If you’ve just logged on to the internet for the first time in the past 24 hours and decided to start your day with Ben Solak’s column on The Ringer, do me a favor: Don’t look at anything else right now. Don’t open Twitter or ESPN or your phone. Certainly don’t look at the headline or cover art for this piece. Now, tell me which NFL general manager was fired on Tuesday. I’ll give you 100 guesses.
The #Titans are firing GM Jon Robinson, per me and @TomPelissero. pic.twitter.com/21ozpvUscA— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 6, 2022
Of course, everyone has seen and reacted to the news by now. In one of the most surprising front office decisions in recent memory, the Tennessee Titans fired Jon Robinson on Tuesday. This move is not easy to understand, but I’m going to do my best to make sense of it.
It is rare for a team to fire a general manager midseason, and those teams that do are usually very bad. The Jaguars fired Dave Caldwell in 2020 after the team lost 10 straight games. Sashi Brown’s Browns were 1-27 in his two seasons as executive vice president and 0-12 in the season when he was fired—just eight years after the Browns escorted GM George Kokinis out of the building following a 1-7 start to the 2009 season. To get fired midseason, a general manager’s team has to be very, very bad.
Robinson’s Titans are not very bad—in fact, they’re quite good. The Titans will almost certainly win their division for the third consecutive season this year; they’ll also make the playoffs for the fourth time in a row. All of this has occurred under Robinson’s tenure—in fact, since Robinson took over as general manager in 2016, the Titans have the ninth-best winning percentage in the NFL.
Since Robinson has now been fired, it is tempting to argue that credit for the Titans’ success belongs chiefly to Mike Vrabel, the 2021 Coach of the Year and Tennessee’s cultural tone-setter. This is retconning at its finest. Robinson hired Vrabel in 2018. He replaced head coach Mike Mularkey, who had not only just captained the team to a 9-7 season and a playoff berth during the 2017 season—he had won a playoff game, beating the Chiefs 22-21 in Kansas City with an 18-point comeback. Rumors that Mularkey could be fired had swirled since the final weeks of the regular season, so intensely that controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk issued a statement before the divisional round asserting that Mularkey was the Titans’ head coach moving forward. Within a week, he was fired.
The context of the Mularkey firing helps us understand the Vrabel hire. When Robinson spoke about Mularkey’s firing, he emphasized the importance of a shared vision among ownership, general manager, and head coach. He alluded to disagreements about other coaches on the staff who Mularkey wanted to retain and approaches to play-calling that didn’t maximize the roster. When asked who would pick the new head coach, Robinson said “Amy owns the team, so she will have the ultimate say. But I will have a very strong, strong input.”
Robinson hired Vrabel for their shared football vision, and the pillars of their team-building philosophy are not difficult to identify. They wanted to be the biggest, toughest kids on the block. In the draft, Robinson regularly acquired the largest players he could find: 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back Derrick Henry; 6-foot-3, 209-pound wide receiver Corey Davis; 6-foot-1, 226-pound wide receiver A.J. Brown; 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons; 6-foot-3, 316-pound offensive guard Nate Davis; 6-foot-6, 350-pound offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson; 6-foot-2, 197-pound cornerback Caleb Farley; 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver Treylon Burks. Despite first-round misses including Wilson and Farley, Robinson remained one of the league’s best drafters—not just for the players he hit on, but how those players fit into the team’s on-field philosophy and demeanor.
This approach stayed consistent in Robinson’s free agency work with the Titans. Besides quality additions like Ben Jones, Rodger Saffold, and Denico Autry, the Titans executed one of the league’s best trades in the past five years when they sent a fourth-round pick for Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill in 2019. Tannehill struggled in Miami, but he fit the bill for how Robinson was building Vrabel’s team. He was big and physical, with a huge arm and a willingness to take a hit in the pocket. In his first season with the Titans, Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota and has held the starting job with quality play ever since.
Of course, the Titans didn’t win on offense the way teams with star quarterbacks do. As AFC contenders like the Chiefs, Bills, and Bengals drafted quarterbacks in the first round and passed the ball as often and as aggressively as possible, the Titans became a run-heavy team, letting Henry serve as the motor of their offense. This is where Vrabel, the actualizer of Robinson’s vision, earns his well-deserved stripes as one of the league’s best offensive coaches. Early in Henry’s career, he was splitting time with running backs like DeMarco Murray and Dion Lewis. Vrabel and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith put an end to that, running Henry at an unprecedented volume and unlocking Tannehill as the league’s preeminent play-action passer. Davis, that top-five pick Robinson made at wide receiver who wasn’t really becoming the next Julio Jones? Suddenly, his size and willingness as a blocker made the offense work. Brown, the enormous slot receiver from Ole Miss with an odd projection to the NFL? The offense needed him to run only a few routes to thrive, and that’s exactly what he did.
