NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After initially offering him a contract extension Sunday night, according to reports, the Tennessee Titans announced they would be parting ways with coach Mike Mularkey Monday in the wake of the franchise’s first playoff run in 14 years. Mularkey was 20-21 in one season as interim and two additional seasons when he was hired full-time as head coach in 2016. He helped guide a team from a three-win season and the worst record in football to back-to-back 9-7 campaigns.
Tennessee was eliminated from postseason contention with a 35-14 divisional-round loss to the New England Patriots this past Saturday.
“I want to thank Mike Mularkey for his contributions to our franchise over his tenure with our organization,” controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said in a statement released by the team earlier this morning. “He took over our team during a low moment and together with Jon built a solid foundation for our franchise. I appreciated that Mike devoted himself to this team and the community. In fact, we did discuss extending his future with our team over the past week, but in those discussions about the direction of the team, it became evident that we saw different paths to achieve greater success. It is certainly unfortunate that we couldn’t find enough common ground. I generally believe that continuity is the best path for success, but I also view this as an important moment for our football team as we try to make that next step to sustained success on the field. Jon will begin the search immediately to identify that person.”
The disconnect and subsequent parting of ways between Mularkey and the Titans organization came after a bizarre sequence of events hours before the team’s 2017 regular season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars on New Year’s Eve.
Tennessee planned to fire Mularkey in the event that the Titans lost to Jacksonville at home after losing three games in a row heading into Week 17, sources confirmed, but the 15-10 Tennessee victory that night prolonged his stay and locked the team into the fifth seed in the AFC Playoffs.
Rumors of Mularkey’s uncertain job status began circulating again before the Wild Card match-up against the Kansas City Chiefs but, again, Tennessee emerged victorious 22-21 in its first postseason appearance since 2008. After the win in Kansas City, Mularkey was asked about the noise surrounding his job security and said he had not “had any support (from ownership or management) to say that I was (secure). No. I just assumed the worst.”
The win prompted Adams Strunk to issue her initial statement on the coach on January 7th, saying that “just to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward.”
What a difference eight days can make.
The belief that ownership and management were behind Mularkey felt solidified by the first Adams Strunk statement on him and were solidified by reports of his potential extension. But, in his Sunday end-of-season press conference, Mularkey responded to a question about his coaching staff that proved to be a point of contention and, according to GM Jon Robinson Monday in his media availability at St. Thomas Sports Park, factored into the decision to ultimately part ways.
Despite the first Titans playoff victory since Jan. 3rd 2004, Tennessee’s oft-described “exotic smashmouth” offense had been both ineffective and inconsistent throughout the entirety of the 2017 season. A team that finished 2016 out of the postseason picture that year still managed to accumulate 358.0 yards-per-game (11th) and boasted the third-best rushing attack in football (2,187 total rushing yards). This year, however, those totals dipped to 314.0 yards-averaged (23rd) and 1,833 total yards on the ground (15th).
One of the most troubling trends was the offense’s inability to convert third downs. The Titans moved the sticks on third down 46.1% of the time in 2016 (third in the NFL). In 2017, they finished 25th in that category at 35.1% and had as many total first downs this season (290) as the 0-16 Cleveland Browns, tied for 22nd.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota also appeared to take a step back in Year 3 of his NFL career under Mularkey and Robiskie. Mariota was hampered by injuries throughout the season but finished the 2017 regular season with 13 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. Coupled with a significant decline in the Oregon’s red zone production, a area that has been one of Mariota’s greatest strengths, and it was clear to almost everyone watching closely enough that a change, either philosophically or in terms of play-calling, would be needed heading into the club’s offseason.
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 13, 2018
“I think Terry (Robiskie) did a very good job, very good job,” said Mularkey of his oft-criticized offensive coordinator. “Being a play-caller, that’s not easy. I thought he did a very good job.”
Asked if anticipated any changes to his staff moving forward, the three-time head coach responded, “I don’t.”
It is there that a disconnect between Mularkey and the Titans organization may have arisen. A season that opened with high expectations for a team with an abundance of young talent ended in disappointment with Mariota describing his feelings after the New England loss as “embarrassed.”
The next head coach of the Tennessee Titans will be Mariota’s third in only his first four seasons.
Mularkey’s loyalty was one of his most endearing hallmarks. It inspired a palpable love of him by the players in the Tennessee locker room and established his reputation among his peers as one of the more respected coaches in the League. But the inability to adapt and adjust was what seemed to bog down the Titans offense in 2017 and the final statements made by Mularkey Sunday did not do much to provide future optimism.
Loyal to a fault, as the saying goes.
Robinson would not say specifically Monday whether Mularkey’s unwillingness to make changes to the coaching staff led to his release but did say that “there’s a lot of factors that go into decisions that impact a football team, this obviously (was) a big one.
“That’s certainly something that was discussed.”
Asked if what Mularkey said in his press conference yesterday impacted his job status, Robinson: “I would say yes.”
According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the Titans plan to interview Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel for the head coaching vacancy. Robinson, who was hired away from the New England Patriots in 2016 after 12 years with the organization in several personnel capacities, has a prior relationship with Vrabel because of their time together in New England.
Current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has also been in consideration for the Tennessee job, dating back to the initial NFL Network report on Mularkey’s uncertain status before the Week 17 win over the Jaguars. His ties to Robinson make the connection an easy one but NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported Monday that McDaniels will likely accept the same position with the AFC South rival Indianapolis Colts.
Even if the Titans were able to lure McDaniels away from Indianapolis at this stage, they would not be able to interview him until January 28th at the earliest; the 28th is the earliest available window to interview coaches still competing in the NFL playoffs.
“Our goal remains that same,” Robinson told the Nashville media Monday after thanking Mularkey for all the coach has done for the team and the community. “We are committed to our fans, to bring a championship home to this great city and state. These decisions are never easy, yet Amy (Adams Strunk) and I remain steadfast, and the most important thing is the team – putting our players in position to maximize their ability in all three phases of the game.
“I’m very proud of the success we have had over the last two seasons, and look forward to working with our new head coach, and moving us closer to and ultimately winning a championship.”
— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) January 15, 2018