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VOL. 40 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 2, 2016

Mularkey seeks elusive success in third shot as NFL head coach

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Running back DeMarco Murray embraces Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey after a 71-yard touchdown during the Titans’ preseason opener against San Diego. Having Murray and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the same backfield might help Mularkey’s third tenure a success.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Zaleski

Is the third time the charm for Mike Mularkey? The Tennessee Titans certainly hope so.

Mularkey’s first two NFL head coaching gigs – Buffalo 2004-05, Jacksonville 2012 – resulted in a combined 16-32 record. Add his 2-7 run as interim head coach for the Titans last season and that makes him 18-39.

Among current NFL coaches, only Gus Bradley of Jacksonville has a worse winning percentage than Mularkey’s .316.

What, then, convinced Titans ownership that Mularkey is the man for the job as this franchise attempts to become relevant in the AFC South?

Well, there’s something to be said for experience, which Mularkey certainly has. This is his 31st season in the NFL as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Clearly, he knows the game.

Likewise, removing the “interim” label and making him permanent head coach maintained some degree of continuity for a franchise that had three coaches in six years – Jeff Fisher in 2010, Mike Munchak in 2011-13 and Ken Whisenhunt in 2014-15.

Despite Mularkey’s past failings as a head coach, there are some encouraging signs as the Titans approach their season-opener against Minnesota. Working with Jon Robinson, the team’s first-year general manager, Mularkey has established a clear vision for what he expects of the Titans. He says he believes in tough, physical football, and he wants his players to perform accordingly.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota refers to Mularkey’s approach as “a throwback culture.” Indeed, it is very much old-school. But with no playoff appearances since 2008, what do the Titans have to lose?

The players seem to have bought in. For the most part, they’ve embraced the physical practices. At a recent workout, Mularkey was observed constantly urging players to stay sharp. He sweats the small stuff.

“I’ve said many times, I am a professional reminder,” Mularkey says. “That’s what I do.”

Beyond that, Mularkey appears to have learned from the previous two entries on his head coaching resume. He has worked on developing closer relationships with his players. He understands the importance of marching in step with the front office. He’s open to new ideas.

It really was no surprise when Amy Adams Strunk named Mularkey head coach in the offseason. After all, it was Strunk who put him in charge after she fired Whisenhunt at midseason in 2015.

Strunk, who heads the five-member ownership group comprised of heirs of the late franchise founder Bud Adams, said Mularkey “inspired a lot of confidence” because of the way he handled things after taking over last year.

“Players loved playing for him,” Strunk said. “He has a vision for how he’s going to fix our team and move our team forward and get us back winning.”

Despite the lousy record, Mularkey endeared himself to Strunk by often speaking about how much of a priority it was for the Titans to protect Mariota from the pass rush, keeping him on the field and out of the training room. It is no secret that Strunk sees Mariota as a star in the making.

Never mind that Mariota was sacked just as many times (19) after Mularkey took over as he was with Whisenhunt calling the offensive shots.

Mariota also missed just as many games due to injury (two) with Mularkey running things as he did under Whisenhunt.

Granted, Mularkey was in charge for nine games compared to Whisenhunt’s seven in 2015, so those numbers are a bit skewed. Mariota was sacked an average of 2.7 times per game after Mularkey took over compared to 3.8 times per game under Whisenhunt.

But it’s fair to say Mariota took a beating regardless of who was wearing the head coach’s headset.

The Titans’ weak offensive line and other breakdowns (running back Antonio Andrews failed to execute in blitz protection when Mariota suffered his season-ending knee injury against New England), were too much for any coach to overcome.

Mularkey’s offensive scheme is considerably different than Whisenhunt’s. Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” football features a running game that includes a number of formations along with shifts and motions. The idea is to create confusion for the defense and exploit weaknesses and mismatches.

The better the running game, the better the chance of protecting Mariota. That is Job One.

Beyond that, Mularkey has surrounded himself with familiar faces. Only one of the assistant coaches, secondary coach Steve Jackson, did not previously play with or coach with Mularkey at some point. Strunk is allowing Mularkey to do it his way.

And it helps that Mularkey and Robinson appear to be of like minds when it comes to football. Their views on personnel and strategy seem to mesh.

Robinson, who was hired just days before it was announced Mularkey would be the permanent head coach, hit the ground running. He made a number of personnel moves that included trading for running back DeMarco Murray and making offensive tackle Jack Conklin and running back Derrick Henry his first two draft picks.

And he appears to have struck gold with fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe, a wide receiver from UMass who has been the talk of the preseason.

Meanwhile, Titans players recently got a wakeup call when Robinson abruptly traded wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a second-round pick in 2015, to Philadelphia for backup offensive lineman Dennis Kelly.

From all indications, Mularkey signed off on the trade. Clearly, the Titans had grown weary of Green-Beckham’s lack of consistency and his inability or unwillingness to grasp the playbook.

As for Mularkey’s previous failings as a head coach, keep in mind that the NFL is a second-chance league. Of the 32 current head coaches, 13 have made multiple stops.

These things can go either way. Seattle is the third NFL head coaching job for Pete Carroll, and he’s doing quite well. On the other hand, Dick Jauron went a combined 60-82 with three teams in 1999-2009.

Mularkey was 9-7 in his debut season with Buffalo in 2004 but slipped to 5-11 the next year and abruptly resigned a week or so after Bills ownership indicated he would not be returning for a third season.

Mularkey has said the reasons behind his resignation were personal but there was talk at the time that he did not believe the franchise was set up to succeed, moving forward.

Seven years later, Jacksonville hired him as head coach but he was fired after a 2-14 season.

In fairness to Mularkey, both of those situations were far from ideal.

Quarterback play was an issue at both Buffalo and Jacksonville. The Bills released Drew Bledsoe after the 2004 season and J.P. Losman and MTSU's Kelly Holcomb split the starts in ’05. Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne were his quarterbacks in Jacksonville.

With the Titans, Mularkey can build around Mariota, who has the look of a true franchise quarterback.

After two disastrous seasons, the Titans are hoping an old-school head coach has learned some new tricks.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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