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Coaching Carousel 2016: Tennessee Titans

A detailed look at the impact of Mike Mularkey's transition from interim to full-time head coach as well as the implementation of his new coaching staff. 

A Long and Winding Road

The Titans opted to keep Mike Mularkey as head coach after he replaced Ken Whisenhunt seven games into last season; in spite of the fact Mularkey finished 2-7 at the helm. Whether you consider the hire a good one largely comes down to whether your an optimist or a pessimist. The optimist would characterize Mularkey as a well traveled veteran coach with prior head coaching experience, and multiple Top 10 offensive seasons under his belt. The pessimist would point to a man who's failed twice before as an NFL head coach (2 years in Buffalo, one-and-done in Jacksonville), and had his offensive coordinator duties removed at another stop (Miami). Just as their are two sides to every story, Mularkey's career is truly an amalgamation of the good and the (sometimes really) bad.

Mike Mularkey Coaching Tenure

YearAgeLevelEmployerRole
1993 32 College Concordia College Offensive Line
1994 33 NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers Quality Control
1995 34 NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tight Ends
1996 35 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Tight Ends
1997 36 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Tight Ends
1998 37 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Tight Ends
1999 38 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Tight Ends
2000 39 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Tight Ends
2001 40 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator
2002 41 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator
2003 42 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator
2004 43 NFL Buffalo Bills Head Coach
2005 44 NFL Buffalo Bills Head Coach
2006 45 NFL Miami Dolphins Offensive Coordinator
2007 46 NFL Miami Dolphins Tight Ends
2008 47 NFL Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator
2009 48 NFL Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator
2010 49 NFL Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator
2011 50 NFL Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator
2012 51 NFL Jacksonville Jaguars Head Coach
2014 53 NFL Tennessee Titans Tight Ends
2015 54 NFL Tennessee Titans Asst. HC/TE/Interim Head Coach
  • Mularkey has coached for seven NFL teams, with stints as a play-caller in six cities
  • He helped Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship in his first season as offensive coordinator, but the offense steadily declined in the next two seasons under his watch
  • He went 14-18 as the head coach in Buffalo, and his offenses were wildely inconsistent (7th in points in 2004, 24th in 2005)
  • His lone season as OC in Miami was a disaster (29th in points) and was demoted the following season
  • Mularkey resurrected his reputation in Atlanta as Mike Smith's offensive coordinator from 2008-2011. The team went 43-21 and finished in the Top 10 in points three of four seasons (ranking 13th the other season)
  • His success in Atlanta led to his second head coaching hire in Jacksonville where he took over a team that finished dead last (28th) in points scored and made it worse (30th) while going 2-14. New owner Shahid Khan wanted his own coaching staff in place, and Mularkey was back looking for a job
  • Mularkey landed with the Titans as the tight ends coach, and was made assistant head coach last year only to be Whisenhunt's replacement midseason

Exotic Smashmouth

When Mularkey took over for Ken Whisenhunt last season, he promised an "exotic smashmouth" style of offense; apparently resurrecting a term he and his staff used in Pittsburgh to describe the offense built around Kordell Stewart. The idea is to focus on a power running game but to use a variety of formations and trick plays to augment the multi-facated talents of Marcus Mariota -- who is as much a weapon for his mobility as he is with his arm (Mariota broke the Titans rookie passing record last year with 2,818 yards in 12 games). Mularkey is a disciple of the Erhardt-Perkins system, perhaps best known as the offense that Bill Belichick runs (to perfection) in New England. As a reminder, the Erhardt-Perkins system is a concepts-based system which allows offenses to run the same set of plays from multiple formations -- thus allowing the offensive players to perfect a smaller number of plays while keeping the defenses at bay. As with any system (West Coast, Coryell, Erhardt-Perkins), the concepts are battle-tested and proven, it's the IMPLEMENTATION of those concepts that makes the difference.

