A 66-43 career record as general manager is good enough to get you fired in the NFL. After four playoff trips with the Tennessee Titans and a fifth on the way, Jon Robinson is unemployed today in one of the more shocking personnel moves in the NFL this season.
From what sources have told CBS Sports, the move appeared to be motivated not by some internal power struggle between Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel — though the two men could have disagreements like any coworkers — but that the Week 13 thumping by the Eagles and former Titans receiver A.J. Brown, along with the previous week’s loss to the Bengals, played a role in Robinson’s dismissal.
The move sent reverberations around the NFL world. And team owners with their own embattled general managers must be looking over the hedges at what just happened in Nashville.
“Should make the seat hotter for a lot of people if he can get got,” said one prominent team executive.
If Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk can fire her winning GM and be willing to eat the remaining years of a freshly signed contract, might Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill be more inclined to do the same with general manager Steve Keim, who will likely miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years?
Does Nick Caserio get another year to hire a third head coach, with the strong belief around the league that Lovie Smith won’t make it past this season?
And what about Jim Irsay? His GM, Chris Ballard, has yet to win the AFC South in his time there and hasn’t figured out the quarterback position in the post-Andrew Luck years.
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Robinson oversaw one of the best runs in Titans/Oilers history. A native Tennessean, Robinson had the Titans go 13-2 in the AFC South since 2020, including 8-0 in divisional road games. The Titans are the only team in the AFC South since 2020 to have a winning record, and they have a +102 point margin in that time period.
Robinson was not without blemishes on his record, of course. The Titans seemed to stall out in the playoffs every year despite their regular-season winning ways. Though Robinson hit on many players in the draft — Jack Conklin, Corey Davis, Derrick Henry, Kevin Byard, Harold Landry, A.J. Brown — he didn’t sign as many to second contracts.
He missed big at the top of the draft, too. Kevin Dodd, a high second-round pick in 2016, was a bust. Isaiah Wilson didn’t even make it a half-dozen snaps in the league after being drafted late in the first round of 2020 amid several red flags. In fact, there’s only one player from that draft class starting for the Titans today. And 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley has battled injuries (another pre-draft red flag) and has hardly played.
Robinson whiffed on Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney in free agency. He signed them each to one-year deals for a combined $22.5 million and got a combined 13 games and zero sacks from them. He traded a second-round pick for Julio Jones and got a career-low 43.4 yards per game and one touchdown from the oft-injured future Hall of Famer.
The Brown-to-Philadelphia trade stands out, though. Brown’s negotiations with the Titans weren’t necessarily contentious, but there came a point where the Titans wondered whether they’d reach a deal before the inevitable holdout. Robinson — with the understanding of the owner and head coach (even if both or either didn’t ultimately like the move) — decided to trade the receiver to the Eagles in exchange for their first-round pick. Treylon Burks has played in eight games this season and has just 359 receiving yards.
If the Titans were hoping for a win-win trade like the Bills and Vikings pulled off two years ago in Stefon Diggs and Justin Jefferson, they certainly haven’t gotten that yet.
Did Brown’s eight-catch, 119-yard, two-touchdown game last week serve as the tipping point for Strunk? She says no.
“I’d already made my decision,” Strunk told the Associated Press this past week. “A.J. had a great game. More power to him, but that didn’t actually have anything to do with that.”
Perhaps. What ownership would have seen last week was an objectively more talented roster in Philadelphia, put together by a general manager unafraid to deal with anyone in the league and with a solid record of decidedly winning those trades. Further sticking in the craw of the owner could have been that Week 12 loss to the Bengals, a team that upset the Titans last year in the playoffs and a year later had gotten better while the Titans seemed stuck in neutral.
But is that the best way to go about business? Firing the successful GM, not after making the trade you approved, but after seeing the results of the trade in person months later? On a Tuesday in Week 14 when you’re closing in on another division title?
Reasonable people can disagree. It gives both Robinson and the Titans a jump on what’s next. Tennessee will now be led by VP of player personnel Ryan Cowden, who will consult with Vrabel on all football decisions. Cowden has been a candidate for several GM jobs and was considered to be the highest-ranking external candidate in Pittsburgh before Omar Khan earned the Steelers GM position in the spring.
It’s clear that Vrabel will have more say over personnel moves moving forward, both this year and beyond. And Cowden will be a leading candidate for the permanent role moving forward, though a full search will commence in the coming weeks.
The biggest question facing the next GM (and Vrabel) will be what to do at the quarterback position. Ryan Tannehill has the month of January to show why he deserves to stick around another season, and he’ll need an inverse of his playoff performance from last year to prove that.
Cutting Tannehill after this season would save nearly $18 million in cap space while also counting $18.8 million against the cap in dead money. Free-agents-to-be would include a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo and former Vrabel teammate in New England, Tom Brady.