The Tennessee Titans, often glossed over in most mainstream coverage of the National Football League, have recently been the subject of multiple unconfirmed, anonymous reports regarding their head coach.
These reports culminated in the eventual (and somewhat-surprising) firing of head coach Mike Mularkey.
What led Titans’ owner Amy Adams Strunk and Titans’ Vice President and General Manager Jon Robinson to hit the reset button on the coaching staff after just two years?
I invite you to accompany me on this journey as we analyze the timeline, the various media reports, the press conferences, and everything else we know about this team and this season to determine exactly why Mike Mularkey was dismissed.
What went down?
Let’s begin with the most recent events leading up to Mularkey’s dismissal.
It all started in the morning of December 31st, the morning before the Titans were scheduled to take on the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars with a playoff berth on the line, when Ian Rapoport reported that Mike Mularkey could be fired with a loss to the Jags.
There were some questions regarding the validity of this report, but it soon become irrelevant, as the Titans defeated the Jaguars thanks to the heroic efforts of Marcus Mariota and his now-legendary stiff arm. It seemed the victory would mean the Titans were content to stick with Mike Mularkey... for the moment.
It didn’t last long. Not one week later, on the morning of the Titans’ first playoff appearance in nine seasons, the rumors resurfaced that Mike Mularkey could be fired after a loss, with Rapoport again leading the charge:
The #Titans are in the playoffs, but coach Mike Mularkey’s job is not safe. Sources say a loss could end his tenure, as the team prepares for a run at #Patriots OC Josh McDaniels. Big game today with multiple ramifications.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 6, 2018
But there was no loss. Somehow, the Titans managed a historic road comeback against the notorious choke artists, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the first round of the playoffs, erasing a 21-3 halftime deficit and pulling off a 22-21 victory. On the shoulders of Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, and Dick LeBeau, the Titans took home the improbable upset.
After the game, Mularkey decided to comment on the rumors surrounding his job security (from the titansonline.com official transcript):
A lot of today’s national discussion was about your job security?
“Which is ridiculous. Which is ridiculous.”
Did that effect how you coached today?
“Yeah, I don’t think it is fair to my family. So when it has an effect on my family, it has an effect on me. So yeah, I would say it had a big effect on me.”
Did you feel you were secure, no matter what happened this game?
“No, I haven’t had any support to say that I was. No, I just assumed the worst.”
There are a few ways to react to these statements. It’s tempting to give Mularkey a “pass,” so-to-speak, for these comments because he was simply answering a direct question. Many people appreciate the honesty and transparency from their head coach.
On the other hand, it’s fairly selfish for Mularkey to answer in this way. Had he simply dodged the question with traditional “coach-speak,” I think any potential ramifications of these words could’ve been avoided. I would have much preferred Mularkey to say something like, “I’m not going to talk about that right now. That’s between Amy, Jon, and myself. Right now, we’re going to celebrate this win and get ready for next week.” His response instead focused the attention squarely on his own job and not the team as a whole, an error made especially glaring by his comments in Sunday’s press conference when he was asked again about his contract situation:
(on if he anticipates an extension for himself)
Again, I’ll never talk about my contract or extensions. I never have, I never will.
Oddly, we heard Mularkey sing a completely different tune this time around, which tells me that either Mularkey was reprimanded for speaking so openly about his feelings towards the front office, or he is simply oblivious.
After the Chiefs game, it seemed all but certain that Mularkey would be retained as the team’s head coach. How can you fire a guy after back-to-back winning seasons and the team’s first playoff win in nearly a decade and a half?
Backed into a corner, the team had no choice but to release a statement from controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk in support of Mike Mularkey heading into the divisional round game against the New England Patriots:
“Our mantra all season has been to take things week by week and not get ahead of ourselves and it obviously has served us well. I regret that outside rumors gained a life of their own. No one has been a bigger supporter of Mike Mularkey than I have over the last two plus seasons. Mike and Jon have changed the culture of our team and organization and I am so happy we have been able to bring success on the field to our fans - winning 19 games over the last two seasons, including our first playoff win in 14 years. Just to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward. We still have work to be done, including this week, but I am looking forward to the journey.”
And thus, the front office publicly backed Mularkey for the first time since the rumors of his potential dismissal started to spread. But something about the wording of that statement signaled perhaps a potential deeper divide than we knew, and maybe we should have seen the final result coming.
