Tennessee and Mularkey “mutually parted ways” on Monday, which is a nice way of saying the Titans told him not to let the door hit him on the way out. Mularkey’s departure came a week after ownership promised he’d be back for another season as head coach. It also came on the heels of an NFL Network report that the Titans had just offered Mularkey a contract extension.
So what gives? Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk gave her side of the story on Monday, claiming that it in speaking with Mularkey about the team’s direction, “it became evident that [they] saw different paths to achieve greater success.” Strunk confirmed that an extension was discussed, though obviously the terms weren’t to Mularkey’s liking. GM Jon Robinson further hinted that a new deal was contingent on firing other members of his staff (possibly OC Terry Robiskie), which apparently didn’t sit well with Mularkey. In the end (as Ross Tucker wisely pointed out on Twitter), Mularkey’s loyalty actually cost his assistants their jobs as the Titans will surely replenish their staff with all new coaches this offseason.
The reality is, despite making its first postseason appearance in nine years and even scoring an upset win over Kansas City in Round One, Tennessee didn’t make the leap that many were expecting. The Titans failed to improve on the nine wins they posted a year ago, needing a victory over Jacksonville in Week 17 just to make the playoffs. And that was with two of their division rivals—the Colts and Texans—hamstrung by major injuries to star players including Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson.
Even more infuriating was Marcus Mariota’s regression and an offense that didn’t play to his strengths. Mariota won a Heisman Trophy playing for the fastest offense in the country—if not the history of college football—at the University of Oregon. So naturally, the Titans’ offense was one of the league’s slowest in 2017. Mularkey compounded this mistake by stubbornly featuring a past-his-prime DeMarco Murray over Derrick Henry, who impressed with 357 yards from scrimmage over his final three games (postseason included).
Tennessee didn’t get much love from the zebras in the Divisional Round—Eric Decker had a first down negated by a questionable offensive pass interference flag while Brynden Trawick’s encroachment penalty (on fourth down, no less) was met with equal skepticism. But even if those calls had gone the other way, the Titans still would have come up well short in their bid to upset the Patriots, who were firing on all cylinders Saturday. Simply put, the Titans weren’t ready to play with the big boys.
It seems cruel that Mularkey’s fate may have been decided by the outcome of Saturday’s game. The Titans arrived in Foxboro as 13.5-point underdogs and would have faced an uphill battle to beat New England even on their best day. There’s no shame in getting shown up by the greatest dynasty in NFL history. But Mularkey was never the Titans’ long-term answer. The 56-year-old was intended to be a stopgap after the team fired Ken Whisenhunt in 2015, but he later had his interim label removed and proceeded to assemble his own coaching staff prior to the 2016 campaign. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Titans were ready to pull the plug on Mularkey after Week 17 but his firing was delayed because the team kept winning. Mularkey was well-liked by ownership but ultimately the front office won out.
With Mularkey already looking for his next gig—it may come as the Browns’ offensive coordinator—the head job in Tennessee should immediately become one of the most coveted positions in coaching. Tennessee’s roster is well-stocked with young talent on both sides of the ball. Mariota looked like he was on the path to superstardom before taking a detour in 2017 while fifth overall pick Corey Davis showed promise with a standout performance against New England on Saturday (five catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns). The O line is a powerhouse, Henry should thrive as he ascends to workhorse status (assuming the Titans cut bait on Murray) and the secondary looks to be in good hands with All-Pro Kevin Byard and first-round cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. Unlike the current openings in New York and Arizona, there’s no need for an overhaul. The Titans are built to win right now.
Josh McDaniels is high on Tennessee’s wish list and most reports have suggested there’s mutual interest between the two sides. While McDaniels may be having second thoughts about Andrew Luck’s health, it would be a surprise if the Patriots OC landed anywhere other than Indianapolis, where he has long been the favorite to succeed Chuck Pagano. With DC Matt Patricia headed to Detroit and LBs coach Brian Flores a finalist in Arizona, New England could lose an unprecedented three assistants to head-coaching jobs this offseason.
Assuming McDaniels is out of their reach, Eagles OC Frank Reich, Rams OC Matt LaFleur, Texans DC Mike Vrabel and Panthers DC Steve Wilks should be among the top candidates to replace Mularkey in Nashville. Vrabel is also a finalist for the opening in Indy while Wilks had been in the running for the Giants’ head-coaching job, though Vikings OC Pat Shurmur has since emerged as the clear front-runner for that position. Shurmur to the Giants looks like a done deal, but he won’t be able to officially accept the job until the Vikings conclude their postseason run. The same goes for Patricia and McDaniels, who will be donning headsets for the Patriots Sunday against Jacksonville.
Quick Hits: The Seahawks have hired Ken Norton Jr. as their defensive coordinator. He’s replacing Kris Richard, who was one of several Seahawks assistants let go last week. This is Norton’s second stint with Seattle after serving as the team’s LBs coach from 2010-2014 … Jeremy Lane was arrested for DUI on Sunday morning. The Seahawks had a deal in place to send Lane to the Texans in October but the trade fell through when he failed his physical … Allen Robinson believes he’ll be healthy enough to pass a physical by the time free agency begins in March. Robinson tore his ACL in Jacksonville’s season opener … Tashaun Gipson injured his foot in Sunday’s Divisional Round win over Pittsburgh. If Gipson can’t go against New England, it would be an upgrade for Rob Gronkowski, who has visited the end zone in six consecutive postseason games … Despite a disappointing year in 2017, DeMarco Murray believes he can still be a top-tier running back. "I am excited about the future and my future,” said the 29-year-old. “I know what kind of player I am.” Cutting Murray would save the Titans $6.5 million in cap space … Le’Veon Bell said he “definitely” wants to re-sign with the Steelers this offseason. The impending free agent has threatened to retire if he’s assigned the franchise tag, which carries a $14.5 million salary … Martavis Bryant hopes to remain with the Steelers in 2018. Bryant was unhappy with his role early in the season and even tried to force a trade, but finished the year strong by averaging 65.5 yards with a pair of touchdowns over his final four games … According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers could move on from OC Todd Haley this offseason. His contract is up and he surely wouldn’t be missed by Ben Roethlisberger, who was barely on speaking terms with Haley this past season … Damarious Randall underwent minor hand surgery Monday in New York City. He’ll need 6-8 weeks to recover … Rex Burkhead is expected to suit up for Sunday’s AFC title game against Jacksonville. He hasn’t played since spraining his knee in Week 15 … Drew Brees expects to re-sign with the Saints this offseason. The 39-year-old led the league in completion percentage this past season while finishing second to Alex Smith in quarterback rating … Darrelle Revis hopes to continue playing in 2018. After drawing little to no interest in free agency, the 32-year-old finally resurfaced on a two-year deal with Kansas City in mid-November … Chargers GM Tom Telesco expects Jason Verrett to take part in OTAs. Verrett lasted just one game before undergoing season-ending knee surgery in 2017 … Reuben Foster could face discipline from the league after being arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama this past weekend. If that’s the case—he already has one strike against him after failing a drug test at last year’s NFL Combine—all of Foster’s contract guarantees would void.