ve faced this season.

Especially in these last two games.

I mean, the first three games were tight. We had to grit out some tough wins. But when I think about that Bills game … we had a crazy couple of weeks going into that one. 

First, there was finding out that people within our organization had tested positive for COVID. So obviously, the first thing on our minds was those people and their families, wishing them fast and full recoveries. Then there was the uncertainty around our schedule. One minute we’re practicing, the next, we’re not. It’s Zoom meetings and virtual walk-throughs. One game gets rescheduled, another postponed. Next thing you know we’re playing on a Tuesday night.

And I’m not criticizing anyone or anything. We were under a lot of heat, too. This is literally a situation that nobody has ever had to deal with before, and we were the first team to really experience it and have it adversely affect us. And I think we’ll all get better at handling these types of situations as we move forward, learning as we go.

But the fact that we were able to go out as a team and shake all that off and get a big win against a really tough Bills team — I think that’s a testament to this team and our entire organization. I think we took that adversity, used it to motivate ourselves, and more than anything, after not knowing if or when we’d be able to play again … I think we went out there against the Bills and just had fun.

A perfect example is the touchdown run I had at the end of the first half.

Look, we don’t have many plays that are designed runs for me. And Art Smith, our OC, doesn’t take too kindly to me lobbying for them. But sometimes, when the opportunity to scramble comes up, you just gotta take it. So that’s what I did.

It wasn’t a very smooth landing on that celebration leap into the end zone, I know. I wish I could have that one back for a do-over. 

But that play — and having my teammates embracing me after, and having fans back in the stands and having my wife and kids there — it all kind of came together to exemplify the kind of confidence we’re playing with and the fun we’re having.

That, and Derrick Henry’s stiff-arm.

That was probably one of the meanest stiff-arms I’ve ever seen. I think when it happened I may have screamed, “Holy crap!”

But that’s kind of how this team is. I think we always play with a little chip on our shoulder. But when you take that attitude and that mindset, and you turn us loose to just go out, execute and have fun….

I don’t think there’s anything this team can’t do.

Wade Payne/AP Photo

This team, this organization — it’s a family. There’s no other group of guys I’d rather go to battle with. And I know that whatever adversity comes next, no matter the circumstances, we’ll be up for the challenge. 

I know we’ve got a big one this week against Pittsburgh. That’s a well-rounded team that rightfully commands a lot of respect. To beat them, we’ve got to be at our absolute best.

But that’s what we’re always striving for. Every day we’re just looking to take the next step and reach a level we weren’t able to last season. That’s what I’m most excited about now: pushing myself and the rest of these guys to do more than what we thought we were capable of. 

I guess that’s really what changed when I came to Tennessee. I just took the next step in a never-ending growth process. I’m more driven because I’ve been humbled by my adversity in Miami. I’m a better leader today because of everything I’ve been through in my career. I’m a better quarterback because of the coaches and players around me. I’m a better husband because Lauren and I grew closer during these crazy couple of years that saw us not only change cities, but also welcome our second child. I’m a better father because now, when I come home from work, I just try to enjoy the madness of life with little kids. My days are filled with football and family, and I absolutely love it.

So there’s no one thing that’s different. There was no one moment when it all clicked. There’s no secret. There’s just me, my family, this team and this city, all overcoming adversity and growing together to hopefully accomplish something great. 

I think that with this 5–0 start, we’re on our way toward that. And whatever adversity comes our way next, I know we’ll be ready.