VOL. 131 | NO. 260 | Friday, December 30, 2016
Titaned Up: Success Found In Big Moves, Smallest Details
BY TERRY McCORMICK, Nashville Sports Correspondent
Most critics of last year’s Tennessee Titans saw unsettled ownership, a revolving door of coaches and a lack of talent at key positions.
Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, with ball, is congratulated by one of the team’s best offseason acquisitions, center Ben Jones, after McCourty recovered a fumble against the Denver Broncos.
(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Jon Robinson saw weeds.
As the newly hired general manager made his way around St. Thomas Sports Park, he noticed a patch of weeds growing next to the building. It was an oversight by groundskeepers and probably didn’t faze other people who made their way in and out of the building.
But Robinson saw it as indicative of a business that had lost sight of details.
Those weeds had no place in his organization, and they were soon gone, like many of the players from the 3-13 team Robinson had been handed.
It’s a lesson any business owner or manager should heed.
“That was one of the first things I did,” Robinson recalls. “I put the clicker down. I quit watching film for 30 minutes and I walked around the facility.
“The goalposts looked like they hadn’t been painted in 15 years. I looked at it and said, ‘Hey, let’s get a fresh coat of paint on these.’ There’s weeds here, let’s get that.
“Can we put some landscaping at the front entrance where the players come in, so that it’s not just grass?
“The awning hadn’t been changed out in 15 or 20 years. It’s a faded blue. It’s not Titans blue.
“Those little things that sometimes go unnoticed because you get in a daily grind – it’s not anybody’s fault – but a fresh set of eyes coming in, hey, if we’re going to talk about being a first-class organization, then let’s do it. Let’s all pitch in and do our part.”
As evidenced by their Christmas Eve stumble in Jacksonville that ultimately eliminated them from playoff consideration, the Titans are in need of additional weeding.
They will miss the postseason for the eighth consecutive season, though they can post their first winning season in five years if they close the season with a victory over AFC South champ Houston on New Year’s Day.
Beginning of the change
The somewhat unlikely professional marriage between Robinson and head coach Mike Mularkey, arranged by controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk 11 months ago, has worked well enough to push the Titans back toward respectability after nearly a decade of obscurity.
Robinson’s pro football background comes from New England, where he learned at the feet of Bill Belichick, working his way through the scouting ranks. And though Mularkey’s head coaching resume didn’t excite Titans’ fans, the journeyman coach had cut his teeth in a winning culture as a player and assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It was pretty evident early on, really from our first conversation, that we were going to mesh well – that his vision for what he wanted a team to look like was very similar to what I wanted a team to look like,” Robinson explains.
“He’s easy to work with. We can have the tough discussions, hash things out and even agree to disagree sometimes, and that’s part of the positions that he and I are both in. It’s about what’s best for the football team.”
Despite both men coming from different backgrounds and experiences, they shared a vision for what they saw the Titans becoming.
“First off, I sat down with coach Mularkey and established what is our vision for this football team,” Robinson says. “When I first talked to Mike about him being the head coach, (we talked) about how we were going to go about building this football team. He’s taken and added a lot of things from his experience in the league – from the Steelers and Atlanta.
“I certainly took a lot from coach Belichick and Jason Licht down in Tampa, things they did in both of the places I have been, and it helped us to try to come up with our own brand – to see what worked in those two places I’ve been and all the places Mike’s been, and come together with a shared vision of what is going to take Titans football and put it back on the map.”
Putting Titans football “back on the map” meant making tough decisions in a number of areas, Mularkey adds.
“We started trading for guys that we liked and signed guys that we liked and drafted guys that we liked and we kept guys that we liked, and we don’t keep guys that don’t want to (buy in),’’ he explains. “I think it’s important because we’re doing what we said we’re going to do.”
It meant parting ways with high draft picks who had proven unproductive or no longer fit what the Titans wanted. That included former Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter (second round 2013), running back Bishop Sankey (second round 2014) and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson (third round, 2013).
