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How Anthony Firkser can completely unlock the Tennessee Titans' offense
We catch up with the Harvard grad capable of elevating the Titans to the next level.
The possibilities were endless in training camp. Defending the Tennessee Titans, on paper, appeared to be a lose-lose-lose proposition.
Derrick Henry was 6 feet, 3 inches, 247 pounds of pain. You’ll need to stack the box.
Now, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown were teaming up at wide receiver? Jones has been his own athletic mutation the last 10 seasons while Brown, also jacked, was an ascending star. You can’t leave either 1-on-1 for too long.
There was no question that Ryan Tannehill could serve as the point guard maximizing this talent, too. All he did was complete 67 percent of his passes with 55 touchdowns and 13 picks while going 18-8 as the starter. This all doesn’t require too much number-crunching. Tight end Anthony Firkser graduated from Harvard University with an applied mathematics degree but even us Neanderthals counting with our fingers could figure this out. Defenses would have zero choice but to allot as many resources as possible to stop Tennessee’s own Triangle Offense, thus allowing Firkser to flourish.
This athletic 6-foot-2, 246-pound tight end had been biding his time for four pro seasons.
“It’s exciting,” Firkser said on the eve of the 2021 season. “There are a ton of weapons out there. We can spread it around and get everyone involved. We can be consistent and confident as an offense.”
The harsh reality of pro football then set in.
Firkser suffered a knee injury.
Jones and Brown both suffered hamstring injuries.
The Titans, a Super Bowl contender, lost to the New York Jets.
King Henry still sits atop his throne. He leads the NFL in rushing by 117 yards and is on pace to rush for an NFL-record 2,176 yards this 17-game season. He’s been doing this without the true threat of Jones and Brown out wide, too. Now that both are healing up, the Titans (3-2) enter a Monday Night showdown against the scorching Buffalo Bills (4-1) with a shot at finally fielding a pick-your-poison offense. What a test this is, too. The Bills’ defense ranks No. 1 in opposing passer rating (60.7), No. 1 in 20-yard pass plays allowed (six), No. 1 in yards per attempt (5.4) and No. 4 in yards per carry (3.7) and somehow just flustered the unflusterable in Patrick Mahomes.
A return to normalcy heightens the importance of Firkser.
He’s the wild card in this offense.
The value of a playmaking tight end in any juggernaut offense is clear. And while no one’s expecting Firkser to transform into Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, there will be matchups for Firkser to exploit all over the field when everyone’s healthy. If he can take advantage, these Titans can elevate once and for all.
The first time I knew anything about Firkser here was ahead of the 2019 AFC Championship. In his living room, explaining why those Titans were special, vet safety Kenny Vaccaro said that his team didn’t have “12 Pro Bowl lions,” rather “53 hyenas that will eat you down to the bone.” Which sent him off on a tangent about “86,” the beast of a tight end he faced every day in practice. Vaccaro labeled Firkser one of the toughest tight ends he’s ever had to cover in his entire NFL career.
“Including Gronk,” he punctuated.
Tennessee would welcome such a presence on Sundays.
This potentially dangerous mathematical equation in Nashville started where there’s always “if X, then Y” on the brain: Harvard University. Longtime head coach Tim Murphy has a rich history molding such hybrid weapons. His offense utilizes plenty of “12” personnel — one back, two tight ends — and he doubles as the tight ends/H-back coach.
San Francisco fullback Kyle Juszczyk and Tampa Bay tight end Cameron Brate cut their teeth in Murphy’s offense.
Granted, Harvard is no SEC powerhouse attaching your rear to the recliner every Saturday but the Ivy League school has become a niche manufacturer of modern-day weapons worthy of the NFL’s attention. Murphy wants everyone in this room to know how to play wide receiver, tight receiver, fullback, H-back and the slot. So when his coaching staff discovered Firkser, a Manalapan, N.J. native, at a couple regional camps the summer before his senior year, they were intrigued.
Problem was, Firkser wanted to play basketball and Division I schools in the Ivy League had already offered.
