NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Of all the positives brewing around the Tennessee Titans these days, the one that is easiest to miss is undoubtedly the most important.
This team is a trendy pick to become a postseason contender because of the promise of third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, the dominance of a bruising running game and the potential of a rapidly maturing defense. It's also on the brink of a breakthrough season because of an undeniable shift in team culture. Make no mistake: That chemistry will drive whatever the Titans do this coming fall.
That fact comes through in the way Mariota, a rising star, carries himself with constant humility and an effortless calm. It's apparent when considering how most of the biggest names on the roster operate in the trenches and care little about who gets the glory. The Titans didn't go 9-7 and challenge for a playoff spot in 2016 because they got lucky. They did it because they figured out what it takes for a young squad to actually start winning in this league.
Their challenge this year is to continue that momentum. It's a tougher task with the mounting hype surrounding this team.
"I showed the players a highlight tape of last year, and I told them how much the fans love the way we play -- with competitiveness and resilience," said head coach Mike Mularkey, who is in his second full season after serving nine games as the team's interim head coach following the firing of Ken Whisenhunt in 2015. "But again, that was last year. This is a totally different year, with new faces. We all know what will happen if we win one or two games more than we did last year. But that hype will get you beat if you pay attention to it. We need to be careful to not think about where we are when we aren't there yet."
The best thing about the Titans is that they have no reservations about what they are. They are a blue-collar bunch, one that is low on star power and high on toughness. The team did add some more dynamic elements in the first round of April's draft -- with the selections of wide receiver Corey Davis and cornerback/punt returner Adoree' Jackson -- but the first thing Mularkey boasts about isn't their electric skills. It's their maturity and professionalism, and how their no-nonsense nature fits so well within the team's overall framework.
Of course, it's not uncommon for coaches to gush about the importance of chemistry. There's also a lot of truth in the fact that the best teams in this league win consistently because of such buy-in. The Titans haven't been to the postseason since 2008 -- and have been over .500 just twice in the intervening years -- because they lacked both talent and chemistry. As tight end Delanie Walker said, the "inmates were running the asylum" around Tennessee when he arrived four years ago.
"Coming from San Francisco, to see guys coming into a meeting late and nobody saying anything, it kind of blew my mind," said Walker, who played with the 49ers from 2006 through 2012 and helped that team reach Super Bowl XLVII. "I'd be sitting there waiting for something to happen and nothing ever did. We had (former Navy SEAL) Marcus Luttrell from 'Lone Survivor' (a book and movie based on one of Luttrell's military operations) come in one time, and he said that if somebody is late in the military, somebody is getting killed. That's basically what was happening to us. Guys were showing up late and we were getting our asses kicked."
The Titans produced seven victories in that 2013 season Walker referenced. They won two games the next year and three the year after that. As much excitement as there was in the form of Mariota, who was the second overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, there was plenty of reason to think the Titans might stumble along for the foreseeable future. After all, one of their AFC South rivals already had a stud quarterback (Andrew Luck in Indianapolis), while another was on its way to two consecutive division titles (Houston has taken that honor in 2015 and 2016).
The difference today is that Tennessee's talent pool is stronger -- and so is the belief in the overall message. The offensive line has become a strength behind a pair of bookend tackles: Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan on the left side and first-team All-Pro Jack Conklin on the right. That unit helped power the NFL's third-best rushing offense, with DeMarco Murray enjoying a bounce-back season (he rushed for 1,287 yards after gaining just 702 in Philadelphia a year earlier). The defense also improved up front, with defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo earning Pro Bowl honors.
Overall, five Titans made the Pro Bowl, the most for that franchise since 2008. One player who could join that group in 2017 is Mariota, who was named an alternate for the game last season. He posted a 95.6 passer rating in 2016 while throwing 26 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. The only concern the Titans have with him is whether he's able to stay healthy.
Mariota broke his right fibula in Week 16 of last year and finished the season on injured reserve. He also missed four games as a rookie because of two separate knee injuries. Still, none of that's enough to deter Mularkey from using Mariota as a running threat. With the addition of Davis, the talents of Walker and the multi-dimensional skills in the backfield, Mariota is expected to cause even more problems for opposing defenses with his arm and legs.
"You have to let him run," Mularkey said. "He's too much of a threat on defenses and he's healthy. I've never had a quarterback I've coached get hurt running the football. I have had plenty get hurt in the pocket when they haven't been protected. But we're never going to expose him to any hits by having unblocked defenders. That's how our runs are designed."
Added Mariota: "The sky is the limit. With the weapons we have on offense, it will be important for me to spread the ball around and operate like a point guard. I need to make sure guys have the opportunities to make plays."
The Titans do understand that there are certain major questions that remain unanswered as they head into the fall. They did overhaul a lousy secondary during the offseason, with the addition of Jackson and free-agent cornerback Logan Ryan ranking as the biggest moves. They also need Davis to grow up fast as a rookie, and Eric Decker, who signed in June, to be a reliable weapon for Mariota. Wide receiver was another area where the Titans failed to impress in 2016.
What the Titans also have to do is remember how they reached the point where expectations are so high in the first place. They've checked a lot of boxes, including finding a franchise quarterback, building a strong offensive line and molding an attacking defense. They've drafted intelligently and made similarly wise moves with free-agent signings and trades. More than anything, they've believed that there is something special happening within their walls, something that few could see until the end of last season.
The Titans won't have the luxury of being underestimated any longer. They also understand the importance of not dwelling on any progress from the past. The current players realize that all they ultimately did in 2016 is raise the expectations on their potential. This time around, they're clearly well-positioned to make good on all that promise they created.