They traded receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (second round, 2015), projected to be a starter at the beginning of camp, for a backup tackle as part of gutting the 2015 draft class that has only four of nine picks still on the roster.
But that’s still better than the 2013 class, which has only two of eight selections remaining.
“We have a certain type of player that we’re looking for,” Robinson says. “Our creed, if you will, is that we’re looking for tough, dependable players who are team-first.
“And we’ve been preaching that from the start, that that’s the type of player we want.
“We tried to get as many of those guys (as we could) on our football team. There were a lot that were here already. Certainly in free agency and the draft, we tried to add to what was here already – players with that as the focal point in their football vision for themselves.
“It’s been fun to watch the guys come together.”
Finding those players was another part of the process. And while Robinson was no doubt the “fresh set of eyes” charged with giving the Titans their new coat of paint, Mularkey also was critical to the process.
Despite an 18-39 career head coaching mark with failed stops in Buffalo and Jacksonville, Mularkey might have been the right man at the right time to meld with the first-time GM. While many questioned removing the “interim” tag after he went 2-7 with Ken Whisenhunt’s rubble last year, that head start proved invaluable in the remaking of the Titans.
Mularkey had spent that time wisely – evaluating players and coaches in case he kept the job beyond his temporary stint.
“I was a new coach, and that was very difficult, but that was the advantage I had of being here,” he says. “I could already go through the roster, and when Jon got here I’m sure that was a huge advantage for Jon to know that I knew the roster and knew our guys.
“You saw a lot of change (in players) and a lot of change in the coaching staff, as well,” he adds.
Mularkey sets the tone
In his first meeting with the team, back on Nov. 3, 2015, the day Whisenhunt was shown the door, Mularkey’s message was direct. And it proved to be a harbinger of the same message Robinson would communicate some two months or so later.
“Regardless of what the league thinks, this is what I’ve been a part of and the teams I’ve won with,” Mularkey says. “They needed to know then, knowing that there’s not really a lot I can do. I can’t change the players today, and I can’t change the scheme or the coaches, but as long as I know this is the message, then they know what’s expected from them when they come into work every day.
“I think we got that.”
It proved to be a two-way street with players endorsing Mularkey.
“Him being here last year as an interim head coach, I think was huge,” cornerback Jason McCourty says. “There was a good amount of guys who were here last year that got to get a feel for who he was and how he went about his business.
“I don’t think for him this year there was any of the guys having to earn his respect. We already kind of knew what he was about and who he was.”
It also helped that Robinson’s M.O. was similar – establish the right culture with hard work, results and the promise that the formula can and will yield wins.
“(I wanted) to really take stock of the team,” Robinson says. “There were a lot of good football players on this team already. Some of the Pro Bowlers this year were here last year.
“I don’t know if there is an exact phrase or set of words to put into terms ‘the changing of the culture.’ That’s an oft-used term, but how do you really go about doing it? I think you come in, you work, you establish the foundation and the philosophy about what we want to be as a football team.”
More than lip service
Once both men were on board, the makeover began in a number of areas. As important as the player acquisitions would be to the team on the field, the commitment to make things better inside the complex had to be there, too.
Robinson’s detailed approach translated to a renovated locker room, an updated practice bubble and renovations throughout the building, all intended to send a message to players that everything from carpet on the floor to the players who walk on it would be key to the change in culture.
“There’s a good vibe in the building,” Robinson says. “The whole building is excited now, marketing, ticketing and everybody is excited about the direction we’re headed.”
That resonated with the Titans players – especially those who have endured the losing of years past.
What changed? What didn’t change might be the better question.
“Probably just the attitude of how they walked around the building and in meetings, just the expectations on the field, pointing out little details,” punter Brett Kern explains.
“Things that might have slipped before were brought to your attention. You could just tell their sincerity of how much they wanted to win, and it definitely rubs off on guys when they see the effort that they are putting forth.”
