Well, it happened. As had been widely rumored since the day after the season ended, the Tennessee Titans concluded a head coaching search that included an initial list of 155 candidates by announcing interim coach Mike Mularkey had been promoted to the permanent job.
This is Mularkey’s third head coaching stop. His first came in Buffalo, where he went 9-7 in 2004 and 5-11 in 2005. His second was in Jacksonville, where he went 2-14 with a really bad team and was not the choice of the new front office and ownership to lead the Jaguars into a new era. He also posted a 2-7 record as interim head coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2015, to bring his career record to 18-39. In between the two head coaching gigs, he spent one year as Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator, one year as the Dolphins’ tight end coach, and four seasons as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator. Ken Whisenhunt hired him as tight ends coach in 2014, and he had a promotion this past offseason to assistant head coach and added responsibility for the run game plan (the Titans finished 29th in rushing offense DVOA this year; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer).
I put some thoughts on what a potential Mularkey hire might mean in my post on the hiring of general manager Jon Robinson. The key for me was what sort of process resulted in his hire. If it was a thorough and extensive process where the Titans spent some time and interviewed a large number of candidates, it was more plausible that Mularkey was hired because he really was the best person for the job. If it was a truncated, abbreviated process where the Titans just interviewed a couple candidates, it was much more plausible that Mularkey was hired because controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk had taken a shine to him. So, let’s take a look at that process.
The Titans began their head coaching interview search on Thursday, when they interviewed Jaguars offensive line coach Doug Marrone. On Friday, they interviewed Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin (who satisfied the Rooney Rule) and Mularkey. On Saturday morning, they interviewed sitting defensive coordinator Ray Horton (who would also have satisfied the Rooney Rule and whom you may recall was stripped of his play-calling duties when Dick LeBeau arrived this past offseason). On Saturday afternoon, at halftime of the Patriots-Chiefs game, they sent out the press release announcing Mularkey as their choice. The list of 155 candidates Steve Underwood mentioned in the press conference the day after the season ended sounded impressive, but the actual interview process felt very much like a rubber-stamp on a decision that had already been made.
There are several outstanding questions about the head coaching search and the decision to select Mularkey:
1. Why was Mularkey the choice? Was it just the personal comfort level, or was there something more that he offered that made AAS so comfortable? Underwood’s note about the new head coach in his press conference noted the candidate should be able to say “I have been successful as a coach in the NFL somewhere else. I have been successful as an NFL coach here.” Do the Titans believe Mularkey was successful as a head coach in Buffalo and Jacksonville? Jacksonville, it’s easy to dismiss his 2-14 season as the product of a really bad team, which is why I’ve concentrated on noting his firing was not about his on-field results but about whether that front office felt he was the right person to lead the team going forward. Why do the Titans think they’re right and Jacksonville was wrong? If it was his success as a coordinator that made him the choice, then why do the Titans believe he’ll succeed as a head coach this time after failing twice before?
2. What does that new general manager Robinson think? He’s 40; he hadn’t been in a senior front office job for very long. General managers rarely get a second GM job. He didn’t need to take the Titans job. Was he that worried about not getting another shot? Did he want that badly to move to back to Tennessee, even though he’s still 150 miles from Union City where he grew up? Is he more comfortable with Mularkey than other candidates were? Did he make a mistake?
3. When the Titans named Mularkey the interim head coach after they fired Ken Whisenhunt, Underwood was asked what he needed to see from Mularkey for him to be the permanent head coach. His answer: “We would need to see measurable improvement. The improvement in our business is measured in wins. You can be competitive, you can play in close games, but at the end of the day, what people care about is wins and losses.” A 2-7 record projects to about 4-12 over the course of a full season. Is that as good as he’s looking for the Titans to be?
4. If the goal of a Mike Mularkey hire is continuity to aid Marcus Mariota’s development, why was that so important when many things have already changed from last year? Part of Mularkey’s reported appeal is he’s not Ken Whisenhunt, and he was hamstrung by running Whisenhunt’s system for the final nine games. In that case, isn’t Mariota already losing the benefits of staying in the same system? Also, if Jason Michael is reportedly likely to be replaced as offensive coordinator with Mularkey or the new OC calling the plays, isn’t that further taking away the benefits of continuity a Mularkey hire supposedly provides?
