Nothing better illustrates the volatile environment in today’s NFL than what happened this week to now former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey. He went from being hailed as a savior for spearheading an 18-point comeback and first Titans playoff win in 15 years to being on the unemployment line after defending Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots ended the Titans season last Saturday 35-14.
Prior to the Patriots game Titans management had denied reports that Mularkey was in trouble. Principal owner Amy Adams Strunk had even issued a statement of support, saying he was definitely returning as coach.
But by Monday she was saying something totally different. “In fact we did discuss extending his future with our team over the past week,” Strunk said in a statement. “But in those discussions about the direction of the team, it became evident that we saw different paths to achieve greater success.”
Put another way, management had soured on Mularkey’s brand of “exotic smashmouth” football. There were concerns about whether Marcus Mariota was being properly coached after a season featuring career lows in touchdown passes and career highs in interceptions.
The Titans lost a critical late season game to Arizona where they only mustered one offensive touchdown, and there were also questions about why high profile rookie receivers hadn’t produced as expected and why a team widely picked to win the AFC South instead had to win its home finale to limp into the playoffs.
Of course the flip side to this is Mularkey took over a team in 2015 that was near the bottom in talent league wide. The Titans were 1-6 when Ken Wisenhunt was canned. Mularkey was only 2-7 in that interim year for a club that finished a woeful 3-13. But he was 9-7 the next two seasons. Under him the Titans ended a long playoff drought and also advanced to the divisional round. So bouncing him is a bold, and to some questionable, move.
It also shows that just winning games in and of itself is no longer enough. In the modern NFL, style and entertainment value often matter as much, if not more, than wins as well as perceived title potential and possibility.
Like former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, fired after four years despite a 36-28 record and two playoff appearances, today ownership wants its teams to both be entertaining and contend for championships. If a coach is perceived as being incapable of doing both, his chances of long-term survival are slim at best.
Mike Mularkey has been around the NFL since 1994. Chances are good he will land another job as a position coach at worse. But the fate of his staff, defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau excepted, is up in the air. A new man usually wants his own people.
This next Titans hire will be a critical one. The Patriots game drew the largest local TV audience for a Titans game in eight years. Despite the incredible success of the Predators, football is the sports king in this market and region.
If the Titans could return to the glory years of the early 2000s, the sky is the limit for them in terms of fan appeal and reaction. Likewise, a dip back to the level of 5-27 over a two-year stretch would be disastrous. So the choice for the next Titans head coach is as big a decision as this franchise has faced since moving here from Houston.