Insiders

Franchise Turning Points: AFC South

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The Talking Heads posed the question “Well, how did I get here?” in the 1980 song “Once In A Lifetime.”

It’s applicable to anyone, of course, with football fans and their respective favorite teams being no exception. Football Insiders is taking a division-by-division look at the turning point in each franchise’s recent history that can answer that very question.

After peeking at the AFC East and AFC North earlier this month, our tour heads to the AFC South.

Indianapolis Colts
Turning Point: Picking Peyton Manning, lucking into Luck

The Colts have a horseshoe on their helmets, but opposing fans in the division probably wonder where else they’re hiding one.

The trajectory of the franchise changed in 1998, when the Colts wisely elected to take Manning over Ryan Leaf with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. With the league expanding to 32 teams in 2002 with the addition of the Texans, Indianapolis quickly became the class of its newly created division.

The Colts reached the playoffs in each of the AFC South’s first nine seasons, winning the division in all but two of those years. Part of that was due to the good fortune of Manning’s health – he started 227 consecutive games, making him the most durable quarterback in the league behind Brett Favre.

And when that luck finally ran out, the Colts fell into some more. The first injury of Manning’s career coincided with the best passer of the next generation playing his final college season. After a 2-14 finish in 2011 the Colts picked Andrew Luck, setting them up for another decade of potential AFC South domination.

Tennessee Titans
Turning Point: Firing Jeff Fisher

At the time, it seemed like the right idea.

Jeff Fisher has long been one of the NFL’s top coaches, but even the best have a limited shelf life with a particular franchise – even Paul Brown and Tom Landry were run out of town at some point.

After 16 years of leading the Titans – a tenure that dated all the way back to their time as the Houston Oilers – Tennessee let Fisher go following a 6-10 season in 2010. They’ve been hopelessly lost ever since.

After showing some promise with a 9-7 finish in their first year under Mike Munchak, the Titans have nosedived. A pair of losing seasons got Munchak canned, and that only set the stage for a putrid first year under Ken Whisenhunt as Tennessee finished 2-14 with a minus-184 point differential in 2014. It was the worst season for the franchise since Fisher took the helm at the end of the 1994 season. Both of the aforementioned seasons mark the only times in Oilers/Titans history that the team had the worst scoring offense in the league.

Inconsistency at quarterback has bedeviled the franchise thanks to oft-injured and now retired Jake Locker. In the past four years, the Titans have had four different leading passers – Matt Hasselbeck, Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Zach Mettenberger. Not a recipe for success.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Turning Point: Hiring Gene Smith as GM

The Jacksonville Jaguars were – and still are – the model of how to operate an expansion sports franchise.

Under the steady hand of Tom Coughlin, the Jags made a stunning four straight playoff appearances that began in the second year of their existence, including a pair of AFC Championship Games.

But just like the color teal, the Jaguars have been out of fashion since the ‘90s came to a close. However, it was not until the tenure of general manager Gene Smith that Jacksonville turned into a full-blown laughingstock.

Technically speaking, Smith was the first GM in team history – Coughlin held that power in addition to being head coach from 1995-2002. James Harris took control of football decisions in 2003 as Jacksonville’s VP of Player Personnel and positioned the Jaguars to a pair of playoff showings in six seasons. But he resigned following a 5-11 year in 2008, setting the stage for the over-his-head Smith.

In four years with Smith at the helm, the Jaguars went from respectable to disastrous, finishing 22-44 (a .344 winning percentage) in his tenure.

The 2010 Draft was a particularly disastrous example of his tenure. The Jags had no picks in the second, fourth or seventh rounds and Tyson Alalu is the only starter produced from the six players they did draft.

The best players he did draft, in 2009 – Eugene Monroe, Terrance Knighton and Rashad Jennings – have done their best work elsewhere.

Because of Gene Smith, the Jaguars find themselves in worse shape than they did as an actual expansion team.

Houston Texans
Turning Point: Drafting Dunta Robinson over Ben Roethlisberger

The Texans have never really had an identity. For most Houstonians, football memories conjure up the powder blue of the Oilers: Earl Campbell running people over, Bum Phillips patrolling the sidelines, Warren Moon flinging it all over the place.

The Texans are very much like a second wife – still loved, but not a love that is as pure as the original when times were good. And while J.J. Watt’s reign as the most dominant force in the NFL could change that, winning would be a better formula.

The best way to win, of course, is to have a top-notch quarterback, which is something that has never been the case for the Texans. But there was once a chance.

In 2004, Houston had the 10th overall pick in the draft. Not yet ready to give up on David Carr, who had yet to play behind a real offensive line, the Texans passed on a shot at Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson.

Robinson was a revelation as a rookie with six interceptions and three forced fumbles, but the course of time has proven that he’s far from being Roethlisberger, who has led the Steelers to a pair of Super Bowl trophies.

Given his off-field adventures, it’s distinctly possible that Big Ben would have been a never-was if he didn’t end up with an organization as stable as Pittsburgh. And even though he is one of the most escapable quarterbacks around, he too could have suffered Carr’s fate behind the Texans line.

But the fact of the matter is the Texans have never had a franchise quarterback, and the 2004 Draft provided perhaps their best chance to address that need.


About Alex Hickey

Alex Hickey

Alex Hickey can vividly recall most significant NFL events going back to Walter Payton's final game in 1987, including the ones that didn't make him cry. Since 2008, his full-time job has been covering college football, specifically McNeese State, for the Lake Charles (La.) American Press. Free time is spent informing, amusing or annoying you for Football Insiders.