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VOL. 42 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 19, 2018

Mularkey couldn’t see what most others could

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Mike Mularkey’s inability to admit his offensive coordinator’s performance deficiencies, including game plans, calling plays and his use of quarterback Marcus Mariota, ultimately led to his being fired by the Titans after two full seasons on the job.

-- Ap Photo/Steven Senne

Mike Mularkey is loyal to his coaches and his coaching philosophies, though probably to a fault, as it appears that was a huge part of why he was fired as the Tennessee Titans head coach on Monday morning.

Mularkey, just hours earlier on Sunday, had held his end-of-season press conference and explained how he not only was planning to be back in 2018, but that he expected to keep his coaching staff together.

But controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and general manager Jon Robinson obviously had other ideas, and those ideas included Mularkey making a few changes among his assistants and in his coaching ideas to better accommodate quarterback Marcus Mariota’s abilities and, as Robinson said Monday on his search for a new coach, someone who can “maximize the ability of players” and has a flexible approach to game-planning.

In the end, Mularkey – who clung to his veteran staff of coaches and an old school approach – apparently rejected that notion and was fired.

Mularkey’s loyalty to his coaches and his ideas ran deeper than probably almost anyone knew. He might not have coined the term “exotic smashmouth,” but it certainly was ingrained in his coaching DNA, as is loyalty to his coaching staff, which in the end also proved to be a factor in his exit.

I got an up-close glimpse earlier this season of how much Mularkey looked out for his assistant coaches and how much he believes in them and his coaching style.

I had no plans to report the conversation I had with Mularkey at midseason. But in the aftermath of what happened Monday, it probably sheds a little light on Mularkey’s dedication to his staff and his ideals.

This conversation took place just after the Titans had returned from their bye week and were preparing to face the Baltimore Ravens. After a media session, he summoned me to talk privately.

The gist of our conversation stemmed from a question I asked more than a week earlier after the Titans had struggled to defeat the hapless Cleveland Browns 12-9 in overtime.

I had asked whether or not he would consider taking over the play-calling duties from Terry Robiskie, as the Titans had not scored a touchdown in that lackluster win in Cleveland. Their red-zone woes were equally alarming.

By calling me over to discuss, it meant that the question had lingered in his mind throughout the bye week. He wanted me to know it was out of bounds to broach such a subject.

Discussions between coaches and reporters do happen occasionally when something is written or said that the coach takes issue with or doesn’t want to be made public.

I didn’t feel the question was out of line, because the offense was out of sync. Mularkey had been a pretty good play-caller back in the day, finding success with the Steelers with Kordell Stewart and then journeyman Tommy Maddox at quarterback.

But Mularkey very assertively defended Robiskie’s work and reminded me that just a couple of weeks earlier against the Colts that the Titans had scored on 9 of 10 possessions on Monday Night Football.

I left the conversation still confident that the question had validity. But Mularkey’s reaction gave me insight into just how much he valued Robiskie and how much he valued the way he was trying to build things with the Titans.

On Sunday, Mularkey defended his friend and coaching ally once again, saying he felt Robiskie did a “very good” job as offensive coordinator this season, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

After Robinson’s announced in his press conference Monday that the Titans needed to “go in a different direction and maximize the skill sets of the players on the field,” it brought me back to that day in November and our little talk.

Did Mularkey’s clinging to Robiskie and playing an old school style of football lead to his exit? The evidence certainly points that way.

“I think that the NFL game has evolved a little bit, and I think that (success comes with) being able to ... maximize the ability of players, again, to put the team in the best position to win football games,” Robinson said.

And on Monday, Robinson and Strunk decided Mularkey’s loyal but inflexible approach – despite 19 wins over two seasons, including a playoff victory – was not going to put the Titans in that position.

Coaching possibilities

It’s very early in the Tennessee Titans’ search for Mike Mularkey’s replacement, but already several names have surfaced as potential candidates. Others will no doubt be added to the list until a replacement is found.

Most of the names – save for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who could well wind up in Indianapolis – are coaches with no previous head coaching experience at the NFL level.

But GM Jon Robinson says he is looking for a “leader of men. Obviously, the things that are stamped out there on those pillars, team-first, detailed, tough, dependable. One that’s going to, like I said, maximize the abilities of the players in all three phases of the game.”

Here are some of the names that have been mentioned early on:

Josh McDanels

Offensive coordinator, Patriots

McDaniels and Robinson worked together when Robinson was in New England. McDaniels was a flop in a two-year run as Denver’s head coach, as was his mentor, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had four losing seasons in five years with Cleveland. He has now won five Super Bowls. The issue here is that the Colts may have beaten the Titans to the punch on McDaniels.

Mike Vrabel

Defensive coordinator, Texans

The Titans have reportedly asked for permission to interview Vrabel, who played for the Patriots when Robinson was there. Vrabel, in his first season as the Texans DC, also has ties to the Steelers, where he played for Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. If the Titans want LeBeau to stay, this might be their best chance.

Frank Reich

Offensive coordinator, Eagles

Reich is best known to fans of the Titans franchise for orchestrating the comeback by the Buffalo Bills against the Houston Oilers in 1993. Reich doesn’t call the plays for the Eagles, but his work in developing Carson Wentz certainly is worth noting.

Steve Wilks

Defensive coordinator, Panthers

Wilks took over as the Panthers defensive coordinator this year, and is drawing interest from a number of teams like the Giants and Cardinals as he looks to be on the fast track to somewhere as a head coach.

He would also satisfy the Rooney Rule as a minority candidate. There is a report that the Titans have reached out to set up an interview already.

Matt LeFluer

Offensive coordinator, Rams

Another guy who doesn’t call the plays, but is getting some attention for helping develop Jared Goff and same way, Reich has had a hand in Wentz’s ascent. There is a report that the Titans have already requested to interview him.

Jim Schwartz

Defensive coordinator, Eagles

He is obviously familiar to Titans fans, based on his successful run as Jeff Fisher’s defensive coordinator. His previous tenure here probably won’t mean much to Robinson and a regime that has no ties to when Schwartz coached here.

But his defense in Philly has been outstanding, and he was once the Lions head coach, taking them to the postseason.

Jim Bob Cooter

Offensive coordinator, Lions

A creative offensive mind and a former UT backup quarterback and a Tennessee native. Cooter has gotten rave reviews for his work with Matthew Stafford, but strangely has not been considered by the Lions for their own head coaching vacancy.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com