NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It has been less than two weeks since the Tennessee Titans had their tumultuous 2017-2018 season conclude in Foxborough, Mass. with a 35-14 divisional loss at the hands of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots.
Holy hell, does that feel like a lifetime ago.
Since then, Tennessee reportedly offered former coach Mike Mularkey an extension before mutually agreeing to part ways with him the very next day, citing “different paths to achieve greater success,” according to the franchise’s controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk. Three days later, general manager Jon Robinson began the process of interviewing head coaching candidates, waiting only that long because of inclement weather, and landed Mularkey’s successor, former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, not even a full week later. All this from what could be easily considered the most anonymous team in the NFL.
Think again, say the Titans.
Firing the coach who lead the organization to back-to-back winning seasons in his two years on the job full-time, its first postseason berth since 2008 and a playoff win for the first time since 2003 took serious stones, for lack of a better term. Mularkey appeared emboldened in his end-of-season press conference, likely due to the January 7th statement made by Adams Strunk which voiced support for him when rumors began to swirl about his job status heading into the Week 17 season finale and again before the Wild Card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Mularkey’s offense had sputtered in his second year at the helm and his unwillingness to move on from then offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie showed both loyalty worth praising and a widening disconnect between Mularkey and those who employed him.
“We’ve done a lot of good things here over the last two years,” Robinson told the media in his press conference following the Mularkey decision. “I just felt like we needed to go a different direction and maximize the skill sets of the players on the field.”
Robinson made it clear in the decision to part ways that he is not to be trifled with if he feels change is needed, regardless of a season that could (and should) be considered a success. The GM now opens himself up to criticism at best if his new hire falters.
Judging by what we have observed of Robinson during his tenure, that criticism will not bother him one bit.
Shocking as the parting of ways with Mularkey may have seemed, the move showed Robinson’s conviction in his plan for Tennessee and a fearlessness in his decision making. Despite the first Titans playoff victory since Jan. 3rd 2004, Mularkey’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 product’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.
Robinson put aside emotion when we saw that change was needed. And, when Mularkey showed further unwillingness to adapt, Robinson took the situation into his own hands.
As a talent evaluator, Robinson believes he knows what the team he helped construct is capable of and there has been no real reason to doubt his belief thus far. Mike Mularkey was never a fan favorite but he was a good coach and a good person; Mularkey had strong support in the Titans locker room and the love of and belief in the coach by his players. Trafficking in such feel-good, though, sometimes leads to complacency and the Tennessee Titans have been a franchise complacent for entirely too long; it is clear Jon Robinson has no interest in such contentment.
Vrabel, for his part, walks into a situation wrought with pressure.
2017 was the first season of national relevancy for Tennessee in quite some time and Vrabel, as a rookie NFL head coach (albeit a rising star), inherits a playoff team with a young, promising core of players in a division that promises to be far more competitive in 2018 when stars like Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Allen Robinson and J.J. Watt return from injury, a complete overhaul in Indianapolis and an apparent juggernaut in Jacksonville.
With the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota being of the utmost importance, the news that Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ryan Day, who worked as a quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers under Mariota’s college coach Chip Kelly, would not be leaving Columbus to handle the Titans offensive play-calling has not gone unnoticed. Vrabel made it clear in his opening press conference that college football is the “greatest farm system in the world” and cited that Mariota would be given “some easy access throws, whether that be RPOs (run-pass options) or run reliefs” that are hallmarks of the modern college game.
Day’s decision to stay put, coupled with former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher (also linked to the Titans) reportedly opting for the same position with the New York Giants instead of Tennessee has drawn scrutiny, warranted or not. Vrabel, Robinson and other members of the Titans organization are at the Senior Bowl scouting prospects and meeting with potential coaches to fill out the 2018 staff after reportedly deciding to part ways with a majority of Mularkey’s staff, who were all under contract in 2018. Remember, Vrabel has not yet been the head coach for a full week.
So, with the events of the past month behind them, will things begin to settle down around the Tennessee Titans?
No, nor should we anticipate things at St. Thomas Sports Park relaxing for quite some time. Mike Vrabel’s introductory press conference set the standard for what to expect from the Titans fifth head coach in franchise history. The 14-year NFL veteran commanded the attention of the room from the moment he swaggered in until the minute he was done fielding questions. His honesty and thoughtfulness was refreshing and abrupt in its nature; each question Vrabel was asked was digested and answered without immediately launching into coaching cliches and platitudes as we are accustomed. The attentiveness with which he responded put the media on notice that we had all better bring our best because Vrabel certainly intends to bring his.
Too often we see cowardice plague individuals at the highest levels of sport, whether it be in coaching or management. This fear of the unknown or refusal to change simply for the sake of changing infects the decisiveness of those who feel less secure in their position. Between Vrabel and Robinson, there is a note of unpredictability and confidence, earned or not, that one cannot help but notice; a genuine sense that whatever the future holds, it will be brash in nature and that this newly formed duo will attack it head on. Whether Robinson made the correct gamble in moving on from Mularkey and whether Vrabel pans out as his new hire are largely irrelevant for the moment.
The time to make those judgements will come soon enough.
What is hugely relevant, for the moment, is the Tennessee Titans organization, from top to bottom. And, while a good deal of the fan base treats any excitement around this team with warranted skepticism, the resolve Robinson shows in his decision-making and the zeal with which Vrabel appears to approach his new job promises that the 2018 Tennessee Titans will do anything but settle.
— 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) January 26, 2018