At the end of last season, I think we all felt pretty good that the franchise had a chance to take a step in the right direction. Marcus Mariota had just finished up his dazzling rookie campaign that was on track to break records and the Titans were in the market for a new head coach. If the Titans struck the right chord with the head coaching hire, Nashville was in for something special over the next decade.
That was at least the feeling.
There was nothing wrong with feeling this way. Marcus Mariota showed advanced traits and gave you every reason to believe he could develop into a top shelf starter in the league. Finally the Titans appeared set to take a step forward.
Hue Jackson, Josh McDaniels and Adam Gase were the hot names on the market and I think everyone just assumed that the Titans would be able to land one. The Titans had already made what seemed to be a home-run hire in Jon Robinson as their General Manager. Now we were just waiting to see what direction he wanted to go with a head coach.
Then the Mike Mularkey rumors start. Rumors were that ownership loved Mularkey and wanted to keep him around long term. This didn't go over well. It was so crazy that fans just kind of shook it off as fake. Surely the Titans wouldn't pair their franchise quarterback with a two time failed head coach in Mike Mularkey -- but then they did.
Josh McDaniels, Hue Jackson and Adam Gase were never interviewed. The Titans just went all in on Mike Mularkey. It was dumbfounding, but I think we all thought that Marcus Mariota would be able to keep the Titans on the rise regardless.
We were wrong.
At the quarter poll, the Titans are 1-3 and Marcus Mariota is broken. The Titans are in games because of the defense, despite Mariota's poor play. It's absolutely maddening, because the defense has taken a big step forward along with the offensive line. The play in the trenches is night and day better from 2015.
Tennessee ranks 4th in rushing offense. DeMarco Murray has been the Titans' MVP and easily the most consistent offensive threat. The offensive line has turned into a strength, blowing teams off the ball and making the rushing attack pop.
The defense ranks 14th overall in terms of yards and points. They've been slow starters, but they've stood tall in the second half. The defense has kept the Titans in games and given the offense a chance to win them. They aren't even close to a finished product, but they are at least serviceable.
But now Mariota -- the most important piece of the puzzle -- is playing the worst football of his young career. He isn't seeing the field like he did last year. He's missing throws that he made in his sleep last year. He's trying to do too much.
The scheme isn't helping him. Too many times he's been placed in key situations with limited options to throw to. Mariota was fantastic at cycling through his read last season with four or five option on the field. Now Mularkey and Robiskie are routinely giving him two or three options to hit, sometimes while rolling him out and cutting his field in half.
Like this final play against the Raiders
This is just one example, but it's a good one. Game on the line and they roll Mariota to his weaker left side and give him two options to hit. If Mariota was so good a cycling through his reads a year ago, what has changed in him that this staff won't even give him the whole field to read with the game on the line?
Count the receivers. There's two of them. Running curls. Really.
It's my honest opinion that Mariota just isn't comfortable in this scheme and I'm not entirely sure what quarterback would be. He hasn't lost ability, he's just been placed in a totally new system that is handcuffing him. He's pressing to make things happen. His receivers aren't getting separation. He can't find any rhythm. It's just one big pile of problems. It's making Mariota force things and it's starting to develop some bad habits that we didn't see out of him last season or at Oregon.
There's something to be said about his success late in games in the no-huddle. He's been fantastic in these situations and I'm dumbfounded that the staff won't run no-huddle more. Think back to Detroit and Oakland. He was great when he had to be -- and when he had to be, he was in no-huddle. He probably wins the game against Oakland if not for a dumb penalty against Taylor Lewan.
So here we sit. The Titans defense is pretty good. The offensive line is seemingly fixed. DeMarco Murray is great.
But Marcus Mariota is playing terribly, his receivers aren't helping and the coaching staff appears clueless in the passing game.
We mock Mularkey for saying that the Titans are "close," but the reality is that they are. They are in football games and truthfully aren't that far away from 3-1 or even 4-0 if Mariota protects the football. But the only thing that matters is that record. When you're Mike Mularkey and you start 1-3 with all the narratives running against you, nobody cares how close you are.
Mularkey and Robiskie have to get Mariota back on track. We saw a little bit of life last week in Houston, but we saw plenty of bad as well. These next two games will be telling. They get the Dolphins and Browns -- two teams that you should be able to capitalize on if you are truly close. Maybe, just maybe the Titans can use these two games as a springboard and get back on track.