5. How on earth do they plan to sell this hire to a fan base that is increasingly jaded now that they have learned what being a bad team is all about? Complaining about Jeff Fisher going 8-8 all the time was fun while it lasted, but the Titans are 5-27 the past two years. Mularkey hasn’t gotten a sniff of another head coaching job since he was fired by the Jaguars and got his tight ends coach job from a coach was went 1-20 when he had less than 8 months to prepare for a game. 18-39, no playoff appearances, never had a top 20 offense (by DVOA) when he was a permanent head coach, 2-7 as interim head coach? “Ooh, bright shiny young QB” will only sell so many tickets, especially if said bright shiny young QB is getting beat up on a bad team like past Mularkey quarterbacks (and it’s not like he made it through Mularkey’s tenure healthy). There is reportedly a press conference to introduce both Robinson and Mularkey the permanent head coach set for Monday at 1 P.M., and it will be very, very, very interesting to see how the Titans plan to sell this to a press corps and public that will not be nearly as complaisant as when they were enjoying the initial bloom of success.
6. Who will the coordinators be, and what schemes does he plan to run on offense and defense? I thought the Titans last year might try to run a man-blocking power-based run-oriented scheme like the one the Steelers used for years with Whisenhunt and Mularkey as their offensive coordinator and similar to the one Mularkey ran in Atlanta with a young Matt Ryan. The Titans right now have a bit of a mishmash hodgepodge on the offensive line and they certainly don’t have the sustaining volume runner they need to do that (unless David Cobb magically transforms himself this offseason). What does he plan to do on defense? He inherited Jerry Gray as his defensive coordinator in Buffalo and he inherited Mel Tucker as his defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, so he’s never actually hired a defensive coordinator before. With Horton reportedly interested in the Browns job and possibly out of contract come February 15 and LeBeau a year-to-year proposition and any change likely entailing a scheme change, what does he look to do?
7. How much of a role did money play in the Mularkey hiring? Ownership is still eating three years of Ken Whisenhunt’s contract (even if there is offset language, what he’s getting from San Diego as OC isn’t close to what Tommy Smith gave him to be head coach), and Mularkey likely came cheaper than a more premium option like an experienced head coach or even some coordinators who would have other shots in future years.
8. Why the timing? The Titans had the last head coaching vacancy and knew they had the last head coaching vacancy. There are potential attractive head coaching candidates still in the postseason who might have done well in an interview. Some of them, like Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub could have been interviewed as early as Sunday now that Kansas City is eliminated (okay, more likely Monday). Others, like Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, could have been interviewed as soon as a week from Monday, either because their team was eliminated or they had a bye week before the Super Bowl (okay, maybe later in the week instead). Mularkey would’ve been available two weeks from now. Announcing the hire so quickly is a sign the search was a sham, and announcing it during halftime of a playoff game meant you knew it was a sham. Why did you do a sham, other than the night is dark and full of terrors, and look what happened the last time we actually tried to hire a head coach?
9. What power does this mean Jon Robinson actually has? Underwood referred to a collaborative relationship between the head coach and the general manager, but ownership hired the head coach and imposed him on a general manager who had no past relationship with him. Does Robinson have the power to remove Mularkey if the Titans really stink again in 2016? Does he control the 90? The 53? The draft? Any input on what type of players and schemes? If you gave some or all of that authority to Mularkey, why?
10. What is Mularkey’s plan for Marcus Mariota going forward? You could argue scheme is part of this question, but it’s important and in some senses distinct enough to be treated separately. How much responsibility does he have for Mariota’s development, given he’s not a quarterbacks coach and won’t be the offensive coordinator and I hope they learned from Whisenhunt that head coaches should not call plays? Underwood cited Mularkey’s relationship with Mariota as a reason he was an attractive candidate in his post-season presser, but as I indicated I’m not sure how much that means and how much continuity there matters. So, sell me on this.
On the other hand, Mularkey does have experience as an NFL head coach and as a coordinator before, and he’s familiar with the Titans roster, so he is minimally qualified for the job. After Munchak and maybe Whisenhunt, that’s a very good thing.
Now it’s all that other stuff, where I don’t have decent answers, I haven’t seen anybody else outside St. Thomas Sports Park with decent answers, a process that seems to stink to high heaven, and a bad team. I was on Sports Illustrated’s On the Clock podcast recently and noted I didn’t think the Titans were incredibly terrible in 2015, a subject I’ll address in more detail in a future post, and with a good draft and free agency could go 8-8 as early as next season. But getting to 8-8 in the worst division in football is one thing. Building a consistent winner and developing the franchise’s most valuable asset in 20 years is something else, and I have zero confidence Mularkey is the head coach to do that.
I’m not generally a fan of winning the press conference and think opening press conferences are among the most overvalued things there are, even if they are sometimes telling (Jim Tomsula’s discomfort, Mike Munchak admitting after his first practice he’d never watched 7-on-7 before). This is an exception-this feels like an ugly situation, and the Titans need to give us some really, really, really good answers or else it will stay ugly with a butts in seats effect at Nissan Stadium come fall.