Many of the veteran Titans had heard or even vocalized the talk of culture change before. But after four coaches and four GMs in 10 years, that message was no doubt greeted with early skepticism.
Talk quickly became action, and promises made soon became promises delivered. Facility renovation was one of the first steps toward making believers out of the players.
“I think it made a lot of guys, especially from past years, feel good around here,” defensive end Jurrell Casey says. “A lot of times guys would ask for certain things around here that they wanted to get changed, and it wasn’t getting done.
“But they were more open and willing to get it done, and I think guys appreciated that. When your facilities are A-1, it makes your team feel good. It keeps a lot of guys healthy and taking care of their bodies and able to get the job done. They’ve been getting things done, and that’s what has changed it around for us.”
Pride and performance
It was simple, effective and helped to build trust between players and management.
“These guys spend a lot of time here, and these coaches spend a lot of time here,” Robinson says.
“We wanted to build a first-class facility. There was a structure in place, but we wanted to put our stamp on it and give it a facelift – open the locker room up so that people could come together. Show them that we care about their bodies by updating a bubble that had been here 18 years.
“The players take notice of that. It shows that these guys care about us; our owner cares about us. ”
Linebacker Derrick Morgan, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, says the results on the field have been the next step toward making the Titans relevant again.
“The only thing that gets everybody on board is results. This is a results-oriented business,” he explains. “There’s been a lot of lip service here, a lot of promises, a lot of culture changes, but until you start getting results on the field, it doesn’t amount to much until you can actually see the dividends of the work.
“That’s when the mentality shifts, in my opinion.”
For McCourty, it’s seeing the delivery on the promises made.
Mularkey vowed the Titans would run the football. Robinson traded for DeMarco Murray and bolstered that by drafting 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
The Titans made the offensive line a priority to better run the ball and protect Marcus Mariota. They signed Ben Jones to fix the longtime center issue and drafted Jack Conklin, turning a perennial weakness into a strength.
“It started even before we got here in April,” McCourty says. “What Mularkey talked about before we left, and then Jon Robinson coming in as the GM and seeing the moves we were making, it was like, ‘Wow. This is the exact thing we talked about when he said what type of team we wanted to be.’
“You could see that team being built, so it was real easy to buy in, because guys saw all the signs around them of the team moving in the right direction.”
Like others, McCourty had heard the talk so many times before. This time, he saw results.
“This is different,” he says. “Guys like Casey, Morg, (Karl) Klug, just talking to those guys about the different feeling.
“In the past, I felt like we just didn’t make any of those risky or big splash moves, whether that’s good or bad, we just didn’t make them.
“As soon as Jon Robinson got here, we got DeMarco and we traded the pick. It was big move after big move. You always have to have hope going into the year, but actually seeing those moves, that was the big difference in this year from past years.
“We’re a better team. The culture has changed, but also, there’s just more talent in the locker room, and that enables you to win more games.”
Rebuilding the Titans isn’t just Robinson’s job, it’s something he’s wanted since he pulled for the Titans in their Super Bowl run back in 1999 while at Southeast Missouri State. He can empathize with Titans’ fans.
“To have the national attention, and more importantly, the local attention – the fans, it’s been a dry spell for them. I was one of those fans at one time,” says Robinson, a native of Union City.
“I remember trying to break plastic bowls when they came up a yard short in the Super Bowl. I was devastated at that moment. I was a sophomore or junior in college. I know how important football is to this state, to this region, to this city and it’s been fun to get them back.
“I remember after the Denver game walking out and seeing them all crowded around the tunnel as we went back in and screaming, ‘Go, Titans! We’re proud of you!’ That’s cool.”
And the process is ongoing.
Robinson and Mularkey will be very busy this off-season pushing forward with the agenda they share.
“In the end, I’m charged with and Mike is charged with doing what is best for the football team,” Robinson says. “He had to make a coaching change (firing special teams coach and close friend Bobby April) in the middle of the season.
“That wasn’t easy for him either. But in the end, nothing is above the fireball (Titans logo).”