The Story of the Tennessee Titans NFL Franchise
The Tennessee Titans have shown the world time and again that they are one of the most exciting up-and-coming franchises in the NFL right now. With five straight winning seasons, on top of going undefeated through the first month of the 2020 season, the Titans are looking better and more dangerous every year.
From Nashville to Knoxville to Memphis, all eyes in the Volunteer State are now on Vrabel and Tannehill and what they have planned for this year’s playoff run if they can maintain their position atop the AFC South. And now that online sports betting is legal in the state of Tennessee, there’s even more action for Titans fans as they watch their team contend for the first-ever Super Bowl victory in franchise history. With the Titans’ consistent winning performance and fans able to get even more action from the games online, the story for Tennessee and the Titans this season seems as though it is bending toward greatness
But do you know the real story of the Tennessee Titans?
Even though the Titans have technically only existed since 1999, this storied franchise’s history begins four decades earlier in 1959 in a small, dusty Texas oil town with a man named Kenneth Stanley Adams, Jr.
This is the story of how the Tennessee Titans first arrived in the NFL, and how they came to be one of the most exciting teams in the league.
The beginning of a new football league
Kenneth “Bud” Adams was returning home from his time serving in the United States Navy in World War II when his plane was grounded in Texas due to an overwhelming fog. Adams decided he liked Texas and made his home there.
Over the next decade, as he found his footing in the American business scene, Adams struck gold — black gold. Like many other Texans, Adams became a wealthy oil tycoon, launching Adams Resources & Energy in the Houston area.
In 1959, Adams teamed up with his friend Lamar Hunt, another Texas oilman, and tried to buy the struggling Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals. The plan was to move the Cardinals to Texas and give the state a professional football team. But the plan wouldn’t come to fruition, and Adams failed in his bid for an expansion team too.
Adams and Hunt decided that if they could not bring the NFL to Texas, they would form their own professional football league instead. They called it the American Football League (AFL).
Hunt planted his team in Dallas and called them the Texans. Today, his franchise exists as the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of the most recent Lamar Hunt Trophy given to the winner of the AFC Championship Game, and not to mention, defending Super Bowl champions.
For Adams’ part, he headquartered his team at home in Houston. True to his roots, they used an oil rig derrick as their logo, adorned on the side of their white helmets. They wore Columbia blue and white with scarlet red trim.
Bud Adams finally had his professional football team. He named them the Houston Oilers.
The Houston Oilers get started
The Oilers and Texans were two of the eight AFL charter members. Dallas was in the Western Division with the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers. Houston would play in the Eastern Division with the Buffalo Bills, Boston Patriots, and New York Titans (now Jets).
Adams was the oldest owner in the AFL. He was also one of its richest and widely regarded as the most aggressive, as he had as much at stake in the league as anyone. This was not the first rival professional football league to the NFL, after all. It wasn’t even the first American Football League. Leagues of the same name had tried and failed in 1926, 1936, and 1940.
Adams was determined to make this league stick. He wanted to make an immediate splash and did so by chasing a man named Billy Cannon.
Billy Cannon was one of the finest college players in the nation. He played for Louisiana State University and helped the Tigers win the national championship in 1958, then won the Heisman Trophy in 1959 as the nation’s most outstanding college football player.
Naturally, Cannon was the number one NFL Draft pick in 1960. But Bud Adams wanted Cannon for his Houston Texans. LSU was only a few hours away from Houston, and Cannon could be the face of the franchise. The Oilers drafted Cannon with a territorial pick, and Adams shocked the NFL by signing Cannon out from under their nose for a lofty sum of $100,000. The Cannon signing put the AFL on the map, and the rest of the owners followed suit. The AFL signed 75% of the NFL’s first-round draft picks that fall, using their riches to stake a real claim on the brightest young football talent in the nation.
Of course, one man alone does not make a football team. The Oilers also needed a quarterback.
They turned to a retired football player named George Blanda. Blanda had played seemingly every position for the Chicago Bears in the NFL over the previous decade. The Bears used him at quarterback, linebacker, and placekicker. Blanda finally got the lead QB job in 1953 but didn’t make it through the year healthy. Chicago owner George Halas had seen enough and reduced Blanda to kicker the next few years, and Blanda retired from the NFL in 1958.
The Oilers didn’t want to pigeonhole Blanda as a kicker. They wanted this so-called “NFL reject” to play quarterback, and boy were they right.
Blanda rejuvenated his career in Houston. He won AFL Player of the Year in 1961 with the Oilers, throwing 36 touchdown passes that season, a record that stood for over two decades until Dan Marino finally surpassed it in 1984. Blanda’s 42 interceptions in 1962 are still an NFL record, though a slightly less desirable one. Blanda also threw seven touchdowns in one game against the New York Titans that year, which still stands as the unmatched record today.
Blanda went on to play two more decades, retiring in 1976 at age 48. He remains the oldest player ever to play in the NFL and retired as the all-time leading scorer in football history. In 1981, Blanda became the franchise’s first player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He still ranks third on the all-time franchise list with 19,149 passing yards, and he’s the all-time NFL leader in extra points attempted and made. Not bad for an NFL reject.
The Oilers had their quarterback and their running back, but who would Blanda throw to?
That’s where Charley Hennigan came in.
The offensive combination would prove lethal, and Hennigan is widely regarded as the greatest receiver in franchise history. In 1961, his second year as a pro, Hennigan exploded onto the scene, piling up 1,746 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. That yardage total remained a pro football record until 1995 when Jerry Rice racked up 1,848, and it is still sixth-most all-time.
Hennigan started the year with seven straight 100-yard games, including a monster October game against the Patriots with 13 catches for 272 yards. Hennigan had 822 receiving yards that month. He finished the season with three 200-yard games, another still-standing record, and that 272-yard game still ranks 13th most all-time. His 124.7 yards per game in 1961 outpaces even Calvin Johnson’s all-time record in receiving yards from the 2012 season.
Hennigan caught 101 passes in 1964 to lead the AFL, still a franchise record. He made five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and still holds nine Tennessee Titans records, including most receptions in a game and over a season, most receiving yards in a game and over a season, and most yards per game in a season and over a career.
