JACKSONVILLE – Welcome to what I hope I do well enough in Week One to be invited back with a Story of the South column next week and the week after and the week … well, you get the point. With every piece of news and information at your fingertips in a few keyboard taps, my hope is to have some insight into the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. The surest way to the playoffs is to win your division, something the Jaguars have done just once in 20 seasons and only three times in 26 NFL seasons. So beating those three, which the Jaguars haven't done very often since the inception of the AFC South in 2002 (they're only 49-81 all-time against division opponents), is paramount.
So, let's spin around the AFC South at the starting line of the 2021 season:
*In Nashville, Indianapolis and Houston the story begins with the quarterback – and in Houston no news right now is the news. Deshaun Watson led the NFL in passing yards last season despite his coach being fired in September and his favorite receiver being traded during the 2020 offseason. He was and remains a franchise quarterback, but his trade demands can't be met because the allegations of more than 22 women haven't been settled. So, he reported to training camp this season to avoid a $50,000 fine and has been relegated to the sidelines or the Scout team; the distraction will undoubtedly leave marks this season. Houston is holding firm to its price for a 26-year-old quarterback with years and years to play, assuming his legal issues are resolved in his favor. Texans General Manager Nick Caserio wouldn't get specific when asked about what other teams offered or what he wanted, preferring to leave the doors open for any eventuality. "Each day, we take information, we process it, and then we go about our business and try and make the right decision, the best decision at the time," he said. "So, that's what we did. He's on the roster. He's on our team. Again, what does that mean moving forward? Again, it's one day at a time. I would say a proposition and endeavor, and that's how we're going to handle it." The Texans are in full rebuild. They won't say it because that doesn't sell tickets, but their move to clear the decks – for instance the trade this week of starting cornerback Bradley Roby – indicates their desire to create picks and cap room for next spring. It's the best way forward and something we witnessed first-hand on the First Coast last season.
*In Indianapolis, the Colts have a very talented roster. They made the playoffs last season with Philip Rivers clinging to his NFL career and retiring for a clipboard and a high school team in January. Enter Carson Wentz, who was supposed to bring some stability at quarterback despite blowing up in Philadelphia in 2020 and leaving the Eagles with some bad feelings on both sides. Since then, he has broken a bone in his foot, which cost him most of training camp, and had a close contact for COVID-19 which because he is unvaccinated created a tight spot for the Colts. He's back and playing but is he back to being Carson Wentz who looked like a star in 2018 – or is he going to be the guy who was unavailable as he was in five of the Eagles' six playoff games in his time there? "Carson Wentz selfishness continues to hurt the Eagles" screamed the headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer and "Carson Wentz, an anti-vaccine Colt on COVID list, is selfish, bad teammate" offered a headline in the Indianapolis Star. It doesn't sound as if Wentz has made much progress in rehabilitating his image, at least not externally. "We said at the beginning of the year that whatever happens, we're not going to let it be a distraction," Colts Head Coach Frank Reich said. "We understand at some level when things happen-on the outside it is a distraction at some level. But if we are able to internally stay together as a team and stay focused on preparing for the next opponent, and for us, now that we are at this point in the season all that really matters is the next opponent. So that's just going to be the mindset that we take." The Colts are loaded and if they can get and stay healthy, they'll be heard in January. Will Wentz be the missing piece? Will he reclaim his status as a franchise level quarterback? Stay tuned.
*Things are smoother in Nashville where the South's defending champs are gearing up to defend both that title and running back Derrick Henry's rushing title. The Titans are Henry's team, both on the field and off. The Yulee native has not only carved out his place in NFL lore, his mere presence on the field has given quarterback Ryan Tannehill another chance to create his. Remember, Tannehill was a flop in Miami and joined the Titans in 2019 when he replaced Marcus Mariota. Tannehill went on to become the NFL Comeback Player of the Year leading the Titans to the AFC Championship Game. He has been a totally different guy the last two seasons going 18-8 and throwing 55 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions. Here's the rub. Henry has carried the load for the Titans the last two seasons in winning back-to-back NFL rushing titles, and you have to consider the sand in his hourglass, so to speak, as starting to grow thin. He's carried the ball 681 times the last two seasons and his punishing style of play doesn't just take its toll on the opponent, it wears down a running back, even one whose nickname is the 'bulldozer.' Enter Julio Jones. The All-Pro wide receiver arrived via trade with the Atlanta Falcons to give Tannehill more to work with down the field. Wide receiver AJ Brown is a star in his own right and even at 32 Jones remains one of the most physically imposing receivers in the game. But they have to be in the same huddle. A late summer trade, COVID-19 and rehab from a groin injury that cost Jones half of last season have slowed the chemistry building between the quarterback and his new target. "He has a good ability to understand what's going on," Tannehill said. "Obviously you don't understand that until you spend time, understand the concepts of what we're trying to do, how defenses have tried to play him in the past and probably see again. I studied him on tape. His transition is a lot better than I thought a big guy of his stature. Some of the routes he ran in Atlanta the past few years was a ton of fun to watch. I'm excited to keep working with him." Jones was an attractive piece of the puzzle for the Titans, who have paid their quarterback and running back and would like to see it pay off before the hourglass on the beast in the backfield runs out.