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The Mike Mularkey Conundrum

What do the Titans do with their coaching staff now?

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

After last week’s carefully worded ”vote of confidence” that may or may not have meant anything, the Titans now face the reality of actually having to make a decision on whether or not to move forward with head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff in 2018. It is truly a crossroads moment for the franchise and Amy Adams-Strunk must treat it as such. I have turned this over in my head a million times throughout this season and — admittedly — changed my mind a few times along the course of the season, but I think I have made up my mind. I’ll give the arguments for and against giving Mularkey a third year as Titans head coach that I have been wrestling with and give my conclusion at the end.

The Case for Bringing Mularkey Back

The Titans went 5-27 in 2014-2015 resulting in the well-deserved quick ejection of Ken Whisenhunt after just a year and a half. Mularkey was appointed as interim coach to finish out the 2015 season and then was given the full time gig that following offseason. After installing a new staff, he oversaw a 9-7 season in 2016 that can’t be seen as anything but a success despite finishing just short of the playoffs. Finally, in 2017 the Titans broke back in to the playoffs and pulled off a first round upset of the Chiefs before falling to the Patriots in the divisional round. However, getting to the playoffs and making some noise was the realistic goal to begin this season and they accomplished that.

The offense was a disappointment this season, but a lot of those struggles can be traced back to injuries that have reportedly hampered Marcus Mariota, and to a lesser degree, Corey Davis, Quinton Spain, Delanie Walker, and Ben Jones throughout the season. The defense isn’t there yet, but they made clear strides in the secondary. There has been a lot of concern about the offensive scheme, but this is the same scheme that worked so well in 2016 despite working with lesser talent.

Beyond the results on the field, Mularkey’s players love him and play hard for him. Uniting an NFL locker room isn’t an easy task. Players often have egos and big personalities, but Mularkey has managed them well and has his guys bought in to the team first messaging that GM Jon Robinson wants.

The conventional wisdom says that you give coaches at least 3 years to figure out what you’ve got, and a coach that’s 18-14 over two years with a playoff win included would normally be a slam dunk to get to Year 3. Learning an offense to the point that you truly know it inside and out in the NFL takes multiple years, and Mariota’s development could take another hit if he’s asked to learn a third offense in his 4th year in the league. That’s a recipe for disaster with a young quarterback.

Besides, you aren’t guaranteed success going out and hiring a hotshot offensive or defensive coordinator as a head coach. Remember when the Titans went out and got Ken Whisenhunt? He was one of THE hot coaching names during the 2014 offseason, so much so that the Titans stealing him out from under the Lions was considered a real coup for the franchise. We all know how that worked out for the Titans.

Quick tangent: Its funny that the two coaches that the Lions and Titans fired before chasing after Whisenhunt — Jim Schwartz and Mike Munchak — are now both considered to be head coaching candidates again in 2018. The NFL is a strange place.

Mularkey has made the Titans relevant again after years of being an NFL afterthought. Teams very rarely fire coaches who finish the season among the final 8 teams in the playoffs — the last one was John Fox after the 2014 season. The direction of the offense is concerning, but a new offensive coordinator and a healthy offseason for Marcus Mariota can make this offense work.

The Case for Firing Mularkey

Yes, the Titans have improved drastically over the last two years and Mularkey deserves some level of credit for that, but the improvement to the roster over that time period and the natural progression of Marcus Mariota deserve more. Mularkey has imposed his old school run first (and second) offense with a vertical passing game on a roster that has the pieces to be great in a power spread attack featuring west coast passing concepts. Everyone can see him jamming the square peg in the round hole except him and his staff. His offense hides Mariota’s strengths and features his weaknesses, exactly the opposite of what you want from the mentor of a promising young quarterback.

Mularkey’s offense is his calling card though and regardless of who occupies the offensive coordinator seat, he is going to want his offense to look pretty similar to what we have seen in 2016 and 2017. If he didn’t like what Robiskie was doing with the offense he could have easily forced him to make changes, but he hasn’t. There is no reason to expect he would actually give total control of the offense over to a new offensive coordinator knowing that they were going to fundamentally change the team’s scheme. He’s far more likely to push for another offensive coordinator that he’s worked with before and has similar ideals about how to attack defenses, basically Terry Robiskie 2.0.