Hennigan is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he should be. He was chosen for the Professional Football Researchers Association Hall of Very Good. Heck, if Hennigan wasn’t so good, the Oilers might have had another Hall of Famer. Houston cut future Hall of Fame defensive back Willie Brown in training camp because he couldn’t cover Hennigan in practice. That Blanda-to-Hennigan connection was just too deadly.
Bud Adams had his professional football team, and the Houston Oilers had their star triplets. They were ready to dominate.
A decade in the AFL
The Houston Oilers played their first franchise game on September 11, 1960, against the Oakland Raiders. They scored their first touchdown on a long 43-yard pass from Blanda to Hennigan and beat the Raiders, 37 to 22.
The next week, the Oilers played the first-ever professional football game in Texas in front of 35,500 fans at Jeppesen Stadium at the University of Houston. The Oilers won again, beating the Chargers, 38 to 28.
The Oilers lost their next game by a point but then won three in a row, including a win in their first meeting against the in-state rival Dallas Texans. Houston finished the season with 10 wins and only four losses, three by a field goal or less. As the best team in the Eastern Division, the Oilers would play in the first AFL Championship Game.
There the Oilers would play the Chargers, who had split two close meetings with Houston during the inaugural season. Houston hosted the game on January 1, 1961. The Chargers got on the board early with two field goals, but Blanda threw a second-quarter touchdown to take the lead. The game remained close into the fourth quarter, but an 88-yard touchdown pass from Blanda to Billy Cannon put it away.
The Oilers had won 24 to 16 and secured the AFL championship.
But they were just getting started.
Houston’s sophomore season started rocky. After a huge opening day win, the Oilers lost three straight before adding a tie and falling to 1–3–1 with the season on the brink of disaster.
The next game came against the rival Texans, and the Oilers were ready. Houston routed Dallas, 38 to 7, and got their season back on track, and they would not lose again that year. The Oilers won nine in a row to end the season with the Eastern Division’s best record and headed back to the AFL Championship Game for a rematch with the Chargers.
Houston won a low-scoring affair this time, and the Oilers were champions once again. George Blanda was named 1961 AFL MVP, and the Houston Oilers had established themselves as AFL titans, the kings of this thriving new professional football league.
Houston set another precedent heading into the 1962 season, becoming the first AFL team to sign away an active NFL player. Willard Dewveall left the NFL’s Chicago Bears for the Oilers and set an unbeatable record that season when he caught a 99-yard touchdown.
The Oilers put together another dominant campaign, going 11–3 with seven straight wins to close the season and win another Eastern Division title. This time, the back-to-back defending champions would face the rival Texans in the AFL Championship Game. Dallas got off to a great start, taking a 17 to 0 lead before a stunned Jeppesen Stadium. But the Oilers stormed back, tying the game and sending it to overtime and a second overtime before finally falling short. It was professional football’s longest game in history at the time.
The Oilers’ luck finally ran out in 1963 when they lost their final four games to finish 6–8 and fall short of the AFL Championship Game for the first time since their founding. Houston struggled through three more rebuilding seasons, moving their home games to Rice Stadium in 1965 but bounced back in 1967 thanks to the addition of rookie linebacker George Webster.
Webster was more than a linebacker. He played near the line like a linebacker but moved with the speed and agility of a defensive back. The Oilers called Webster a “roverback,” and he revolutionized Houston’s defense. Webster had 15 tackles in his debut and averaged double-digit tackles per game, winning Rookie of the Year and giving the Oilers a dominant defense. Houston held opponents under 200 points for the season. The Oilers went 9–4–1 and made their way back to the AFL Championship Game for the fourth time.
There they would face the Oakland Raiders, and this time George Blanda and Billy Cannon were on the other team’s sidelines for a dominant 14–1 Raiders squad. This game also had higher stakes. In 1966, the AFL had begun competing head-to-head with the NFL. Each league still had separate rosters, schedules, and playoffs, but at the end of the season, the AFL Champion would play the NFL champion in a game Lamar Hunt dubbed the Super Bowl. Hunt’s Texans, now the Kansas City Chiefs, had lost in the inaugural Super Bowl to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Now the Oilers had the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl for the first time.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The Raiders proved their dominance with an ascendant 40-7 victory in the AFL Championship Game. But still, the Raiders were no match for Vince Lombardi’s Packers, who won their second straight Super Bowl as the NFL asserted its dominance over the AFL.
However, the next year, the Oilers made history again.
There would be no more Jeppesen Stadium or Rice Stadium home games. In 1968, the Oilers became the first professional football team to play their home games in a domed stadium when they began playing in Houston’s “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Astrodome.
The Astrodome was home to Houston’s baseball team, the Astros, and later housed their NBA franchise, the Rockets. Bud Adams pushed hard for a home in the dome and finally got his way in 1968. The Astrodome was in the 60s what Dallas’s AT&T Stadium is today. It was magnificent. The Oilers became the first football team to play on artificial turf, or “Astroturf.” They also had football’s first animated scoreboard, the “Astrolite.”
The Houston Oilers had found their home and would stay there for the next 25 years…
The Oilers would play only one more season in the AFL. An up-and-down season finished at 6–6–2, and Houston snuck into the playoffs once more but got dominated by the Raiders again in their final AFL game.
The Oilers’ AFL run ended with a final record of 72 wins, 69 losses, and four ties. The franchise had played in four AFL Championship Games, winning twice. But their story was only still just beginning.
The difficult transition to the NFL
The following season, the AFL merged with the NFL.
The American Football League became the American Football Conference, today’s AFC. The Oilers joined the AFC Central division, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and Cincinnati Bengals and remained in that division for the rest of their time in Houston. The former NFL teams became the National Football Conference or NFC. The teams would play an integrated schedule with one NFL Draft and one set of rules. The NFC champion and AFC champion would continue to meet in the Super Bowl for the NFL championship.
The early NFL years were rough for the Oilers. Houston went 3–10–1 in its first NFL season, then 4–9–1. Then it got even worse: 1–13 in back-to-back seasons, with the bottom falling out.