As a (much lighter) point guard at Manalapan, Firkser averaged 21.3 points and 7.6 assists per game and finished second in school history with 1,362 points. He didn’t even play football, period, until his sophomore year of high school… and then set school records in receptions (110), receiving yards (2,118) and touchdown catches (19). Murphy recalls Firkser telling him that he didn’t even know if he wanted to play college football because basketball was his love. He asked the coach if he could try playing both sports at Harvard even though Harvard, a basketball power, was one school not offering him a scholarship.
Murphy gave him the green light, though warned that playing two sports at Harvard is difficult and Harvard had a stacked hoops team — it’d be tough to walk-on and earn a spot on their bench.
An opportunity was all Firkser wanted, he didn’t make the basketball team, football it was.
In truth, he could put all of his basketball skills to use at this position.
Juszczyk since became the highest-paid fullback ever, one that Kyle Shanahan uses all over his 49ers offense.
Brate is in his eighth pro season. He has scored 29 touchdowns.
And in this Crimson offense, Firker worked in tandem with Ben Braunecker, who’d go on to play four seasons with the Chicago Bears.
“We love basketball guys because everything you do in basketball, you do at tight end for us,” Murphy says. “You’ve got to be big’ish, you’ve got to be athletic, you’ve got to be able to play multiple roles. … We had an amazing group of kids who all were basketball players and all were kids who could play multiple roles in our offense. ‘Firk,’ when you meet him, he’s a quiet, understated, humble kid. And not necessarily the NFL stereotype. Once you get past that and you see how tough he is and how dependable he is, how hard he works, we realized going into his senior year that he could be our next guy in the NFL.”
Adds Firkser: “Being able to practice that in college definitely prepares you for the uncertainty of where you’ll be put at on the NFL field, being able to adapt to whatever situation is thrown at you.”
That senior season in 2016, “Firk” caught 45 passes for 702 yards with seven touchdowns.
One moment rose above the rest, too. In “The Game” between Harvard and Yale, Firkser ran a flag route on third and 9 right in front of the Yale bench. Quarterback Scott Hosch, the Ivy League Player of the Year, over-shot this throw and Firkser somehow leapt to pluck it out of thin air with his left hand to keep the drive moving.
Yale’s players were shocked.
Murphy remembers turning to one of his assistants, right then, to say coaching is “highly overrated.”
In a sport full of “11” personnel — one back, one tight end, three wide receivers — there’s still a distinct value in “12,” in leaning on players who can make a play like this, Murphy says, while also blocking the C gap in the run game. Your playbook completely opens up.
He nails Firkser’s personality, too. He is quite soft-spoken.
The more you learn, however, the more you see what feeds a unique threat on the football field.
He didn’t just play basketball. Up to 10th grade, Firkser grew up as a playmaking center in hockey, too. He started playing street hockey and moved to ice.
When he finally did start playing organized football for the first time — as a way to do something fun with his brother — Firkser worked closely with assistant coach, Tim Fleming, who played wide receiver with Nate Burleson in college at Nevada. He credits Fleming for laying a foundation.
His interests away from sports were atypical, too. For years, Firkser has enjoyed doing pencil sketches as a way to relax and “turn off the brain.” His art isn’t plastered on Instagram, instead shared with family. His best sketch? One of his brother’s cat.
He played video games… sort of. Firkser wasn’t exactly duking it out with his brother on Madden or shooting away on Call of Duty, no, he says he played “strategy-based” online video games.
To this day, Firkser also loves a good jigsaw puzzle. (Like Jonathan Taylor.)
“That’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” Firkser says. “Sitting down. Visualizing. I feel like there are mini problems. You’re trying to find that right piece, that right shape. It’s satisfying to get it complete.”
Then, there’s the Harvard advantage.
It’s hard to calculate how much the ultra-difficult classes apply to football IQ but the work ethic this education demands absolutely does. Firkser says Harvard has a “demanding” culture and believes being pushed academically helped at tight end. Every minute of every day was accounted for. He’d have some type of math homework each night and needed to gather with other students often. Or see a teacher. That’s the only way to survive the coursework here.
“Everything is based on a curve so you’re compared to everyone,” Firkser says. “You can’t let it slip at that level. Being at Harvard, I didn’t plan to make it to the NFL until probably my junior year. I was working hard at figuring out where I wanted to go after college and how my education could help.”
Originally on an economics track, he shifted to applied mathematics.
