Typically, when your team wins a playoff game, you get to keep your job. Not so for now-former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey. The Titans sent Mularkey packing less than two days after the team was whipped by the New England Patriots, 35-14. Of course, that was also after the prior week, when Mularkey’s team won its first playoff game in 14 years. The move means Tennessee’s franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota, will start next season playing, yet again, for a new head coach. GM Jon Robinson was clear about the reasons for Mularkey’s dismissal: “There’s nothing more that I want for our fans than to bring a championship here… I feel like it’s my charge to put the team in the best position to do that.”
That may be a balm to many long-suffering Titans fans, but it’s also a bit confusing. When Mularkey was hired, Tennessee had the worst two-season record in the NFL. He went 3-13 in his first season, then 9-7 twice before making the playoffs this year. Under his leadership, the team showed steady growth, making the playoffs and winning a game before being beaten by the favorite to win it all, the Patriots.
There are many factors, though, that seem to point to the decision making at least some sense. First, the Titans imploded late this season. While they could have won the AFC South, they finished the season 0-3, backing into the playoffs when they had started December in a controlling position. Then there’s the offense. There is no doubt in the minds of anyone in Tennessee that the offense should be built around Mariota’s considerable gifts as both a runner and a passer. That said, Mularkey tends to love his own system, something he’s been married to since his days as the OC for the Steelers.
And that apparent lack of flexibility showed up somewhere else too. When the team’s controlling owner, Amy Strunk, showed some frustration with Mularkey’s staff, he defended them. When she hinted that his loyalty to people she believed were not right for the team may put his job in jeopardy, Mularkey did not seem to get the memo. Strunk described the necessity of her decision as “unfortunate” adding that they were not able to come to an agreement with Mularkey. “I view this as an important moment for our football team as we try to make that next step to sustained success on the field…”
That “next step” remains to be seen. Mariota is good, but every new system has a learning curve, and he still needs a lot of help offensively. Stability on the sideline gives a team the opportunity to address those needs. But here the Titans are again, back at square one.