In 1975, the Oilers turned to a new man at the helm, hiring Bum Phillips to coach the team. Phillips was a perfect fit in Houston. He had that good ol’ boy attitude and looked the part, showing up to games in ten-gallon cowboy hats and rawhide boots. Phillips was charismatic and captured the hearts of players and fans. Bum’s son, Wade, joined the team as a defensive line coach and still coaches in the NFL today, viewed as one of its elite defensive minds.
In Phillips’ first season with the Oilers, Houston had its first winning season since 1967, going 10–4 but missing the playoffs in a stacked division. The Oilers took a step back in 1976, then had another winning season in 1977 but missed the playoffs again.
That’s when the Oilers made the draft pick that changed everything.
The Earl Campbell era
Houston was scheduled to draft seventeenth in the 1978 NFL Draft, but they wanted to trade up. The Oilers needed a heartbeat at the center of their offense, and they needed someone to juice the fan base again after a decade of irrelevance.
The Oilers had their eye on a young running back named Earl Campbell, known as the “Tyler Rose” since he hailed from Tyler, Texas, three hours north of Houston. Campbell had played his college football at the University of Texas, and he was dominant. Campbell won the Heisman Trophy as a senior, leading the nation with 1,744 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns as Texas finished the regular season undefeated before losing to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
Houston traded Tampa Bay their first- and second-round picks in the 1978 draft along with tight end Jimmie Giles and two 1979 draft picks, all to move up to number one and select Earl Campbell. And he was worth every pick.
Campbell immediately led the NFL in rushing as a rookie with 1,450 yards, a rookie record. He was a landslide Rookie of the Year winner and also won NFL MVP as the Oilers improved to 10–6 and made the NFL playoffs for the first time.
The Houston fanbase was rejuvenated, and the team did its part to fire the fans up. In a November Monday Night Football game, the Oilers gave every fan a blue-and-white pom-pom before the game, and the fans went nuts. Campbell rumbled for 199 yards and four scores, and the Oilers won 35 to 30 as the Luv ya Blue era was born. The Oilers went on to beat the Dolphins and Patriots in their first NFL playoff games before losing to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
The Luv ya Blue campaign was in full effect in 1979. When Monday Night Football returned to Houston in December, the Oilers turned the Astrodome blue. They handed out blue flashcards to every fan, and as ABC cameras scanned the capacity stadium, the fans shouted “Luv ya Blue!!” before one of the largest primetime telecasts in NFL history. Many Oilers fans began bringing “Luv ya Blue” signs to the Astrodome. Others painted their faces or organized pep rallies in an energetic, college-like atmosphere.
The Oilers beat the Steelers that Monday and finished the season 11–5 behind another monster Earl Campbell season. Campbell wasn’t like today’s running backs. He had a mean streak and ran over defenders instead of going around them, aggressively pounding the rock all game. Campbell ran for 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns in 1979, leading the league in both categories and winning NFL MVP again. His 19 touchdowns remain a franchise record.
Houston hosted its first-ever NFL playoff game in the Astrodome and beat the Broncos, then defeated the Chargers to advance to the AFC Championship Game for a second straight season. Unfortunately, Campbell missed the game with an injury, and Pittsburgh shut down the Oilers again, 27-13.
The next year was Earl Campbell’s best yet and one of the all-time great seasons by a running back. He rushed 373 times for 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns, leading the league in all three categories. He came only 70 yards short of the all-time record for rushing yards in a season and would have gotten it if he hadn’t missed a game. Campbell had four 200-yard games and methodically wore defenses down, compiling over 60 percent of his outrageous yardage total in the fourth quarter alone.
Campbell won a third straight NFL MVP award and was so dominant that some began calling the team the Houston Earlers. The Oilers went 11–5 and made the playoffs a third straight season but lost their opening playoff game to the Raiders.
A frustrated Bud Adams fired Bum Phillips three days later and turned the team over to Ed Biles. Campbell had another good season in 1981 but didn’t live up to his first three seasons, rushing for 1,376 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Oilers dropped to 7–9 and missed the playoffs.
Earl Campbell went on to rush for 8,574 yards, second-most in franchise history, and his number 34 jersey hangs in the rafters. Campbell is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, undoubtedly the most dazzling player in franchise history.
But the bottom was about to fall out on the Houston Oilers.
A time of transition
That 7–9 season in 1981 was only the beginning.
The Oilers won just one game in a strike-shortened 1982 season. They won two the next season, then three, five, and five in the years following.
In 1983, Houston drafted Bruce Matthews. Matthews started at right guard but went on to play all five offensive line positions over the next two decades. Matthews went on to make 14 Pro Bowls. He was chosen to First-Team All-Pro seven times, more than double any other franchise player.
The Hall of Famer is surely the most valuable addition a franchise can add to its roster. According to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value, Matthews added almost twice as much value as any other player in the history of the Oilers franchise. By the time Matthews retired in 2001, he would see through the entire Warren Moon era, the move to Tennessee, and the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance.
In 1984, the Oilers traded a beat-up Earl Campbell to the Saints for another running back, Mike Rozier. They also won a bidding war for Canadian Football League star quarterback Warren Moon, who had won the Grey Cup championship in five of his six seasons in Canada.
The Oilers churned through coaches during those rough 80s seasons. Ed Biles lasted two and a half seasons before giving way to Chuck Studley. Studley was replaced by Hugh Campbell, Moon’s former CFL coach, who helped the team land Moon. Campbell was fired for Jerry Glanville, and it took some time, but finally, the Oilers started to find their way again.
The 1987 campaign was another strike-shortened season. The Oilers went 9–6 and finally made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 1980, beating the Seahawks in overtime before losing to the Broncos.
Bud Adams was no longer so popular. He was known to micromanage the team, overinvolved in the day-to-day operations even though he didn’t have any real football background. At one point, Adams had to approve any team purchase above $200.
The once majestic Astrodome was beginning to feel old and outdated. It needed more seating, new Astroturf, and luxury boxes. Adams was feeling antsy and threatened to uproot the Oilers and move them to Jacksonville, Florida, if his stadium demands were not met. Harris County acquiesced by increasing taxes and bonds that would take 30 years to pay back, and Adams promised to keep the Oilers in Houston for 10 more years.
