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VOL. 131 | NO. 245 | Friday, December 9, 2016

I Was Wrong. Mularkey is the Right Coach for Titans

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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In light of the Tennessee Titans’ 6-6 record and continuing relevance in the NFL playoff picture, I offer those three little words that are so hard to say:

The Tennessee Titans’ decision to name interim head coach Mike Mularkey their head coach last season was met with disappointment by many. Now, it’s a good bet that many are OK with that choice.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

“I was wrong.”

And here’s three more:

“I apologize, Mike.”

There you have it. I thought the selection of Mike Mularkey as head coach was a disaster in the making. I was wrong. Maybe you were, too.

While I’m not ready to vote for Mularkey as Coach of the Year (although that time might yet come), let’s give the man his due. Mularkey has performed far better in his role as head coach than I expected.

The proof is in the standings. The Titans are in contention for the AFC South championship – tied for first place with Texas and Indianapolis – and the playoff berth that goes with it.

You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time the Titans were at or above .500 this deep into the season.

Beyond mere numbers, these Titans pass the eye test. They look like a legitimately solid team. They play physical football on both offense and defense. They are well coached.

All of the above is a credit to Mularkey. He put the plan in place. His assistants have implemented it. And the players are executing it.

Yes, there are pass coverage issues due to a porous secondary. And special teams play has been suspect. But the overall trend is upward, as evidenced in the standings.

The Titans believe in what they’re doing, and that reflects well on Mularkey. Perhaps the most impressive thing he has done so far is to keep his team from flinching after it opened the season 1-3.

Mularkey kept talking about how this team had improved over the previous version and how that improvement eventually would show up in the standings.

At 1-3, I recognized improvement in some areas but doubted this was going to be anything other than a 4-12 season.

What are those three words again? Oh, yeah. I was wrong.

Certainly, it was fish-in-barrel easy to criticize the hire. Instead of aiming high, the Titans aimed low. I figured they got their man with Mularkey.

It wasn’t a pretty picture. After Ken Whisenhunt was fired at midseason last year, Mularkey assumed the role of interim head coach. The Titans went 2-7 under him. Given Mularkey’s past head coaching failures in Buffalo and Jacksonville, that wasn’t a surprise.

Nor was it a surprise when Amy Adams Strunk, controlling owner of the franchise, named Mularkey permanent head coach last January. That’s how the Titans roll.

Strunk said she wanted continuity. Given the hire, I figured all she really wanted was mediocrity.

Well, Strunk got continuity. But she also got something that has been lacking for the last few years: competitiveness. No longer do the Titans go into any game knowing it’s a certain loss. Hopefully, those days are over.

It has proven to be a good match. The Titans needed a head coach. Mularkey craved another chance at a head coaching job.

Mularkey was so desperate to get the job that he didn’t make many demands. But one of them was that he be permitted to surround himself with the staff of his choice. He wanted to sink or swim with assistants he knew and trusted.

Strunk agreed. To her, it made perfect sense. Besides, with her limited knowledge of the inside workings of an NFL coaching staff, who was she going to demand he hire or not hire?

Of course, Mularkey’s choices raised some red flags. Letting Ray Horton leave to join the Cleveland Browns staff and immediately elevating Dick LeBeau to defensive coordinator was a no-brainer. That was a start.

It was a tougher call to hire Terry Robiskie as offensive coordinator.

Robiskie, a one-time star running back at LSU, is pretty much an NFL lifer. He’s been in the league 35 years, including three games as interim head coach for the Redskins in 2000 and five games with Browns in ’04. But he hadn’t structured an offensive game plan or called plays since that ’04 season in Cleveland.

And then there was Russ Grimm, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee for his 11-year career as a member in good standing of the Hogs, the famed Washington Redskins offensive line of the ’80s and early ’90s. Grimm had been out of the league since 2012 and most considered his coaching days behind him.

But Mularkey had worked with Grimm for three seasons in Pittsburgh. He and Robiskie had been on the same staffs at Miami and Atlanta. Besides their familiarity, Mularkey saw Robiskie and Grimm as coaches who shared his core offensive principles – toughness, execution, strong running attack and quality play-action passing game.

In short, both Robiskie and Grimm subscribed to Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” approach.

There were some growing pains. During the slow start to the season, the Titans sometimes looked confused and listless on offense. Quarterback Marcus Mariota appeared to be stuck in a sophomore slump.

Even then, though, you could see that things were better up front. Rookie right tackle Jack Conklin proved to be a quick study. Left tackle Taylor Lewan, although still subject to the occasional error in judgment, was mauling people on that side. New arrival Ben Jones was settling in at center.

Bit by bit, the pieces started to fit. The Titans are 5-3 since their 1-3 start.

Something to consider: With two wins as interim head coach last year and six wins this season, Mularkey is tied for the ninth-winningest coach in Oilers/Titans franchise history. He’s far exceeded the victory total of his predecessor, Ken Whisenhunt, who hired him as tight ends coach in January 2014 and added the title assistant head coach prior to the 2015 season.

Mularkey owes both his arrival in Nashville and his current coaching success with the Titans to Whisenhunt. After getting fired as head coach in Jacksonville after a 2-14 season in 2012, Mularkey was out of coaching for a year. Whisenhunt realized he would be an asset on the staff.

As for Mularkey’s success once he got the head coaching gig with the Titans, let’s not forget it was Whisenhunt and then-general manager Ruston Webster that drafted Mariota with the second overall pick. Having a true franchise quarterback is the cornerstone of the rebuilding effort.

Beyond that, Mularkey learned from some of Whisenhunt’s mistakes as head coach. He made it a point to develop better relationships with the players. That’s one of the reasons the veterans have bought into his philosophy, with the younger players following their lead.

It was tough to get a read on what Whisenhunt’s vision and overall philosophy was for this franchise. What makes him a good offensive coordinator to this day was part of Whisenhunt’s undoing as a head coach. He never saw the big picture because he was too focused on getting the football from Point A to Point B by any means possible.

In contrast, Mularkey sees the bigger picture. He gets it.

And I was wrong.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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