But alas, the owner had backed the head coach, and after a magical playoff victory, the fans started to re-convince themselves that Mularkey could still be the man for the job...
We took hope from that Kansas City Chiefs game. Hope that perhaps these coaches had finally seen the light. Would they now move more towards the “power spread” concepts that had been so effective against Kansas City?
Instead spread, tempo, 3WR sets, 55% pass on 1st/2nd downs in Qtr 1-3. They were in shotgun half+ the time on every possession but 4-minute drill to end the game. What I'd been screaming for.— Tom Gower (@ThomasGower) January 8, 2018
Would the offense actually be tailored to the players’ strengths? An ESPN report on the morning of Mularkey’s final game with the Titans added fuel to that hope.
This is what you can expect from the Titans offense pic.twitter.com/7WJoCUHBv4— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) January 13, 2018
Dianna Russini reported that the Titans were planning to run most of their plays from the no-huddle against the Patriots. It seemed like all the problems might finally be solved.
Then Ian Rapoport tripled-down on his reported rumors.
Rapoport said on Good Morning Football before the Titans-Patriots game on Saturday that coaches within the Titans organization still felt that Mularkey’s job was in jeopardy, despite the playoff win and statement from the owner.
The Titans went on to be dominated that evening, losing to the defending Super Bowl Champions 35-14 after allowing the home team to score 35 unanswered points. The offense almost entirely avoided the no-huddle approach, instead repeatedly running Derrick Henry up the middle from condensed formations and a host of other frustrating problems that had remained prevalent throughout the season. Mularkey and his offensive coordinator, Terry Robiskie, had clearly not “seen the light,” as many fans had hoped.
To the dismay of all those who love watching good football, it was reported Sunday that the Titans had offered Mularkey a contract extension.
Sources: The #Titans have offered coach Mike Mularkey an extension in the wake of their playoff run. He’s staying.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 15, 2018
Although no details of the extension were included in these reports, by all appearances, Mike Mularkey would be the coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2018 and beyond.
Then, Mularkey went on to lead the most tone-deaf press conference I’ve witnessed since that day Steve Underwood questioned why Titans fans would be unhappy with the coaching search that had landed Mike Mularkey in the first place.
Some of the more infuriating “highlights” from that press conference:
(on if Marcus Mariota’s injuries make him consider making changes going forward)
Yeah, I mean, we could not throw it and protect him from being in the pocket. That’s where he’s had his most – I mean, the broken leg was a sack. Yesterday was scrambling from a sack.
(on if the reason he doesn’t call for more spread offense is to keep Marcus Mariota at a lower risk for injury)
No, that has nothing to do with it.
(on how he feels about the job Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie did play-calling this season)
I think Terry (Robiskie) did a very good job, very good job. Being a play-caller, that’s not easy. I thought he did a very good job.
(on if he anticipates any changes to the coaching staff going forward)
(on if the fact he expects to keep his staff fully intact indicates that he is happy with Marcus Mariota’s development)
Some of the more mind-boggling aspects of this press conference that stand out to me are:
- Mularkey thinks Mariota’s injuries from the pocket are part of football. While that is true to some extent, there are ways to avoid continuous hits in the pocket, the most obvious of which is to call plays that allow Mariota to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Mularkey rarely tried that approach to protecting his quarterback. Outside of no-huddle and hurry-up situations, these quick-release playcalls were few and far between.
- Despite the success the team had with spread concepts, Mularkey simply doesn’t believe they should be part of his offense with no further explanation.
- Mularkey’s praise of Terry Robiskie sounds like coach-speak to me, but the fact that he didn’t even discuss evaluating every member of the staff before announcing that there would be no staff changes was the most frustrating part of the press conference. Nearly everyone - Mularkey supporter or other - held the view that Mularkey could retain his job if he agreed to adjust the offense and, most importantly, hire a new offensive coordinator. Mularkey obviously did not hold that view.
I was shocked and stunned while watching this live. How could the Titans proceed like this? How could Jon Robinson and Amy Adams Strunk be okay with the franchise moving in this direction?
I must say Mike Mularkey’s press conference was pretty infuriating. I can’t believe he’s really so oblivious. And can’t believe the front office is okay with this.— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) January 14, 2018
Thankfully, the front office was not okay with this...