The team’s core had come together by 1988, particularly the offense, which finished second in the league in scoring. Mike Rozier cracked 1,000 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Warren Moon made his first of eight consecutive Pro Bowls, even with five games missed to injury. Moon showed great chemistry with a deep stable of wide receivers that included Ernest Givins, Drew Hill, Curtis Duncan, and Haywood Jeffires.
Givins is the all-time franchise leader with 542 receptions. He’s the receiving yards leader, too, at 7,935 yards, with Hill only 458 yards behind. Moon would put up five of the top six franchise passing yardage seasons. He’s still the franchise leader in career passing yardage at 33,685.
The 1989 Oilers made the playoffs a third straight season but lost in the first round, and Glanville was fired and replaced by Jack Pardee. Pardee chose Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator, and Gilbride installed an offense that had only been seen in high school and college. They called it the run and shoot.
The run & shoot glory years
The Run & Shoot offense was a step toward today’s modern offense and moved away from the old days of the smashmouth Earl Campbell rushing attack.
In the Run & Shoot, receivers were often sent in motion parallel to the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped. It was a way to confuse the defense, create mismatches, and quarterbacks studied how the defense reacted to reveal holes in the coverage. Today, every team uses motion like that, but in the 1980s, this was revolutionary. Houston’s receivers ran option routes, where they could adjust on the fly depending on the coverage they faced. Again, totally normal in 2020, but unheard of at the time.
It was a complex, complicated offensive system. It required a quarterback who could read and react, a deep and talented stable of receivers, and shifty running backs who run in space rather than plowing defenders over.
In short, it required the precise players the Houston Oilers had.
The Oilers offense exploded under Pardee and Gilbride. Houston’s offense finished top-three in yardage each of the next three years. Moon passed for over 4,600 yards in both 1990 and 1991, leading the league both times. The 1990 Oilers came 21 yards away from being the third team in NFL history with three different 1,000-yard receivers, and the next season they were only four yards away, with Givins just missing both times.
Houston’s attack was egalitarian but deadly. There was no star running back or receiver. The star was whichever player was open, and someone was just about always open. Houston’s offense was, ahem, a well-oiled machine. They stormed up and down the field and made the playoffs seven consecutive seasons, winning at least nine games every year.
It looked like everything had come together in 1991. The Oilers went 11–5, tying their best NFL record and winning the AFC Central for the first time. They led the league in passing and ranked top-six in both offense and defense. The Oilers dominated the Jets in their first playoff game, then led 21 to 6 in Denver, looking certain to head back to the AFC Championship Game. But the Broncos fought back with a late John Elway 80-yard field goal drive, ending Houston’s season prematurely, 26 to 24.
It was one of the biggest collapses in NFL playoff history, but it paled in comparison to what was coming one year later.
Houston started the 1992 season 4–1 but hit a midseason slump, and Moon missed five games to injury. None of Houston’s receivers hit 1,000 yards, though running back Lorenzo White made the Pro Bowl with 1,226 yards rushing.
The Oilers still led the league in passing with their aggressive Run & Shoot attack, and the defense was excellent again. Houston pounded Buffalo in the final game of the regular season to make the playoffs, and as fate would have it, their first playoff game would be against Buffalo the following week. Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly had been injured in the previous Houston game, so the Bills’ backup, Frank Reich, took his place.
The Oilers came out attacking. Moon threw an early touchdown to take the lead, then threw three more in the second quarter. He completed 19 of 22 first-half passes for 218 yards, throwing more touchdowns than incompletions, and the rout was on. Houston opened the third quarter with a 58-yard interception returned for a touchdown, and Buffalo’s star running back, Thurman Thomas, left the game with an injury. The scoreboard read 35 to 3, Buffalo’s stars were out, and the game was surely in the bag.
And that’s when it happened.
In Buffalo (and most of the rest of the world), they call it The Comeback.
In Houston, it has a very different name: The Choke.
Nine years earlier, Frank Reich was a backup at Maryland when his team went down 31 to 0 at the half. Reich replaced the starter and engineered an incredible comeback, leading the Terrapins to a 42-40 victory. It was the biggest college comeback in history at the time, and it gave Reich hope even when things looked bleak that day in January, 1993.
The wind literally shifted after that pick-6. Houston’s subsequent kickoff was accidentally squibbed, giving the Bills a short field. After a Buffalo touchdown, wind aided an accidental onside kick recovered by the home team. Four plays later, Buffalo scored another touchdown on a controversial catch by Don Beebe, who was likely out of bounds. But it was still 35 to 17.
The Oilers got the ball back but gained three yards in three plays, punting the ball away for the first time all game, and Buffalo scored another touchdown a few plays later to close the gap further. On the very next play, Moon’s pass was tipped and intercepted. Four plays later, Reich threw his third touchdown of the quarter. Just like that, the lead was cut to 35 to 31.
And it was still the third quarter. In 12 horrifying minutes, the Oilers had allowed 28 points after not allowing more than 29 in a game all season.
Houston caught its breath as the quarter changed, driving into field goal range, but bobbled the snap and failed to score. As the game wound down, Reich led the Bills on one final touchdown drive to give Buffalo its first lead of the game with three minutes left.
But the Oilers were not dead yet. Even after all that, Moon led Houston on a heroic 63-yard drive, and a field goal from Houston’s all-time leading scorer, Al Del Greco, sent the game to overtime.
And then, disaster, again.
Houston won the toss and elected to receive. Moon completed two short passes, but on the third play, he overthrew Ernest Givins, who may have been held on the play, and was intercepted. Three plays later, the Bills kicked the winning field goal, completing the largest comeback in NFL history.
The Houston locker room was described as a funeral after the devastating loss. The Houston Post called it “the worst day in Houston sports history.” Houston cornerback Cris Dishman called it “the biggest choke job in history,” suggesting it was time to “put another word in the English dictionary to describe this loss because ‘devastated’ doesn’t do it.”
It turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Houston Oilers.
The following season was a turbulent one. The Oilers started 1–4, including a blowout loss in the rematch with the Bills. Bud Adams had seen enough. He threatened to sell off the team for parts if they couldn’t win. Houston responded by winning their final 11 games to finish 12–4, but despite their momentum, they lost their first home playoff game to the Chiefs.