Offense is the primary issue with bringing Mularkey back, but not far behind it is his stubborness. In addition to being pot committed to his offense regardless of personnel or evidence that other approaches work better for this team, he also seems to take entire seasons to bench players who are no longer effective. Perrish Cox, Brice McCain, Rashad Johnson, and DeMarco Murray have all held on to starting jobs far longer than they probably should have and we all know about his undying love for Harry Douglas. Trusting veterans is understandable. They have experience and generally don’t make mistakes that younger players do. However, it is Mularkey and his staff’s job to get younger, more talented players ready to play. That hasn’t happened fast enough under him. If your entire wide receiver corps is struggling to run the right routes 10+ weeks in to a season, your scheme is too complicated.

I think we can all agree that a change needs to happen at the offensive coordinator spot at this point. The Titans playcalling was too predictable and the constant 2nd and long runs left them with entirely too many 3rd and mediums and 3rd and longs which they struggled to convert. However, just firing Robiskie brings Mularkey’s contract comes in to play. He will be heading in to the last year of his three year contract in 2018 and his “lame duck” status combined with the rumors surrounding his lack of support from higher ups in the organization will make it borderline impossible for him to attract a desirable offensive coordinator to take the job. The team must extend him and throw their full support behind him or fire him and move on this offseason. There can be no more half-in-half-out with Mularkey.

On the other side of the ball defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is reported to be on a year-to-year basis with the Titans, deciding whether or not to come back each offseason. At 80 years old, its amazing that he’s still got the energy to coach at the NFL level, but at some point he is going to retire and I can’t imagine that day is too far away.

The defense got better in 2017 after an awful campaign the season before, but its hard to say how much of that was due to an unusually weak slate of opposing quarterbacks. Here is the list of QBs that the defense held under 20 points: Blake Bortles (twice), Jay Cutler, DeShone Kizer, Jacoby Brissett, Tom Savage, Blaine Gabbert. Against better signal callers, the defense often collapsed, giving up 57 to Deshaun Watson, 27 to Russell Wilson, 40 to Ben Roethlisberger, 25 to Jimmy Garoppolo, 27 to Jared Goff, and 35 to Tom Brady. Its fair to wonder if LeBeau still has it at this point as the Titans often seemed to be a step behind opposing offenses and still struggle to defend tight ends and running backs in particular, sometimes appearing to leave them completely unaccounted for.

If LeBeau decides to hang it up this offseason — or if the Titans decide they want to make a change — they could find themselves replacing both coordinators as soon as this offseason. While I think there is a chance Mularkey could potentially succeed as a “CEO type” head coach, he’s also proven to be pretty bad from a clock and game management standpoint. At best that makes his ceiling a poor man’s Andy Reid without the offensive genius. That’s not exactly a description you want to build your franchise around.

The Titans have a young core of players to build around, but they need to pair them with a coaching staff who can maximize their talents with a scheme that puts them in positions to succeed and play with confidence. If you don’t believe Mularkey is that guy you have to make the move now, regardless of how far the team has come over the past two years.

While firing a coach following a playoff run is rare, its not unprecedented. In addition to Schottenheimer in 2006 — his replacement, Norv Turner, went 11-5 the next year and took the Chargers to the AFC Championship game — three other coaches have suffered a similar fate since 2001. In 2001, Tony Dungy was fired by the Bucs after a 9-7 season that ended in the playoffs and was replaced by Jon Gruden who went 12-4 the next year and won the Super Bowl. One year later, Steve Mariucci was fired by the 49ers after a 10-6 season and was replaced by Dennis Erickson who went 7-9 in the following campaign. More recently, John Fox was fired by the Broncos after a 12-4 season and was replaced by Gary Kubiak who won the Super Bowl in his first year. As you can see, the track record for teams firing coaches after a playoff season is actually pretty good over the last 20 years.

My Conclusion

I have found making an argument for both sides of an issue to be a good exercise when making tough decisions. You can always tell when you’re having to stretch to make points on one side. I found myself having to do that with the argument to keep Mularkey. As much as I respect him for what he’s done for this franchise — and he deserves better treatment than what he’s gotten from much of the fan base — I just don’t see the Titans taking the next step with him leading the way.

The team needs a new direction on offense. One that plays in to the strengths of Mariota’s skill set while developing prominent roles for Derrick Henry and Corey Davis. There is not enough evidence on tape over the past two years that suggests Mularkey is willing to do that. The league’s defensive coordinators adapt to schemes and offenses so quickly in the modern NFL that you have to constantly be evolving to stay ahead. Mularkey and Robiskie got caught this year and never had a viable counterpunch.

The Titans can’t afford to waste prime years of Mariota’s career so they must make a difficult decision here. Double down on Mularkey and hope he can fix the offense, or take a risk on an outsider. If it was my choice, I am rolling the dice on a new coach.

What would you do?