The following morning, just a few hours after Mularkey had spoken to the media, Field Yates broke the news:
Filed to ESPN: the Titans and head coach Mike Mularkey have mutually agreed to part ways, according to a league source.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 15, 2018
Mike Mularkey and the Tennessee Titans were splitting up.
Let’s talk about what got us to this point. Mike Mularkey took over a team that had gone 5-27 in its previous two seasons and turned them into a winning franchise. Under his watch, the Titans became a playoff team again, even advancing in the postseason. He instilled a winning attitude in that locker room and created a competitive culture that had been sorely lacking.
Why wasn’t that enough to earn more time?
For the duration of the season, the “story” was about how the Titans were “winning ugly.” The team’s problems were largely overshadowed by the their weekly success in the win-loss column. CBS Sports wrote on November 27th:
The Titans may not impress too many people with how they’re playing. For now, all that matters to Tennessee is finding a way to keep winning.
“If we win, everything will take care of itself,” Mularkey said.
Winning cures everything, right?
...Not so fast. Winning didn’t actually solve any of the team’s problems, although it certainly gave the coaching staff confidence that they were heading in the right direction.
Problems existed on both sides of the ball, but the most alarming factor was the clear offensive regression. Tom Gower from Football Outsiders summed it up very nicely:
Criticism primarily centered around Mularkey’s offense and the development of Marcus Mariota after the Titans went from 9th in DVOA in 2016 to 18th this season. Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, hired to that position for the first time since the 2004 Cleveland Browns, was the focus of much of the criticism, though the Titans were doing the same things Mularkey tried to do in his previous stops in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh.
Apparently, it didn’t matter that Marcus Mariota was having his worst season as a pro. It didn’t matter that the offense had taken a massive step backwards in productivity, and that the once-dominant running game was now all but dormant. All that mattered was the Titans were “winning.”
This attitude was epitomized after the Titans’ 12-9 overtime victory over the winless Cleveland Browns. Rather than show frustration at the teams’ performance, when they were lucky to eek out a win thanks to an all-time performance by safety Kevin Byard and his three-interception game, Mularkey emphasized how difficult it is to win in this league and that doing so was in itself an accomplishment.
“Any win is a good win,” Mularkey said.
And Mularkey never changed. It took him 15 weeks to start running the no-huddle, despite the Titans success running it, and even when they did run it, the staff would quickly abandon it again. After the loss to the San Francisco 49ers, things really started to unravel.
Cameron Wolfe reported on December 22nd that “at least three Titans players have been frustrated with the offensive game plans and playcalling throughout the season, but winning partially hid those issues.” He quoted Rishard Matthews:
“I’d rather have Marcus calling the shots,” receiver Rishard Matthews said after Sunday’s loss to the 49ers. “There’s proof in the success when that happens. I’d like to do no-huddle more. I know we’d all like to do it more. We definitely talk about it a lot. Sometimes we go into it a lot. Sometimes we don’t. This game, we stayed in it, and I feel like we were pretty good when were in it.”
Matthews also openly discussed the Titans’ lack of offensive creativity and game-planning for different opponents and match-ups week to week.
Matthews got his wish in the playoffs - Marcus did call the shots against Kansas City, or most of them anyway, and the result was 19 unanswered points and a victory.
ESPN has said Mariota has called most of the Titans plays since the first quarter. I don't know what's more impressive: Mariota's play or Mariota's ability to balance calling plays and playing the game. Unreal.— Matt Prehm (@Prehmmr247) January 7, 2018
Mike Mularkey truly believed his scheme was best for the Tennessee Titans’ personnel, including Marcus Mariota. There were many in the media who disagreed.
I understand that they're in the divisional round of the playoffs. But their HC completely stagnated their offense all season. There's no reason to retain Mularkey. https://t.co/Tb4oslD3lb— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) January 7, 2018
In the end, it was simply not the right scheme for the Titans. And Mike Mularkey didn’t understand that.
On Sunday, in Mularkey’s final press conference with the team, Paul Kuharsky asked him if he felt that the offense had been designed to take advantage of Mariota’s strengths. Mularkey replied:
Yeah, I think you have to do that for everybody, again, starting at the quarterback. I think you play to what their strengths are. If you don’t do that – you don’t force feed things on guys that they can’t do. That’s any position. If a tight end can’t block a defensive end, don’t put a play in there that he’s got to block a defensive end. Hopefully everybody does it, but I know that’s how this is built here with all three phases. We’re going to play to the players’ strengths and do what they do best. It’s always been that way.