Adams traded Warren Moon to the Vikings and quickly cut or traded many other longtime Oilers. Moon played seven more seasons before retiring and becoming the first African-American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Without Moon and the other stars, the bottom dropped out. Houston fell to 2–14 the following season and never made the playoffs again in Texas. The Oilers used the number two draft pick after that 2–14 year to select a new quarterback, Steve McNair, out of little-known Alcorn State in Mississippi.
Jeff Fisher took over as coach midway through the 1994 season and held the job through 2010, but Houston fans had seen enough of these Oilers and Bud Adams. The city was still reeling from the collapsed oil economy of the 80s and still paying off Adams’s Astrodome upgrades.
The team was irrelevant again, and Houston fans turned their attention to the back-to-back NBA champion Houston Rockets. Embarrassingly, local radio stations even cut off the end of Oilers games for preseason Rockets basketball.
Adams had already pressured the city of Houston to pay millions of dollars for Astrodome renovations, and now wanted upgrades again. He began to shop the Oilers around to other cities. Nashville, Tennessee, was in the process of building a new arena, and Adams saw his opening.
Shortly after the 1995 season, Adams announced he was moving the Oilers to Nashville. Houston tried to stop the move in Congress but had no success, and by the following season, support for the Oilers in Houston had vanished. Home crowds were so quiet that fans watching at home could hear conversations on the field. It was an embarrassment to everyone involved, and it was time to move on. Houston released the Oilers from their Astrodome lease, and that was the end of the Oilers’ time in Houston.
The move to the Appalachians was more than a little rocky.
Nashville’s new stadium wasn’t ready yet, and Vanderbilt Stadium refused to sell alcoholic beverages in its college stadium, which only seated 41,000, deemed too small. Adams made the poor decision to start his “Tennessee Oilers” out at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis until the new stadium was ready. The team would be based in Nashville but would have to commute to Memphis for games, making every game essentially a road game. Even worse, construction on Interstate 40 meant that the usual three-hour drive was closer to five.
The inaugural Tennessee Oilers season in 1997 was a disaster. Memphis was not interested in a temporary team, and Nashville fans were not yet attached enough to make the daunting drive. The Oilers had the worst NFL home attendance in decades, not even half the stadium’s capacity. The team finished 8–8, utterly forgettable.
In 1998, Adams ditched Memphis for Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville. Even in the smaller college stadium, half the Oilers games failed to sell out. Even worse, a major tornado hit Nashville and set the stadium construction back further. The Oilers went 8–8 again and seemed like a team without a home.
Adams decided it was time for a fresh start.
The birth of the Tennessee Titans
During the 1998 season, Adams announced that he would be renaming the team. They were already the Tennessee Oilers. Now, the “Oilers” moniker would be retired with a stadium Hall of Fame to honor the team’s past, and a new name, logo, and team colors would be chosen.
Adams wanted a name that reflected strength, leadership, and potency. A blue-ribbon committee decided upon the name “Tennessee Titans.” It was a nod to Nashville’s nickname as the “Athens of the South” because of its dedication to higher education and, of course, the city’s iconic Parthenon building, and it met all of Adams’s Herculean metaphors.
The new Titans logo was similar to the Tennessee state flag, with a white ring and three stars. It also had a large capital T with a long trail of flames, like a comet. The team adopted Titans blue, navy, and white as its team colors with silver and scarlet trim. They would wear navy jerseys at home and later added an alternate jersey with light Titans blue and navy shoulders.
The team unveiled its new colors and logo on December 22, 1998.
The Titans also introduced a raccoon mascot named T-Rac after the Tennessee state animal, who often zip lines from the top of the stadium and repels from the tallest buildings in downtown Nashville. Tennessee added a cheer team along with the Blue Crew Drumline, the literal heartbeat of Titans fans.
In many ways, Adams was embracing what had worked so well with the old Luv ya Blue days of the 1970s. This was a college atmosphere in a college town, and it worked.
There was more good news. The new multi-purpose stadium would be ready for the 1999 season. There would be no more five-hour drives to see the team play. Adelphia Stadium was on the east banks of the Cumberland River, right there in downtown Nashville. The stadium was later called the Coliseum and LP Field, and it’s been Nissan Stadium since 2016, a fortress at the heart of Nashville. The team has sold out every single home game since opening in 1999, including the preseason.
And so were born the Tennessee Titans.
The miraculous 1999 season
The 1999 season brought upon a new era for the franchise. They were now the Titans, with a beautiful new stadium and a newly enthusiastic local fan base. The team had an identity now, and a home.
The Titans opened Adelphia Stadium on September 12, 1999, against the Bengals. The Titans came out hot and took a 26 to 7 lead midway through the second quarter, but then things began to unravel. The Bengals scored 28 in a row to take the lead, and suddenly these looked a lot more like the old Oilers than the new Titans.
But the local fans didn’t know that. Adelphia roared as Steve McNair drove the Titans down the field and pulled them within two with a touchdown pass to running back Eddie George. The Titans defense forced a three-and-out and gave McNair the ball back near the 50, and seven plays later, Del Greco kicked the winning field goal with eight seconds left. The Titans had won 36 to 35 in their new stadium, and it felt like a new era was dawning for the franchise. Tennessee would go on to win its first 13 games at home in their new stadium,in downtown Nashville.
Unfortunately, McNair was diagnosed with an inflamed disk after the season opener and had to undergo surgery. He missed a month, leaving the Titans with veteran Neil O’Donnell to hold things down under center. Luckily, the defense was up to the task. Tennessee had used its first-round draft pick that spring on Jevon Kearse, a freakishly athletic pass rusher from Florida.
“The Freak” exploded onto the scene in the Titans’ second game, recording three sacks and electrifying the home crowd. He went on to record 14.5 sacks and force eight fumbles as a rookie, immediately one of the most lethal defensive forces in the league.
The Titans won again, then won their first road game in Jacksonville, 20 to 19. They rallied late against the 49ers and nearly won after being down 11 points with four minutes left but came up short on a two-point conversion. Still, it was clear this team had something special. The next three games were Titans victories, each by a field goal or less.
