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VOL. 40 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 1, 2016

Hello top draft pick, goodbye (probably) Mularkey

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The Tennessee Titans probably played interim head coach Mike Mularkey, left, out of a job with last week’s 34-6 loss to the Texans.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Zaleski

The Tennessee Titans are on the clock. If they lose to the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s season finale, the Titans franchise will have the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft for the first time since the Houston Oilers took Earl Campbell first overall in 1978.

But, win or lose in Indianapolis, the clock is ticking on the Titans franchise in a number of ways this offseason.

Sunday’s 34-6 embarrassment at home against the Houston Texans might have well sealed the fate of interim coach Mike Mularkey. A loss to the Texans in front of the team’s ownership group was the final straw for Ken Whisenhunt in November, and a worse performance on Sunday is not the resume builder the candid and congenial Mularkey needs at this point to land the gig permanently.

Of course, another question is whether or not Amy Adams Strunk and her family will replace general manager Ruston Webster as well.

There are plenty of fans, media types and maybe even people in the organization who believe it is time for the Titans to burn it to the ground and start over. Get rid of the coaches, the general manager, the scouting department, the front office, much of the non-football operations and anyone on the roster not named Mariota, Walker or Casey.

But even that is no guarantee that things will get better anytime soon. The Jacksonville Jaguars applied the scorched-earth philosophy after 2012 when new owner Shad Khan took over and hired Gus Bradley as coach and Dave Caldwell as general manager.

In year one, they gutted the roster and basically turned the Jags into an expansion team again.

Three years later, the Jaguars are still tallying double-digit losses, and now there are at least whispers that changes could be made again because the progress hasn’t come quickly enough.

So what are the Titans to do? How patient are ownership and fans willing to be if the Titans take a full do-over?

We already know that a new coach is likely on the horizon. And those who want Webster swept away in the tide of change have ammunition when they see the overall lack of depth on the roster and too many misses in the second and third rounds of recent drafts.

But in Webster’s defense, he has basically been behind the eight-ball from the beginning of his tenure.

He has answered to three different bosses – Bud Adams, Tommy Smith and Strunk with Steve Underwood as her liaison.

Each gave Webster the coach they wanted:

  • Adams hired Mike Munchak
  • Smith fired him and hired Whisenhunt
  • Strunk pulled the plug on Whiz in favor of Mularkey. It has already been made clear that she will direct the search for the new coach.

Some of Webster’s shortcomings in managing the roster can be attributed to that instability, as well.

Adams lorded over free agency in 2012, salivating over Peyton Manning, even though Webster and the coaching staff wanted to sign Mario Williams to fix the defense. While Manning deliberated, and ultimately chose the Broncos, the Titans never got to make their pitch to Williams and wound up with neither.

They settled for Kam Wimbley as a consolation, and we know how that worked out.

That’s not to absolve Webster of drafting Zaviar Gooden or signing Andy Levitre, but it seems abundantly clear now that the general manager and his scouts spent a good bit of their time trying to find the players to fit what the coach at the time wanted to do.

And with coaching changes, there were simply too many square pegs that didn’t fit into the new coach’s round holes. Thus, wasted draft picks. You only need to look at how eager Whisenhunt was to move on from Jake Locker to realize that.

It’s also a big reason why only six players from the 2011 and 2012 draft combined remain on the current roster. How much of that is on Webster, and how much of it is on the organization’s instability and inability to develop and adapt players?

It’s a question Amy Adams Strunk has to answer quickly regarding Webster’s fate. Because if her choice is to start over, then hiring a GM and coach become immediate priorities 1 and 1A. The offseason waits for no one, and a new hierarchy has no time to waste with the Senior Bowl, combine, pro days, free agency and the draft beginning once the season ends.

The right hire not only would have to be made, but made quickly enough that the front office and coaching staff can hit the ground sprinting without any delays.

That’s why the Titans are already on the clock, no matter what pick they have in the 2016 draft.

Four things to watch

1. Mularkey swan song?

The head coach took over in a tough spot when Whisenhunt was fired seven games into the season. Mularkey’s team caught lightning in a bottle in the first week against the Saints but have won just once since. Sunday in Indianapolis could be his final game as head coach of the Titans.

2. The No.1 pick

Is it OK to root for your team to lose? Well, that’s a matter of principle and an opinion, but the Titans can secure the first overall pick in the draft for 2016 if they can continue to do what they have done often this season – lose football games.

3. See who is still playing hard

A couple of times in recent weeks, the Titans have come out flat with little to play for other than draft position. But those who are still fighting hard – see Jurrell Casey’s chase of Brandon Marshall a few weeks ago vs. the Jets – will be evident on Sunday, as will those who have the car running and can’t wait to get to the golf course.

4. The defensive play

The Titan defense was making progress in the middle of the season, but the loss of Jason McCourty and Derrick Morgan has forced them to be much more patchwork. The lack of depth shows, but if the Colts start Stephen Morris at QB, there are no excuses not to dominate.

Three matchups to watch

Colts offensive line vs. Titans defensive line

If there is an offensive line that has played worse than the Titans this year, it is Indianapolis. The Colts are starting their fourth quarterback, and obviously putting such a porous group in front of Andrew Luck, who has missed several weeks with a lacerated kidney, is a major reason why both Coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson may be shown the door. The defensive line is one of the Titans’ few strengths, and Sunday offers a chance to win that matchup.

Perrish Cox and Coty Sensabaugh vs. T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief

They might not know who is throwing them the football on Sunday, but Hilton and Moncrief are big-play receivers who have to be accounted for. The Titans secondary has been very suspect this season, especially on the corners.

Zach Mettenberger vs. Colts defense

Mettenberger is overdue for a win as a starter and this could be his best shot to break his nine-start winless streak against the beleaguered Colts defense.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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