Reshaping the Roster for "Smashmouth"

  • Improving the offensive line -- Russ Grimm was hired as the new offensive line coach, and he'll have the daunting task of turning this unit from one of the league's worst to a functional run and pass-blocking machine. Grimm will have veteran Ben Jones and rookie 1st rounder Jack Conklin to work into the rotation. Conklin could allow for Taylor Lewan to move to right tackle if Conklin can prove he's up to the task of manning left tackle. Jones could play one of the guard positions if center Brian Schwenke is healthy.
  • Trading for DeMarco Murray -- Murray was a bust in Philadelphia as he didn't fit the scheme, but we saw what Murray is capable of in Dallas. While the Titans offensive line is a far cry from the Cowboys, Mike Mularkey has proven capable of fielding a highly productive power running game when he has a feature back he trusts.
  • Drafting Derrick Henry -- Henry won the Heisman Trophy as the engine behind the Alabama Crimson Tide and will step into a complementary role to Murray as a rookie but could prove his mettle as the Titans long-term answer at the position

Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie Will Call the Plays

Mike Mularkey won't call plays this season, believing that his duties as head coach are too far reaching to also focus on in-game play-calling. 34-year NFL veteran Terry Robiskie reunites with Mularkey after 8 seasons in Atlanta as the Wide Receivers Coach. What's most impressive about Robiskie's stint in Atlanta is that is spanned three offensive coordinators and three distinct systems:

  • Mularkey -- Erhardt-Perkins
  • Dirk Koetter -- Air Coryell
  • Kyle Shanahan -- West Coast
Robiskie's experience with different schemes is an unquestioned asset, but he'll be calling Mularkey's playbook (Erhardt-Perkins) akin to what they ran together with the Falcons. Robiskie has called plays for several other NFL teams, although never with particularly great results. Robiskie has never fielded a Top 10 offense (in either points or yards):

  • 1989 Raiders -- 19th yards, 18th points
  • 1990 Raiders -- 19th yards, 13th points
  • 1991 Raiders -- 23rd yards, 15th points
  • 1992 Raiders -- 23rd yards, 23rd points
  • 2000 Washington -- 11th yards, 24th points
  • 2004 Browns -- 28th yards, 27th points

Dick LeBeau TAKES FULL CONTROL On Defense

Dick LeBeau is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has nearly 60 years of experience as a player and coach. Considered by many to be the father of the zone-blitz, LeBeau's blueprint now permeates the coaching landscape. Two years ago he "retired" from the Steelers and promptly found a new home in Tennessee, but not as the defensive coordinator (Ray Horton held the job). When Mike Mularkey was promoted to permanent head coach, Horton left for Cleveland (he also intereviewed for the head coaching job in Tennessee) opening the door for LeBeau to call the defensive plays in 2016. If there's one coach who we don't have to guess about, it's LeBeau. Ron Jaworkski broke down LeBeau's system in a 2010 book:

In its simplest terms, the Zone blitz is a flexible defensive set designed to bewilder quarterbacks and their blockers. Its main premise is to create doubt for the offense in identifying who's rushing and who's in coverage. It's executed by trading off the conventional rush and coverage responsibilities of the defense. On any play, there is the potential for one defender to swap his role with another.This is often called "personnel exchange," and here's how it works: When the ball is snapped, designated defensive linemen can drop into coverage instead of rushing the passer, while selected linebackers or defensive backs switch from their traditional coverage responsibilities to apply pocket pressure. The hoped-for result is mass confusion for the offensive linemen.

Ultimately, the main goal is to impact the quarterback's progressions and delay what he's reading across the line. Obviously, defenses can vary who they send and drop off on every snap. A nose tackle could rush on one play, then slip into coverage on the next. Safeties can blitz two times in a row and then play a deep zone. The combinations are limitless, making it extremely tough for offenses to sort through all the possibilities as to who is rushing and who is covering.

The Titans loaded up on defensive talent in the draft this year:

Will LeBeau's in-game adjustments and the youth infusion be enough to fix a defense that allowed 423 points last season (27th)...only time will tell but there were certainly worse options at Mularkey's disposal.

Conclusions: Experience Counts for Something...We Hope

The Titans clearly did not try to find the new hot young minds of the NFL. Ownership and new GM Jon Robinson opted for veteran coaches with decades of combined experience. This isn't the first, second or third go around for most of the coaching staff. Some believe it's a bad idea to recycle coaches. We believe it's only a bad idea to recycle bad coaches. Mike Mularkey is a talented offensive mind, but he's had a history of outsmarting himself (hence his nickname of Inspector Gadget). If wisdom has taught him anything, it's to build a powerful core running game and not try to outhink his opponents at every turn. He's got as talented an offensive line coach as he could have asked for, and OC Terry Robiskie has touched every NFL system and will ably help in the game plan. The one (major?) fly in the ointment is Robiskie's poor track record as a play-caller. Will Mularkey consider taking the play-calling duties over if the team struggles? On defense, the Titans have talent and merely need some glue to bring everything together. LeBeau has forgotten more about aggressive defensive schemes than most of us will ever learn. The Titans may not be a contender in 2016, but there's little risk they'll be poorly coached.