The final win of the three marked McNair’s return and came against the previously unbeaten St. Louis Rams on Halloween. The Rams had averaged 36 points per game before scoring only 21 against Tennessee, their lowest point total of the entire regular season. Little did anyone know at the time that the teams would meet again with much more on the line.
The next week was a letdown in Miami, but the Titans went 7–1 the rest of the way to finish the season 13–3, their most wins ever in the NFL. That included a 41 to 14 decimation of the Jaguars in Week 16. Jacksonville finished the season 14–2. Their only two losses had come against Tennessee. The Jaguars won the AFC Central, so the 13–3 Titans were relegated to wildcard status. They would host the Buffalo Bills in the playoff opener.
The Bills were a familiar foe to longtime fans, and their coach was familiar too. Wade Phillips made a controversial decision to bench quarterback Doug Flutie for Rob Johnson, and the Titans were heavily favored. Tennessee led 15 to 13 late, but Johnson proved Phillips right with a two-minute field goal drive to give Buffalo the lead with 16 seconds left.
It looked like the end of a remarkable inaugural season for Tennessee. The radio voice of the Titans, Mike Keith, wondered aloud what every fan was thinking: “Do the Titans have a miracle left in them in what has been a magical season to this point?”
As the Bills lined up to kickoff, Tennessee special teams coordinator Alan Lowry called for the “Home Run Throwback.” Steve Christie’s kick came high and short to the 25-yard line, where Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal gathered the ball. Neal drifted right and handed off to tight end Frank Wycheck, who took six more steps to his right as the Bills converged. Suddenly, without any warning, Wycheck leaped into the air, whirled, and threw the ball all the way back across the field to the left sideline, where wide receiver Kevin Dyson was waiting.
“He’s got something! He’s got something! He’s got it! He’s got it!!” came the call from Pat Ryan, as a convoy of Titans blockers escorted a streaking Dyson down the left sideline. The Bills’ special teams were badly out of position, and it was all daylight for Dyson.
“TEN! FIVE! ENDZONE… TOUCHDOWN TITANS! THERE ARE NO FLASS ON THR FIELD! IT’S A MIRACLE! TENNESSEE HAS A MIRACLE!!”
Keith’s call will forever evoke goosebumps.
The referees reviewed the play to ensure the lateral was not a forward pass as an entire state held its collective breath. The play was upheld, the miracle confirmed, and the Titans had lived to see another day.
Finally, this franchise had a miracle comeback of its own.
**Recommended video: Music City Miracle replay**
The next week was an intense defensive showdown against Peyton Manning and the 13–3 Indianapolis Colts. The Titans trailed at the half, but Eddie George ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run two minutes into the second half, and the Titans held on to win, 19 to 16. George had a Tennessee Titans record 162 rushing yards.
The AFC Championship Game meant a third matchup with the Jaguars, who had crushed every opponent all season — except the Titans. It was an extremely weird game, featuring 10 turnovers, four by Tennessee and six by Jacksonville. But a three-point game at the half turned into a blowout as the Titans shut out the Jaguars in the second half, 23 to 0.
For the first time ever, the Tennessee Titans had reached the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXXIV would be a rematch of that Halloween battle when the Titans had knocked off the unbeaten Rams. The Rams had gone 13–3 under MVP quarterback Kurt Warner. They scored 526 points in the regular season, second-most in league history, and were known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
The Rams moved the ball early but stalled three times in the red zone, settling for a trio of early field goals and a 9 to 0 halftime lead. When Warner threw a touchdown to Torry Holt halfway through the third quarter, the game was starting to slip away.
Perhaps these Titans had one more miracle in them.
Tennessee scored a touchdown in the final seconds of the third quarter but failed on the two-point conversion, so it remained a two-score game. The Titans defense forced the mighty Rams into their first three-and-out, then the offense drove 79 yards in 13 plays for a second Eddie George touchdown. The game was within three with seven minutes remaining.
Tennessee’s defense forced a second straight three-and-out, and suddenly the Titans were in business. McNair and the Titans drove again but stalled on the 25. The Del Greco kick was good, and the Titans had scored 16 straight to tie up the Super Bowl with three minutes remaining. No Super Bowl in history had ever gone into overtime.
And then, after all that work to tie the game, the Rams responded immediately. Warner hit a streaking Isaac Bruce on the first play after the kickoff for 73 yards, and the Rams had retaken the lead, 23 to 16.
The Titans were called for a holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff, so they’d have to start on their 12-yard line. McNair completed a pass to Derrick Mason, then another to Wycheck. Two plays later, McNair ran for 12 yards but got a bonus 15 yards on a face mask penalty. The Titans had crossed midfield.
The Titans continued to chip away. Five yards, two yards, seven. McNair spiked the ball on the Rams 31-yard-line with 33 seconds left. The next pass was incomplete, but the Rams were offside, moving the ball five yards closer. On third down and five with the season slipping away, McNair pulled a rabbit out of his hat. Scrambling to keep the play alive, McNair escaped the grasp of two Rams defenders and threw a 16-yard strike to Dyson.
The Titans called their final timeout with six seconds remaining and the ball on the 10-yard line.
As the Titans stood at the line of scrimmage, Kevin Dyson went in motion, a staple of the old Run & Shoot offense. The motion confirmed what the Titans were hoping for: Dyson would be covered by Rams linebacker Mike Jones. Dyson took two strides at the snap, then cut inside on a slant pattern as McNair hit him in stride.
Dyson lunged toward the end zone, but Jones made a textbook tackle. Dyson stretched out the ball to no avail as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
There were no more miracles left in this movie. The St. Louis Rams were Super Bowl champions.
The Titans’ dream season had come up one yard short.
A new century of Titans football
A new century dawned on the Titans as defending AFC champions.
Tennessee went 13–3 the following season and won the AFC Central, and this time, the defense was the star. The Titans allowed 191 points all season, fewest in franchise history. Tennessee won eight games in a row but did lose their first-ever home game in Adelphia Stadium to the Ravens.
