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Front Page - Friday, September 3, 2021

‘Next man up’ for Titans needs to be vaccinated

The Tennessee Titans don’t really want to see Matt Barkley, playing here in a preseason game, or any other quarterback not named Ryan Tannehill taking snaps during the regular season. - Photo by John Amis | AP

Next man up. It’s a saying the Titans and other NFL teams are fond of using as it relates to injuries and backup players stepping into starting roles once injuries occur.

But for last year and again this year, the next man up mantra has taken on an even deeper meaning and relevance, thanks to outbreaks of COVID-19 inside the locker room.

Last year, the Titans were the first team to be hit with a COVID outbreak. The overreaction on social media, among some credentialed media members and even some personnel in and among the NFL, led to an early backlash against the Titans staff and players.

Later, as the league and those who cover it came to realize that the coronavirus doesn’t always adhere to NFL rules, the harshness levied early on against the Titans organization began to subside.

Now, in Year 2 of attempting to play through a pandemic, the Titans are again beset by COVID issues, with eight players and head coach Mike Vrabel in the protocol.

They have few options but to hope for negative tests and wait out the quarantine period before they can return.

Injuries have always been part of the game. The violence of pro football is well documented and on display at every single contest. But with COVID, teams find themselves with another potential problem that will test both their depth and the fortitude of making it through an NFL season.

Vrabel himself admits that having to quarantine following his positive test Aug. 22 has been taxing.

“You put so much into this business and this job and this life, and you build such strong relationships with guys, and you miss that,” he says. “It is like when you are a player and you are injured and you are not out there, the show still goes on.

“I think sometimes you have to fight that urge of just letting your mind wander.

“I miss them, I want to be able to coach them and help them, and try to lead this football team and try to do my job in person.’’

In Vrabel’s stead in the preseason finale against the Bears, a number of coaches helped to fill that void. Still, the COVID problem still takes its toll, even though general manager Jon Robinson says the Titans are about 97% vaccinated.

Among the players to land on the COVID reserve list this past week was starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Because of that, and the earlier decision not to play Tannehill in the first two preseason games, there will be much to catch up on when the quarterback returns, there will be lots to catch up on before the Sept. 12 season opener versus Arizona.

“We believe practice is very important, so we’ll have to work through that. We know what the situation is,” Vrabel says. “We know what it will be. We know what their availability will be – at least Ryan’s – so we’ll have to make up for lost time as it relates to practice. We feel like practice is important.”

Chances are, Tannehill won’t be the last Titan to land on the COVID reserve list this season. The Titans dealt with it last year, and Vrabel insists that it is something all players must be prepared for again in 2021, no matter if they are a star player or on the roster fringe.

“If we haven’t done a good enough job explaining to these guys and getting guys ready to understand that since the time that I have been here, then I don’t know how much more I can explain it. It is the nature of this league, it is the nature of life,” Vrabel explains. “Stuff happens. You have to be ready to take advantage of your opportunity whether that is injury, something happens during the game, COVID or guys are unavailable.

“We have tried to impress upon everybody that if they are here in whatever roster, whether it is 53-man, practice squad or whatever it may be, that if they are here, then they are expected to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

Terry McCormick publishes TitanInsider.com and appears 2-4 p.m. weekdays on the George Plaster Show on WNSR-AM 560/95.9 FM.