Having shaken off the discord of Mularkey’s tenure and now thriving in the new age of Vrabel, the Titans were a beacon of organizational synergy. Robinson knew the players he liked would work for Vrabel’s system; Vrabel knew Robinson understood the players who fit his team and was willing to stick his neck out to go get them. There were misses—Wilson, Bud Dupree, Julio Jones—because the NFL is hard, but the team won despite them. There were losses—to the Chiefs in the conference championship after the 2019 season; to the Bengals in last season’s divisional round—because the NFL is hard, but the team had a bright future despite them. In 2020, the team extended Ryan Tannehill; Henry, who looked set to play 2021 on the franchise tag, earned an extension in that same offseason.
Both Tannehill and Henry were extended through the 2023 season. Those deals have been restructured since—Tannehill’s in 2021 to make room for Julio Jones’s contract following that trade; Henry this past offseason to better reflect his stature among NFL running backs with a competitive contract. But the money was pushed into the future, and the figures are relatively small: $9.2 million in void-year money on Tannehill’s contract, and $4.7 million on Henry’s deal. Both still are set to become free agents after the 2023 season. And they’re not the only ones on such a timeline.
Franchise left tackle Taylor Lewan’s contract will expire in 2024; so will center Ben Jones’s deal, and both will be well over 30 years old by then. The stars along the defensive line, Autry and Simmons, both have deals expiring in 2024. Simmons will be playing on his fifth-year option, should an extension not be done beforehand. Starting cornerback Kristian Fulton? You guessed it: expiring in 2024.
Throw in the contracts expiring this season—starting guards Nate Davis and Aaron Brewer, starting defensive tackle Teair Tart, defensive ends Mario Edwards and DeMarcus Walker, star middle linebacker David Long Jr., and starting safety Andrew Adams—and the majority of the Titans’ core is not secured for the long term. Of the 25 Titans who have taken at least 300 snaps this season, 18 are not signed beyond next season.
This all puts the Titans at a surprising place for a club that’s seen so much success: at a team-building crossroads. Only two teams have less 2023 cap space than Tennessee, but because of all the outstanding extensions, the Titans have $93 million in 2024 cap space projections—the 11th-highest number in the league. Robinson was the man at that crossroads, deciding which path to take. Convinced that they were competitors, the Titans very well could have begun dipping into future money to create more cap space now. With the signing of Bud Dupree and trade for Julio Jones in 2021, they’d dipped their toe into the All-In waters, and could have waded in deeper. They could have extended Tannehill out further, extended Henry out further, restructured the large base salaries of Dupree and Kevin Byard, and committed to the current nucleus as the team that could cast off its playoff demons. So many teams go down this über-aggressive team-building road that the soon-to-be back-to-back-to-back AFC South champions surely could have justified wrenching open some cap space for, say, a star wide receiver like A.J. Brown.
We already know the end of the story. They didn’t.
What followed—the drafting of a Brown replacement in Burks, a trade back out of the first round, and the acquisition of a potential Lewan replacement in Nicholas Petit-Frere, a potential Tannehill replacement in Malik Willis, and a potential Henry replacement in Hassan Haskins—made Robinson’s focus extremely clear. The Titans were not going to sell the farm to invest in what they had now. They would not ruin the 2025 Titans for the sake of the 2022 Titans. They’d remain competitive, surely—they had a good coach in Vrabel and good stars in Tannehill and Henry and Simmons and Long. But while the rest of the AFC tripped over themselves in a frenetic arms race—Russell Wilson to Denver, Davante Adams to Las Vegas, Tyreek Hill to Miami, Von Miller to Buffalo—Tennessee would take the slow approach. They’d build for the future.
It is impossible to imagine that this approach was not endorsed by ownership—at least, at the time. The Titans extended Robinson and Vrabel just 10 months ago: a fiscal endorsement of the shared vision between general manager and head coach that had brought the Titans to this sustained peak. It is, however, easy to imagine that the head coach—the head coach who had brought the team to three straight playoffs, only to see his squad ousted from each one—was frustrated to see his star receiver traded away for the sake of a younger, cheaper rookie; to see a third-round pick spent not on an immediate roster need, but on a developmental quarterback who wouldn’t help his team win in 2022.