The Ravens were the one defense in the league even better than Tennessee’s, and Baltimore returned to Nashville in the playoffs in what was blossoming into a bitter rivalry. The Titans’ defense was up to the task, but a blocked field goal touchdown and a pick-6 sealed their fate, ending Tennessee’s dreams of returning to the Super Bowl. It was the first of three times this century with Baltimore and Tennessee meeting in the playoffs when one of them was the AFC 1-seed, with the underdog winning all three times.
The Titans went 7–9 and missed the playoffs in 2001. The following season, the NFL returned to Houston as the expansion Texans franchise was added. The league realigned the divisions now that it had 32 teams. The Titans would play in the AFC South along with Houston’s new team, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Tennessee started the 2002 season 1–4 but won 10 of their final 11 games to secure a first-round bye. They beat the Steelers on a second-chance Joe Nedney field goal but fell to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.
2003 was a landmark season for the franchise in many ways. Steve McNair had his best season yet with 24 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, leading the Titans to a 12–4 record and sharing the NFL MVP award with Peyton Manning. McNair is the only Titans MVP. In the final game of the season, Eddie George went over 10,000 rushing yards for his Titans career. 10,009, to be exact. George remains the all-time franchise rushing leader and leads the organization with 74 touchdowns. The Titans beat the Ravens by a field goal in their road playoff rematch, but Tennessee fell to the Patriots the following round.
The next season was a lost one for the Titans. Steve McNair missed half the season injured, and the Titans fell to 5–11. It was the end of an era, as Tennessee moved on from Derrick Mason, Kevin Dyson, and Samari Rolle. McNair was healthier the next season, but the Titans dropped to 4–12, and he was traded to the hated Ravens. He finished second all-time in franchise passing yards at 27,141, ahead of Blanda but trailing Moon.
Fortunately, the poor Tennessee Titans record gave them the number three pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and there they’d have a chance to rejuvenate the team as they had twice in the past: with another local superstar and Heisman Trophy finalist.
The Vince Young years
Like Earl Campbell before him, Vince Young was a Texas Longhorn hero who had everything. He had leadership and poise, a cannon for an arm, and a long, fast stride. He was a quarterback that could do it all, and he led Texas to a national championship, defeating the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl.
The Titans selected Vince Young third overall in the draft but decided to let their rookie start the season from the bench. Kerry Collins got the nod instead and was awful. The Titans fell to 0–3 and decided to make a change, turning the keys over to Young.
Young had an electric overtime touchdown run to beat the Texans soon after, then led a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Giants a month later. The Titans stormed back but finished 8–8, just short of the playoffs. The following season, Tennessee had an up-and-down year and made the playoffs at 10–6, losing to the Chargers.
In 2008, the team found Young a running mate in East Carolina running back Chris Johnson. Johnson was lightning fast with a record 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and his speed gave the Titans a whole new dimension. Young got hurt in the first game of the season, but Collins led the team to a 10–0 start. Tennessee finished 13–3, beating the Steelers to clinch the 1-seed and head to the playoffs as Young watched from the sidelines.
The playoffs meant another matchup with Baltimore, and the underdog Ravens were up to the challenge again. Tennessee was uncharacteristically sloppy, turning the ball over three times in Baltimore territory. The Ravens only scored one touchdown, and that came from longtime Titans receiver Derrick Mason. Baltimore hit the winning field goal in the final minute, and the No. 1 Titans had lost to the Ravens again. It was a crushing, shocking defeat for a team that thought it had another Super Bowl run in them.
It was clear early in 2009 that Kerry Collins was not good enough. The Titans started the year 0–6, culminating in an ugly shutout loss to the Patriots. Young replaced Collins, and the season turned dramatically. Young led the team to an 8–2 record down the stretch, including a dramatic 18-play 99-yard touchdown drive to beat the Cardinals in the final minutes.
But 2009 was all about Chris Johnson, who had a season for the ages. After a slow start under Collins, Johnson exploded with Young and finished the season with 2,006 rushing yards, including 11 straight 100-yard games to end the season. Johnson is one of seven men in history to crack 2,000 yards, and he surpassed Marshall Faulk’s record for yards from scrimmage. The Titans finished 8–8, but hopes were high for the following season.
The hope was short-lived.
The 2010 season was a drama-filled disaster. Vince Young fought all year with Jeff Fisher. Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan got into a fight with Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson and got ejected. Legendary receiver Randy Moss was signed off waivers midseason but didn’t pan out. The Titans went 6–10 and needed a fresh start.
Tennessee said goodbye to Vince Young and moved on from Coach Fisher after nearly two decades together.
It was time for a rebuild.
The first half of the 2010s left little to remember for Titans’ fans.
The team drafted quarterback Jake Locker eighth overall in 2011 and added veteran Matt Hasselbeck, but neither worked out particularly well. Chris Johnson held out but signed on the eve of the season. Longtime assistant Mike Munchak was named coach. The Titans rebounded to 9–7 but missed the playoffs.
The next two years were mired in mediocrity. Tennessee went 6–10 in 2012 and 7–9 the following season, and Munchak was let go. One of the only real memorable NFL highlights those years was a crazy over-the-defender’s-back catch by Nate Washington.
On October 21, 2013, Bud Adams passed away. Adams had been a central character for the franchise from its inception six decades earlier. At the time of Adams’s death, his 409 wins ranked most of any NFL owner. Ownership of the Titans was passed to his children and grandchildren, with Amy Strunk the controlling owner.
The Titans hired Ken Whisenhunt in 2014 but gave him very little talent to work with. The bottom fell out again as Tennessee dropped to 2–14. The next spring, they selected Marcus Mariota with the second pick in the draft.
The following season was another slow start for Whisenhunt, and he was fired after winning only three of his first 23 games with the franchise. Tennessee named Mike Mularkey interim coach, then strangely kept him on after he finished 2–7.
The lousy finish gave the Titans another top draft pick, this time first overall. Tennessee already had its quarterback in Mariota, so the Titans traded the pick to the Rams for a windfall. Los Angeles gave Tennessee two first-round picks, along with two in the second round and two more in the third. The Titans didn’t add a superstar, but the savvy move jump-started their rebuild and filled the talent pipeline.
