Asked earlier this week what quarterback Malik Willis needs to show him this offseason, Titans coach Mike Vrabel gave an interesting response.
Vrabel didn’t start out by mentioning accuracy, efficiency or production — the kind of buzzwords one might expect to hear about a second-year quarterback whose rookie season was bumpy at best.
Instead, Vrabel’s initial response focused on the example he wants Willis to set, the message he expects Willis — or any of his quarterbacks — to deliver.
“What we’d asked Malik to do is come back with a presence to him,” Vrabel said. “Making sure that when you’re the quarterback of one of 32 franchises, there’s a certain demeanor and way you have to carry yourself, and a presence, leadership. There’s a lot that goes into that other than just delivering a football.
“You [do] have to be really good at delivering the football, being accurate and making great decisions, and making sure it goes where it’s supposed to go. I felt like he did that [so far in offseason workouts]. He came back and was into it. There was certainly a bounce to him, and he’s continued to do that. It’s early on in the evaluation period, but that’s what he’s done.”
Here’s one stab at what Vrabel was referencing in those initial comments:
Willis has a likeable, easygoing personality, and he doesn’t seem to get bothered by much. Those are largely commendable traits. Who wants a quarterback that gets rattled easily, after all? Who wants a quarterback that doesn’t get along well with others?
But there may also be times when Willis’ everything-is-just-fine personality might come off as a little too laid back, a little too “Oh well, that’s the way it goes.”
The example that comes to mind occurred after the Titans’ 19-14 loss to Houston in Week 16 last season, which just so happened to be the last of Willis’ three starts.
In that game, the Titans twice had the ball with under three minutes remaining and a chance to take the lead. Both drives ended with Willis interceptions, though in fairness, the second was a Hail Mary toss from the Houston 43-yard line.
In the aftermath of that contest, Willis was asked how important it was to inspire teammates following the Titans’ fifth straight loss (only one of which Willis had started).
His response was unexpected, certainly not cliched.
“It’s football,” Willis said at the time. “You woke up this morning. I woke up this morning. So I’m just as happy as I would have been if we would have won, you know? Yeah, it’s unfortunate and it sucks that we lost, but we’ll have an opportunity to wake up tomorrow and learn from it to get better. We still have everything we want in front of us.
“You can be a Debbie downer about it. That’s your perspective, but we’re blessed, bro. We still got everything we want, and we have an opportunity to learn from something? That might even be better than going out there and doing what we wanted to today.”
Again, in one sense, it’s admirable Willis didn’t appear to take the loss as the end of the world, either for himself or his Titans teammates. It was also clear he wanted to learn from his mistakes.
But in the aftermath of a fifth straight defeat, and in light of the fact the Titans’ playoff chances were shriveling with every passing week, it also would have been nice to hear Willis strike a more resolute tone — one with more of a sense of urgency, one with more of a determined, find-a-way-to-get-it-done feel.
Whether Willis’ lukewarm response that day had anything to do with the decision or not, he was pulled from the starter’s job for the final two weeks of the season. His replacement, Josh Dobbs, had been signed off Detroit’s practice squad just eight days earlier and had never before started an NFL game.
I don’t doubt that Willis has a competitive edge to his personality. One doesn’t have the kind of success he did in college, nor make an NFL team, without it.
But it might be nice if everyone involved saw it, heard it, felt it a little more often.
That doesn’t necessarily mean one needs to be a fiery screamer. Previous Titans quarterbacks like Steve McNair and Marcus Mariota didn’t fit that description, yet each was highly respected.
Just don’t come off as too laid back.
Quarterbacks are looked upon to lead, more so than any other player on the field.
Willis has to make sure his tone, words and actions reflect the significance and responsibility of his role.
He needs to show just how much he can inspire his Titans teammates because of that.