This is Todd Downing’s 20th NFL season. He’s 40 years old.
So, quite literally, the former Eden Prairie High School quarterback has been grinding away for half a lifetime since he entered the league as essentially an airport chauffeur for the family of Vikings owner Red McCombs and others who needed being picked up, dropped off or shuttled about.
Someone else will have to drive Saturday when Downing lands at MSP. Now in his second season with the 2-0 Tennessee Titans, he’s busy coaching the NFL’s highest-scoring tight ends group — a group that could give the 0-2 Vikings and their beat-up defense fits on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We’re very fortunate to have a number of tight ends here that we can depend on to do different jobs and different roles,” Downing said. “It certainly makes things fun to get creative.”
With last year’s leading receiver, A.J. Brown, ruled out because of a knee injury for the second straight game, Tennessee’s tight end trio of Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser and former Vikings draft pick MyCole Pruitt will have to step up again.
Smith already has matched a career high with three touchdown catches. Pruitt’s only catch was a touchdown.
No other team has more than three touchdowns from its tight ends. And no other tight ends group has contributed more in the red zone.
After leading the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage (. 750) a year ago, the Titans rank third at 85.7 percent this year. Four of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s six red-zone touchdown passes have gone to tight ends.
And each one of those scores has cost Downing $1,000.
Wanting to join the social justice movement, Downing, who is white, started an initiative to raise money for The 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee, Inc. It’s a nonprofit organization designed to assist the academic and social development of Black male students in the Nashville area.
“That really came out of some of the great conversations that I’ve been fortunate enough to have with my players in the tight end room, which have been steered by coach [Mike] Vrabel and [offensive coordinator Arthur] Smith,” Downing said. “It was important to us to do something together, to show unity, to be able celebrate our on-the-field performance by incorporating a cause that we knew would help with some of the issues that our society has going on today.”
Downing’s wife, Julie, searched for the nonprofit organization that the couple most wanted to pledge money to and encourage others to do the same.
“Our family wanted to kick it off by saying: ‘We stand with you, and we support you,’ ” Downing said. “If those issue are important to you, they are important to us.”
Downing has come a long way since coaching Eden Prairie’s freshman team back in 1999-2000.
He was with the Vikings from 2001-05, going from operations intern to public relations intern in 2002. A friendship with Mike Tice — developed from time spent driving Tice to and from stadium meetings in St. Paul — led to a job as the team’s football systems analyst in ’03-04 and offensive quality control coach in ’05.
When Tice’s staff was fired, Downing reunited with former Vikings offensive coordinator and then-St. Louis Rams head coach Scott Linehan. He spent ’06-07 helping out on defense and special teams, and ’08 as assistant secondary coach/quality control.
When Linehan moved on to Detroit as offensive coordinator in 2009, Downing followed as offensive quality control assistant. He was assistant quarterbacks coach in 2010 and quarterbacks coach in 2011-13.
Downing then went to Buffalo as quarterbacks coach in 2014 before reuniting with Tice, who was the Raiders’ offensive line coach. After coaching Oakland’s quarterbacks for two years, Downing spent one year as its offensive coordinator.
He returned to Minnesota as tight ends coach in 2018 before taking the Titans job last year.
And now he’s hoping his tight ends force him to keep forking over thousands of dollars to The 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee, Inc.
“I think I may have to revisit my son’s college fund at this point,” Downing joked. “But I hope our tight ends score 100 touchdowns.”