He loves working with numbers and solving problems and says this major typically leads to investment banking and private equity type of jobs. At one point, Firkser wanted to be an actuary.
As it turns out, he’s able to put this problem-solving wiring to use in football.
Undrafted, in 2017, Firkser first signed with the New York Jets as a fullback. They released him that September. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad in November and soaked up as much knowledge possible in the same room as Kelce. Firkser says that seeing how Kelce watches film and critiques himself taught him what it takes to be “a high-level tight end.” The Chiefs released him in April 2018. The Titans signed him. And he has spent three seasons learning from Delanie Walker and Jonuu Smith, flashing the occasional “Gronk”-like ability along the way.
From 2018 through 2020, he caught 72 passes for 816 yards with three scores — 2021 targeted was Firkser’s time.
Tennessee did not invest heavily in anyone else at tight end last offseason. This was Firkser’s job to lose.
After missing two games, Firkser has caught six passes in two games. Now, he has a chance to be a featured weapon in what we all anointed one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, one ready to win a Super Bowl. So far, we’re seeing this cause-and-effect best in the team the Titans face on Monday night. As defenses obsess over Stefon Diggs in Buffalo, tight end Dawson Knox has become a go-to guy for quarterback Josh Allen with 261 yards and five touchdowns.
That could be Firkser in Nashville.
He has the skillset and — most importantly — the brain to find a significant role.
What separates him? Firkser points to his “deceptive” route running, to how he sets defenders up. The players who can operate at their own speed lull you to sleep. Something like New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara gliding in slow-motion.
“Changing speeds,” Firkser says. “Getting someone to stop their feet. At that point, when they stop, I can make my break. It gives you that extra step. I don’t have top-end speed per se with the 40-yard dash and everything. So I have to set people up and trick them into where I’m going.
“The change of speeds is the biggest thing with route running. Being able to accelerate, decelerate, slow down, tempo your routes, stuff like that to keep the defense on edge and be in the right windows with the timing and spacing of the play.”
Firkser has been playing with quarterback Ryan Tannehill long enough to know precisely where he needs to be, too.
He’s still working on the occasional sketch but his passion today is “Caring Hearts,” a charity introduced to Firkser by his girlfriend that helps those living in poverty in Nashville and Mexico.
“Being able to volunteer,” Firkser says, “and give time and resources to this community gave me the opportunity to make lasting relationships with people who are in need of a helping hand, whether it’s within the boys or girls orphanage, or families that struggle to provide for themselves due to illnesses and disabilities. In addition, Caring Hearts also works with a local refugee community in Nashville by giving weekly food and tutoring to families and children adapting to a different environment. My goal is to try to give people equal opportunity and a support system that they may not have had access to, in order to give them a chance to achieve their goals and dreams.”
The 17-game season is a marathon. A healthy Henry-Jones-Brown could change everything we think about the AFC.
At a position chock-full of bravado — wild man George Kittle even launched “Tight End University” right in Nashville — “Firk” is a personality found somewhere at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Don’t expect Kittle-like, Kelce-like, Gronk-like theatrics out of this tight end, let alone any predictions with so many opportunities looming.
“We’ll see how defenses attack us and what they plan to do,” Firkser says, “but I’ll be ready for whatever they throw at us. Whatever’s available, I’ll take.”
To Murphy, football and basketball aren’t all that different. At this position, he sees it all as different equipment with different rules and much more physicality.
Tennessee is flying below the radar. That tends to happen when you lose to the Jets and beat the Jaguars in back-to-back weeks. Defenses will deploy some form of process of elimination — extra men in the box to stop Henry, a safety over the top on Jones, etc. — and, likely, barely mention Firkser in the gameplan.
Soon enough, everyone will learn all about this Harvard kid.
Murphy is sure of it.
“He’s not going to be double-teamed,” Murphy says. “People are going to stack the run to play against Derrick Henry so you’re going to get one on one coverage as opposed to bracket coverage. The combination of those things has allowed him to show what he can do at the very highest level. A lot of people are surprised when a Harvard kid makes it to the NFL but if you knew how unbelievably hard this kid works and understood his very understated mental and physical toughness, it’s no surprise for us.”
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