Nashville looks upon Julio Jones as a key to the promised land

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. The Falcons won 10-7. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. The Falcons won 10-7. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

When former Falcons receiver Julio Jones – hard to spit out that phrase, isn’t it, like the first time using the words “my ex” – arrived in Nashville on Monday, he came in as hot as a new Carrie Underwood lyric.

ExploreJulio Jones: Decision to part ways with Falcons was mutual

Stepping off the Tennessee Titans’ private jet, he was greeted both by the team’s general manager and exaggerated expectations of completing an offense that could rule the world. Give the hometown of Vanderbilt football that kind of hope, and there’s bound to be widespread giddiness.

Las Vegas knee-jerked after the trade that sent the Falcons’ all-time pass-catcher to the Titans for a second-round and a fourth-round draft pick. The Titans’ future odds to win the Super Bowl plummeted from 40-to-1 to 25-to-1. Conversely the Falcons already long odds got longer, going from 80-to-1 to 100-to-1.

Nashvegas – as the Titans’ home is sometimes known – was even more gaga.

“All Titans fans in Tennessee, from the west end to the east end, are really excited about this,” said Dave McGinnis, a former long-time NFL coach now in radio and an analyst during Titans broadcasts.

“I know I’m fired up,” he said.

And after just one minicamp practice Thursday, Jones sounded no less fired up about getting a fresh start in a new place. On first impression, he believes he’s going to get along famously with these folk. Although he may be overestimating the patience of the pro fan base.

“You have to be here to understand the feeling here as far as the fan base,” Jones said during his first presser as a Titan. “The way they treat you ... it’s unconditional about just effort. You just feel like you can go out there and give your all, no matter what happens they are going to be behind you. Instead of just going out there and making a mistake, you know, I’m the blame or shamed. It definitely has that college-like atmosphere here. That’s what I love about it as well. And just the culture of the team.”

A team spokesman said this week that the Titans’ ticket office has received a “noticeable increase in both inquiries and purchases over the last three days,” after the trade was announced. No specific numbers were available.

Over at the Sports Seasons store in Nashville, manager Lindsey Beck was girding for the first shipment of No. 2 Julio Jones Tennessee jerseys (he has opted for a fresh start with his new team, the No. 11 he wore in Atlanta will still belong to Titans receiver A.J. Brown).

“Absolutely, we’re thinking they’ll fly off the racks,” she said. “(Jones) has been a hot topic here.” It will take two to three weeks before the new jersey will appear on the racks, the store’s license apparel buyer said.

As to whether Jones can approach the jersey sales of Tennessee’s beating heart of a running back, Beck said, “I think so ... but (running back) Derrick Henry is really popular here.”

Former Alabama football players Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, left, and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry speak after an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, in Atlanta. The Tennessee Titans won 24-10. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Former Alabama football players Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, left, and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry speak after an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, in Atlanta. The Tennessee Titans won 24-10. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Twitter, the deal certainly touched a nerve in various corners of the “Music City” – just how many nicknames does one city need, anyway?

From indie rock: “HERE. WE. GO. #TitanUpJulio” – Cary Brothers.

To country/pop: “No they didn’t. #atTitans” (with smiling bulging bicep emoji) – Taylor Hicks.

To contemporary Christian: “Super Bowl, baaaaybyyy!!! #TitanUp” – Mandisa.

There seems little equivocation around the Titans’ sphere of influence when it comes to this deal. Discounting the fact that Kansas City and Buffalo – just to name two top contenders – are still planning to field teams this season, Tennessee fans are expecting Jones to make a catch somewhere, somehow that nails down a Super Bowl. You know, like he would have for Atlanta had the Falcons not gone temporarily mad against New England in 2017.

“I got a lot of text messages from family and friends, saying ‘Super Bowl or bust’,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said this week.

So, no pressure, Julio.

Callers to his afternoon sports talk show on Nashville’s 104.5 the Zone have been all effervescence and optimism – a rarity for that format – Blaine Bishop said. Scarcely a negative vibe to be heard. Not about Jones’ age (32). Not about the fact that injury limited him to a 51-catch, 771-yard season in 2020. Not about that nagging soft tissue that is wont to get between Jones and the practice field.

But, wait, what is that we hear? Could there be one measured voice out there, at least mentioning the possibility that Jones can’t automatically change Tennessee water into championship champagne?

Bishop, a former nine-year defensive back for the Houston Oilers and then Titans, finds himself arbitrating between runaway excitement and bottom-line reality.

“They’re pumped up here. I think they feel like not only are they going to win the AFC South. but they think they’re kind of in the Super Bowl-contending conversation. It’s that kind of reaction,” he said.

“It’s interesting because I’m kind of conflicted. He’s a phenomenal talent. I know a lot of people in Atlanta know he’s a phenomenal talent. I’m just not sure how much a wide receiver can change the balance and conversation,” Bishop said.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) plays against the Minnesota Vikings during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) plays against the Minnesota Vikings during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

With an already potent offense built around game-breaking running back Henry but a leaky defense, the Titans won 11 games last season without Jones. They lost to Baltimore in the playoffs, 20-13.

Their offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, migrated to Atlanta to become head coach of the Falcons. And Jones took his salary and practically passed Smith on the way out of town.

Greeting Jones in Tennessee will be a new O.C. (Todd Downing), a very talented receiver on the other side in A.J. Brown (2,126 receiving yards the past two seasons) and a quarterback who should not be overlooked.

Last year Ryan Tannehill threw for 762 fewer yards than the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, but in the process also threw for seven more touchdowns (33-26) and four fewer interceptions (7-11).

“They’ll all benefit,” McGinnis said.

It’s simple, he added, “The best teams I coached on, you have a lot of good players. (Jones) is a generational player, he really is. This offense is suited perfectly for what he and A.J. Brown do. And Derrick Henry. It’s going to be a very beneficial, symbiotic relationship between three really big-time performers.”

So, what then must Jones do to justify all the white-hot hope in Nashville? Bishop will tell you that his city is not the hardest-edged sports market, but still, there will be demands.

“He’s going to have to do 1,000 yards. I think the fans would be elated if he does what he (almost) always does and gets over 1,000 yards. I think he’s capable of that. They throw the ball enough,” Bishop said.

“And be healthy, be on the field on game day. He’s got to be out there,” he said.

That is where the hope part of this deal comes in for the new home of Julio Jones. There is certainty in the talent, even for a player on the other side of prime, but also an escalating risk of breakdowns in a high-mileage star.

“Julio’s got a catch radius, he blocks, he’s a team player. He’s a big-body guy. In the red zone I think he’ll be effective. There are a lot of positives here,” Bishop said. “The only way it can go wrong is if they’re losing and he’s not out there.”

Falcons fans who banked sufficient goodwill from the best 10 years of Julio Jones might wish the Titans good luck with that.

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