Mularkey is 100% accurate with these statements. However, these statements do not reflect the way the Titans offense was run for the past two seasons. I’ve determined that Mularkey was not trying to rigidly fit a square peg into a round hole, but rather, Mularkey thought he was working with round pegs when he just wasn’t. He simply didn’t understand the strengths of his players.
It's a long story, but in short, Mularkey doesn't understand Mariota's skill set and he's had to transcend his situation to get them to 9-7.— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) July 25, 2017
People point to Mariota’s “regression” as a big issue under Mularkey’s watch. This is a tough argument for me, because I don’t believe that Marcus Mariota actually regressed all that much as a player.
His statistics certainly regressed, no doubt about that.
But in terms of his mechanics, I think he was hampered by various injuries. In terms of his processing and ability to make reads, I don’t think that went away (nor do I think that is something that even could go away). Mariota still showed the propensity to make difficult throws and quick reads when given the opportunity, even in the 2017 version of the Titans offense.
Where Mariota had “regressed” was the aspects of the game where he appeared to be struggling.
Locking onto one read, throwing into double (or triple) coverage, being fooled by disguised defensive looks, not adjusting the plays at the line of scrimmage when the defense is clearly prepared to stop the playcall...
But it seems all of these poor traits could be traced back to some element of Mularkey’s offense that was hampering Mariota’s play. Only two receivers running routes downfield, often in the same area. Delaying the playcall and adding so much pre-snap motion that Mariota didn’t have time to take in the defense, and either had no time or no authority to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage, not allowing him to get in a rhythm with short, easy passes... in short, he looked uncomfortable.
If you know me, you know I value the opinion of Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz on Twitter). He summed up the cause behind Mariota’s statistical regression very well:
The offense Tennessee demands from Mariota asks him to either be a running QB or throw to routes that aren't close to being open. That's why his stats look the way they do.— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) November 28, 2017
Mike Mularkey was a supposed offensive guru who couldn’t figure out how to improve the Titans’ offense. He didn’t put Mariota in the best position to succeed. He failed to find offensive success for the duration of the 2017 season.
But was he given a chance to change?
Jon Robinson’s Press Conference
Jon Robinson is very good at saying a lot of words while not really saying much of anything at all. Nevertheless, if we over-analyze and read far too much into some of his specific comments from the Monday press conference, we can try to understand the final details concerning Mike Mularkey’s dismissal.
Firstly, I don’t think that Mike Mularkey was fired solely because he wouldn’t make changes to his staff. I think that was certainly part of the discussion, as admitted by Robinson, but I don’t think this was as clear cut as the Mike Munchak situation, where Munchak essentially stepped down rather than fire his coordinators.
I think Mike Mularkey and Jon Robinson simply didn’t see eye-to-eye on how to construct the offense.
(on if Mike Mularkey being unwilling to make changes to the coaching staff led to his release)
I think there’s a lot of factors that go into decisions that you make that impact the football team, this obviously was a big one. That’s certainly something that was discussed.
(on his thoughts on the job Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie did this season)
I like Terry (Robiskie). I think Terry has got a great relationship with the players. Again, to me, there’s a lot that goes into game planning. There’s a lot of voices on both sides of the ball, and in the kicking game, that go into planning for a game on a weekly basis.
(on what he would say to those who claim this boils down to a power struggle between himself and Mike Mularkey)
I think this boils down to doing what we think is best for the football team moving forward, taking the next step.
(on how important it is that the next head coach exhibit flexibility in terms of game-to-game usage of Marcus Mariota)
I think that’s important in today’s league. I think that the NFL game has evolved a little bit, and I think that being able to – like I said earlier in my statement – maximize the ability of players, again, to put the team in the best position to win football games.
(on relieving Mike Mularkey of his duties after reaching the second round of the playoffs and what that says about where the bar for success is being set)
I don’t think there’s literally a set bar. Again, I think it’s the path of the team and the direction of the team, and the utilization of the players. I think that’s really what we’re looking for.
Above is a handful of cherry-picked quotes from Robinson that I think illustrate the central divide between he and Mularkey.
Mularkey thought that his offense put his players in the best position to succeed. I truly believe he was just oblivious to the reality. He didn’t know what he had in Mariota.
