When the legendary Steve Vescovo made an appearance in the Nashville office on Thursday, he had a bit more spring in his step than usual. He was bouncing around the 26th floor talking to whoever would spare him a minute. The reason? Ja Morant.
“What do you think about the Grizzlies?” he asked a couple of us who were headed to lunch, beaming at the thought of the rookie sensation, who has instantly infused an otherwise moribund franchise with excitement that hasn’t been seen since the “Grit and Grind” era of the first half of the 2010s. Steve regaled us with a story of Morant’s taunting of superstar Houston Rockets guard James Harden earlier this week. Even I, one of the biggest Memphis cynics on the planet, am impressed with what the second overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft has been able to do to revitalize things at the FedEx Forum. The Grizzlies are suddenly one of the most exciting teams in the league, and are developing a cult following among League Pass subscribers.
Three hours to the east of the Forum, there is also a bit of excitement about the city’s marquee major league sports franchise (sorry, Preds fans, it’s not even close). And in much the same way that Morant’s emergence has provided an unexpected jolt to a fan base that had little to be excited about over the past several years, Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill have awakened a Tennessee Titans following that has seen disappointment and failure for the better part of the last 15 years.
The Titans have shocked the NFL world – well, maybe more the average fan than those who actually pay attention to the league – over the past two Saturday nights, knocking off the three-time defending AFC champion Patriots in Foxboro and then the league’s best team in 2019, which hadn’t lost since September, in Baltimore. Now, stunningly, a franchise that just four years ago had the top pick in the NFL Draft (an honor that goes to the league’s worst team), is sixty minutes from a trip to Super Bowl LIV.
Never mind that completing the trifecta and beating an uber-talented offense in Kansas City Sunday afternoon will be the tallest of orders. The fact that second-year coach Mike Vrabel has his squad in this game with a team that was 2-4 through its first six contests this season is nothing short of remarkable, and certainly is not something any reasonable person saw when Vrabel finally decided to pull the plug on the years-long Marcus Mariota experience and go with Tannehill, the unfairly maligned former Dolphin quarterback who has managed to significantly impact the aforementioned playoffs games without throwing for a hundred yards in either. With a backfield mate like Henry, who is on a run that literally has never been seen before in the 100-year history of the NFL, Tannehill has been able to play smart, efficient football that has the franchise on the cusp of greatness.
In the bigger picture, what the runs of the Grizz and the Titans show us is that it’s really fun to follow a team that comes out of nowhere. That may sound obvious, but as a die hard sports fan of several teams in several sports, I can say, without hesitation, that watching a team have unexpected success is the greatest thrill you can have. Sure, it’s fun to root for a team that is good year in, year out, and that is expected to succeed. But it’s hard to beat the thrill of pulling for one from which nothing was expected. Memphis fans were optimistic that Morant would help turn the franchise in the right direction, and that he had a chance to become a really good player. But they could not have expected this much, this fast.
In much the same way, the Titans had done a nice job remaking the franchise under the leadership of General Manager Jon Robinson over the past few years, but no one saw this coming. Now, the city is abuzz about the team, and whether it happens or not, the fact that the Titans could go into Arrowhead Stadium and pull off the improbable is enough that everyone will remember this run to the NFL’s final four for years to come.
We live in a social media-fueled world in which cynicism and anger among frustrated sports fans often makes you wonder why anyone even bothers investing so much time and energy in the process. And then a Ja Morant or a Derrick Henry comes along, and you remember why you do.