The Titans were in a strange spot. Mularkey and Mariota were unproven, the team had won five games the last two seasons, and the Titans again lacked an identity. Tennessee hadn’t made the playoffs in almost a decade and hadn’t won a game there since 2003.
But it’s always darkest just before dawn.
Happy days are here again
Like the franchise had done many times before, Tennessee tried its luck with another Heisman winner in the 2016 NFL Draft. This one was a 6-foot-3 247-pound monster running back out of Alabama named Derrick Henry.
Henry had swept every award his final season and led the Crimson Tide to a national championship, but critics thought he would be too slow and old school in the NFL. In a league enamored by motion and speed, Henry preferred to run like Earl Campbell — right through and over defenders.
Henry had rushed for 12,124 yards in four high school seasons and 3,591 more in three years at Alabama. He towers over teammates and defenders, and his stiff arms terrify opponents, the football version of being posterized. At the time, Derrick Henry seemed outdated from a bygone era. But he was about to give the Titans an identity.
Henry didn’t make a huge impact his rookie season backing up DeMarco Murray, but Mariota had his best season, and the Titans put together their first winning season in five years. Tennessee was 8–6 heading to Jacksonville to face a team on a nine-game losing streak, and the playoffs were in sight. But Mariota broke his leg in the third quarter, and the Titans got blown out. Tennessee finished 9–7 but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
The next season Tennessee went 9–7 again, and they made the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. They faced the Kansas City Chiefs and trailed 21 to 3 at the half, looking like a quick exit. But the Titans rallied for three second-half touchdowns, one of them a miraculous self-pass from Mariota to himself when the Chiefs batted a pass back into Mariota’s arms, and he lunged into the endzone in one of the great NFL highlights. The Titans won 22 to 21, the only double-digit playoff comeback in franchise history. Despite the historic comeback against the Chiefs, the Titans’ season came to a bitter end at the hands of their rivals, the Indianapolis Colts, who robbed the Titans of a playoff berth and, in doing so sealed, Andrew Luck’s 11th straight win over Tennessee.
After the season, the Titans made another controversial decision regarding Mike Mularkey, letting him go after back-to-back 9–7 seasons. They brought in the untested Mike Vrabel, who combined an old school hard-knock attitude with a new school analytical mindset.
2018 had its highs and lows, but the team found its identity under Vrabel and Derrick Henry late in the season. In a late Thursday night game against the Jaguars, Henry had a game for the ages. He tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown run and finished with 238 rushing yards and four scores. It was a top-20 all-time single-game rushing performance and the greatest in franchise history.
The Titans were on the cusp of the playoffs, but Mariota got hurt in Week 16 again, and Tennessee lost to the Colts in the regular-season finale. They finished 9–7 for a third straight season and missed the playoffs, but it was clear they had found something with Henry’s power rushing attack.
The Titans looked headed in the wrong direction at the start of 2019, losing four of their first six, and Vrabel had seen enough. He benched Mariota for Ryan Tannehill, a veteran quarterback the team had traded for.
Tannehill was the spark they needed.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith had the perfect offense, a vicious ground-and-pound running attack with perfectly-timed deep play-action passes down the field. Henry would wear the opponent down physically and mentally, and just when the defense took half a step toward the line to stop him, Tannehill would hit them over the top with a bomb to star rookie receiver, A.J. Brown.
The Titans’ offense sprung into action under Tannehill, winning six of their next seven as the QB put up numbers as good as any in the league. Henry led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, and the Titans dominated the Texans on the final day of the season to finish 9–7 yet again and sneak into the playoffs as the final wildcard.
Their playoff visit was expected to be short. Tennessee would travel to New England to face Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It was a close, low-scoring game, and the Titans led 14 to 13 at the half and kept feeding Derrick Henry all night. Henry carried 34 times for 182 yards, controlling the clock and keeping Brady off of the field. The only points of the second half came on a Titans pick-6 in the final seconds, and Tennessee ended the Patriots season, and as it turned out, the Tom Brady era in New England.
Next up for the Titans were the Baltimore Ravens, and this time the tables were turned, with the Ravens the No. 1 and the Titans the underdogs. Yet again, the underdog prevailed, with Derrick Henry carrying the team on his gigantic, muscular back. Henry had 30 more carries for 195 yards and even threw a touchdown pass on a trick play near the goal line, and Tannehill beat the Ravens over the top with perfect play-action bombs. Tennessee dominated the flabbergasted Ravens, 28 to 12.
The Titans were headed back to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since their Super Bowl run and the sixth time in franchise history. The Titans looked Super Bowl-bound early as they took a quick 10 to 0 lead, but the Chiefs were a different animal. Kansas City bottled Henry up for the most part and scored four unanswered touchdowns, winning easily.
The incredible Titans run was over, but the stage was set for a great 2020.
The Titans headed into 2020 with a clear identity and real Super Bowl hopes for the first time in ages. They have an attack unlike any other in the NFL, with Derrick Henry a one-of-a-kind Earl Campbell type weapon. Tannehill looks like he’s become a real franchise quarterback and signed an extension in the offseason, and A.J. Brown leads a talented young core of receivers.
The 2020 season is unique amidst a worldwide pandemic, and the Coronavirus outbreak hit the Titans facility with a number of positive tests. Tennessee’s games have been delayed and rescheduled, but the team keeps on winning.
The Titans started the year with a two-point win on Monday night, then won each of the next two weeks by three. In Week 6, Tennessee came back to beat the Texans in overtime behind another heroic game from Henry, who rushed for 212 yards and the game-winning overtime touchdown.
Entering the final two weeks of the season, the Titans are 10-4 and tied with the Indianapolis Colts atop the AFC South. After splitting the regular-season series, with each team winning on their respective home field, the Titans own the tiebreaker thanks to an advantage in division record. If the Titans were to lose their final divisional game (at Texans in Week 17) and the Colt win their final divisional game (vs. Jaguars in Week 17), and both teams finished with the same overall record, the third tiebreaker would be used: Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, which currently favors the Colts.
Regardless if they win the division, the Titans are in a strong position to return to the playoffs for the second straight year, something they haven’t done since 2007-08. And without a second dominant team in the AFC, perhaps this will be a return to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
It’s been a long journey here, but the Titans are well on their way.