Clearly, he was wrong. Mularkey must have been very unwilling or unable to change his offense to better suit the players in a way that Robinson felt would be best.
The recurring theme in the above quotes concerns maximizing the players’ skills and doing what’s best for the team moving forward.
Jon Robinson apparently saw the same things that we all saw watching this team play. Screens to Eric Decker with Corey Davis blocking, Taywan Taylor lining up at right tackle, the constant use of condensed formations with vertical, long-developing routes (as opposed to using the full width of the field to create space), the lack of no-huddle and red-zone passing despite having a very proficient no-huddle and red-zone passer... I could go on and on.
Robinson made it clear that, while winning a playoff game was a great accomplishment, it’s not indicative of future success unless drastic changes were made. Robinson showed a truly admirable trait in a general manager in that he clearly values the process over the results.
Based on other comments, it seems clear to me that while the possibility of a contract extension may have been discussed, I don’t think one was ever offered.
(on going from discussing extending Mike Mularkey’s contract to ultimately relieving him of his duties)
Like I said, those are conversations that Amy (Adams Strunk) and I had ongoing, back and forth. In the end, we felt (it was) best for the team to go a different direction.
(Just to clarify, any discussion of a contract extension for Mike was contingent on changes to the coaching staff, correct?)
No, we did not talk about that.
Robinson was adamant that they did not discuss changes to Mularkey’s coaching staff in relation to a contract extension. That tells me that they didn’t discuss on any serious level a contract extension at all. If Robinson and Mularkey were really this far apart, I don’t think they would’ve gotten to the point of serious extension talks.
And no details of the supposed extension ever came out. No timetable was ever given. There was one unconfirmed report that the Titans had offered Mularkey “mininum wage,” whatever that means... It didn’t even say “mininum salary for a coach.” It just said “mininum wage.” I don’t buy it.
The Bottom Line
Based on all of the evidence, I think the most likely progression of events was something like this...
Two years ago, Jon Robinson was offered his dream job: General Manager of his hometown Tennessee Titans. Amy Adams Strunk liked Mike Mularkey a lot, and he and Robinson probably did see eye-to-eye on many aspects of how to build a football team.
Team-first, dependable players. A locker room dedicated to winning for each other. An open-door policy with full transparency from top to bottom for the players. A strong running game to compliment the passing attack, to control the ball on offense and limit the opponent’s chances to attack your defense.
Robinson likely accepted Mike Mularkey as his head coach with full confidence that Mularkey could turn the team around from a culture standpoint. He probably had his own ideas for how the offensive personnel should be utilized, but after observing the team’s 2016 performance, he was probably fairly pleased.
I bet at that point in time, Robinson was envisioning the evolution of the “exotic smashmouth.” We wrote numerous articles on this very site discussing the expectations of the offense: new power spread concepts to take advantage of the upgraded personnel, a fast, no-huddle, up-tempo attack that could combine the best of Marcus Mariota with a physically-punishing ground game, utilizing three-wide receiver sets as the offense continued to grow around Mariota... alas, it was not to be.
It probably didn’t take very long into the 2017 season for Jon Robinson to become unhappy. The offensive explosion of the 2016 season was no where to be found. The Titans continued to come out, week after week, with slow starts on one side of the ball or the other. The offense never evolved.
Robinson said his conversations with Amy Adams Strunk were “ongoing” and “back and forth.” I’m sure the post-game press conference in Kansas City did nothing to help the situation and in fact, probably made it worse for Mularkey.
Amy Adams Strunk’s statement said they evaluate things “week to week.” She said, “just to eliminate any distraction,” Mularkey would be the coach “moving forward.” No timetable given.
I think Robinson had been planning this move for a long time. I think he and Mularkey clearly see the evolution of this sport in two very different ways. I would bet, for the sake of continuity in the midst of a “winning” season, that Robinson didn’t want to fire Mularkey with games left on the schedule. I’d bet that Ian Rapoport was correct in all of his reports, but the Titans just kept winning in spite of its coaching staff, so Mularkey kept his job until he lost.
The best news in all of this is that Jon Robinson is no dummy, and he is no puppet. It also confirms that the Titans are not content to be happy with mediocrity. They didn’t excuse the offensive problems because of Mariota’s injury. They didn’t accept the nine-win season as real “progress” given the cakewalk schedule.
Jon Robinson did what was best for the football team when we needed him most.
And so ends the Mike Mularkey era in Tennessee.