Mike Vrabel won the power-struggle with Jon Robinson. This was his reaction to the A.J. Brown trade during the Draft.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 6, 2022
Of course, it was also Robinson that drafted Brown in the 2nd round in the first place. Gave the Titans 4 cheap rookie years and then flipped him for a 1st. pic.twitter.com/mMUryPNlkC
The theory behind the Brown trade may be sound on paper—if we can’t extend him, might as well trade him and build for the future. It’s eerily reminiscent of the Patriots’ team-building philosophy, and New England is where Robinson cut his teeth as a scout and director of personnel for more than a decade. But even though it works sometimes, it certainly didn’t work this time. Burks has been good when healthy, but the Titans’ wide receivers have largely struggled this season—Tannehill is having his worst season as a passer in Tennessee—while Brown has cemented his place among the league’s top receivers with dominant performances in Philadelphia. Performances like the one he put in just this past week: eight receptions, 119 yards, and two touchdowns in a 35-10 win against his old team.
Getting dunked on is an unpleasant feeling. A national television broadcast of the dunking exacerbates the unpleasantness. Brown spent all of Sunday afternoon thoroughly dunking on the Titans, a team that desperately needs him, yet wasn’t willing to open its checkbook wide enough to retain him. But the unpleasantness of being dunked on is not nearly enough of a reason to fire the general manager who was extended less than a year ago.
It strains believability that Robinson was fired for entirely football reasons, but if he was, that’s one of the most impulsive and consequential staffing decisions made by an NFL owner in quite some time. The Titans would be reasonably sensitive to the off-field conduct of their staff, considering that offensive coordinator Todd Downing was arrested November 18 on a charge of driving under the influence on the way home from the Titans facility after a game against the Green Bay Packers. But Downing was not fired, and Strunk’s statement as well as Tom Pelissero’s reporting indicate that ownership let go of Robinson for football reasons. As Pelissero puts it, ownership was “not happy about the direction of the roster.”
More from NFL NOW on today’s surprising news: Jon Robinson is out as the first-place #Titans’ GM. @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/3WYUvxkLHZ— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) December 6, 2022
The only direction taken by Robinson since his extension was the direction of patience. He tried to have the longest view in the room, to think of life after Henry and Tannehill. That is not the NFL’s way—that’s why the NFL stands for Not for Long. Owners want to win, and they want to win now.
This sudden about-face from Tennessee puts the Titans in an awkward position. Reportedly, Vrabel will take more control over the roster, and the team will likely hire a new general manager under the presumption that they’ll commit to the short-term competitiveness of the team. But there’s no undo button on the Brown trade. All of those expiring contracts must be handled, and the gaps left over must be filled with low draft picks and cheap free agents—but Robinson no longer sits in the front office, finding David Long in the sixth round, Rashad Weaver in the fourth, Chigoziem Okonkwo in the fourth, Kevin Byard in the third. Teams that have committed to short-term winning windows have to get quality contributions out of rookie picks to keep the cap sheets balanced, and Robinson did that better than most. How confident are you that you’re going to find a general manager with the same hit rate? How confident are you that he and Vrabel will find the same harmony that Robinson and Vrabel enjoyed for so many years?
If ownership’s message is true, the new general manager will be all but forced to commit to this team—a team built by Robinson. They’ll try to build around Tannehill and develop Willis, neither of whom are their guys. They’ll have to handle the whale contracts given to Dupree, Harold Landry, and Robert Woods—again, none of which were their decisions to make. They’ll have to figure out what to do with an aging, depreciating, but beloved player in Derrick Henry. In switching general managers, amid yet another a playoff push, the Titans have tossed a lateral at the 5-yard line. Sure, they might score—but boy does it feel like a lot of bad things might happen while the ball’s in the air.
Robinson had a plan, and it seemed like ownership was committed to it—until suddenly and emphatically, they weren’t committed at all. The same general manager who built this contender, who navigated them through the murky waters of a head-coaching change, has now been fired for seemingly the same issue he once solved: organizational disharmony. Somehow, after winning season after winning season, playoff berth after playoff berth, the Titans are right back where they were: scrambling to get their brass in alignment and their team on a championship path.