Over the past three years, two of head coach Mike Vrabel‘s offensive coordinators have been elevated to head coaching positions, Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith. Stepping in for the recently departed Smith is none other than Eden Prairie native and University of Minnesota graduate Todd Downing. The 40-year-old former Golden Gopher inherits one of the best offenses in the NFL, as the Tennessee Titans ranked fourth in points scored and second in yards last season.
Led by the NFL’s latest 2,000-yard rusher in Derrick Henry, the Titans boast arguably the best rushing attack throughout the entire league. In fact, since Vrabel became Tennessee’s head coach in 2018, only the Baltimore Ravens have churned out more yardage on the ground, which can largely be attributed to the rushing prowess of quarterback Lamar Jackson. The 2019 NFL MVP has accounted for 33% of Baltimore’s 8,808 rushing yards over the past three years.
Make no mistake about it, Downing’s Tennessee offense is the furthest thing from a one-trick pony. When opposing defenses justifiably stack the box to defend Henry and the running game, third-year receiver A.J. Brown has made a habit of torching secondaries with his big-play ability. Highlighted by his 17.4 yards per catch on 122 grabs, Brown has already established himself as one of the game’s most dangerous playmakers in the open field.
LaFleur and Smith leave mighty big shoes for Downing to fill. Tennessee’s offense has improved dramatically every year since Vrabel took over in 2018. Having gone from offenses ranked 27th, 10th, and fourth in points scored, it’ll be up to Downing to keep this trajectory for the Titans offense. After they achieved such massive success last year, the sky is the limit for this offense with the return of left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was limited to five games this past season.
Downing was hired as Tennessee’s tight ends coach in 2019, but this coming season will not be his first stint as an offensive coordinator. Back in 2017, Downing was the OC for Jack Del Rio‘s Oakland Raiders. There he was reuniting with Mike Tice, the former Minnesota Vikings head coach who served as the offensive line coach in Oakland. While I’m sure Downing would be the first one to admit that the production wasn’t exactly what he had hoped for (23rd in points, 17th in yards), his previous experience calling plays at the highest level will serve him well as he embarks on his new challenge running the explosive Titans offense.
After coaching the Eden Prairie freshman football team back in 1999 and 2000, Downing caught his break with Tice and the Vikings. From 2001 and 2002, Downing served in many roles as an intern before becoming an analyst for Minnesota in 2003 and 2004. By 2005, he was officially named as an offensive quality-control coach. After stops in St. Louis (2006-08), Detroit (2009-13), Buffalo (2014), and Oakland (2015-17), Downing returned to Minnesota in 2018 as the tight ends coach under Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Considering Downing’s tendencies as an OC back in 2017 with the Raiders — which saw his offense rank 30th in rush attempts and 25th in rushing yards — it’ll be interesting to watch him put his stamp on the run-dominant Titans offense. Granted, as the OC for a ball club that goes 6-10, history tells us that it’s an uphill climb to run the ball effectively when you’re spending a majority of the season coming from behind.
If the Titans continue their league-leading offensive ways under Downing’s watch, he will assuredly be considered a head coaching candidate in 2022, just like LaFleur and Smith. As long as this coming season goes according to plan for Tennessee’s offense, Downing will become a very popular name connected to potential head coaching openings. And for a particular franchise in Downing’s hometown of Minneapolis that is teetering on the make-or-break point with their current head coach, his popularity will likely be even greater around here — especially if the Vikings’ struggles from 2020 reappear.
If Downing can hold up his end of the bargain and maintain Tennessee’s high-octane offense with Henry, Brown, and the return of Lewan, it’s only a matter of time before Skoldiers across the state begin to fantasize about what their prodigal son could do with Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson as the next head coach of the Vikings.