Perhaps the least inspired—and most reviled by its fan base—coaching hire this offseason was the Titans’ elevation of Mike Mularkey from interim to head coach. After enduring a 5-27 record the past two seasons, Tennessee now turns to a coach with a career 18-39 record who has gone 5-27 in his last 32 games in the big chair. Why, with a two-month head start on the field, did the Titans settle?
“(Mularkey) has experience as a head coach and a track record for developing young quarterbacks and dynamic offenses,” owner Amy Adams Strunk said at Mularkey’s introductory press conference. “He also brings continuity for our franchise quarterback.”
Also relevant, though unmentioned in that comment, is Mularkey’s willingness to sign a three-year contract—which gives the team an out if it is sold in the near future.
But that’s the business side; let’s look at the football side of Mularkey’s credentials. Mularkey does have experience, having helmed Buffalo to a 9-7 record in 2004. That season was notable for the Bills returning an NFL record six kickoffs for touchdowns, and may be part of the reason Mularkey brought back Bobby April, the architect of those returns, to coach the Titans’ special teams this year. Also notable from 2004: the drafting of JP Losman for Mularkey to develop as Buffalo’s quarterback of the future; and a loss to Pittsburgh’s backups in the season finale that kept them out of the playoffs.
Mularkey’s Bills went 5-11 the following season and he was relieved of his duties, returning to the offensive coordinator role for five seasons before getting the helm in Jacksonville for an ill-fated 2-14 season.
During his head coaching tenures, his offenses ranked 7th, 24th, and 30th in scoring and 25th, 28th, and 29th in yardage. His rushing offenses ranked 13th, 20th and 30th in yardage while his passing game ranked 27th, 29th and 21st.
Mularkey had significantly more success as an offensive coordinator, directing two top-10 offenses in three seasons with the Steelers and two more in four years with the Falcons. Mularkey noted that he prefers to run “his” offense, which he notably did in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Atlanta (as opposed to his OC stint in Miami in 2006, when he oversaw head coach Scott Linehan’s game plan). The trademarks of a Mularkey offense appear to be frequent use of multiple tight ends and fullbacks, a power running game with a north-south back, and a simplified system tailored to existing personnel and talent (rather than trying to shoehorn players into a specific system).
“This system started with Kordell (Stewart, his quarterback in Pittsburgh in 2001) and worked its way down from there,” Mularkey said in a published report. “We saw what we had offensively, player-wise, and said ‘Let’s fit what we have here’. Let’s not put any player in a position where he is uncertain if he can do it.”
Stewart was the AFC Offensive Player of the Year under Mularkey in 2001, rushing for 537 yards and five touchdowns while throwing for 3,109 yards and 14 TDs (yes, those were POY numbers in 2001). Stewart started five games the following season, with Tommy Maddox taking over as the Steelers quarterback, and Mularkey hasn’t really had a mobile quarterback since; no Mularkey QB has rushed for more than 122 yards or two TDs post-Stewart.
Mularkey has already acknowledged he’ll run Marcus Mariota more, something we saw after Ken Whisenhunt was fired. Mariota ran 10 times in his first five starts under Whiz, then 24 times in six complete games following the coaching change. Obviously, Mularkey is comfortable with a running quarterback.
“(My) first time as a coordinator was with Pittsburgh with Kordell Stewart, and we were very good with him running the football,” Mularkey said in a published report. “Designed runs for the quarterback, and my feelings are he can protect himself much better running the football than he can standing in the pocket. We’re not going to run him like they run Cam Newton with some of these designed counter plays and things up the middle that are gonna expose him by any means, but I think he’s such a threat in the run game for defenses. It just gives you an advantage.”
Terry Robiskie, the long-time NFL veteran who will coordinate the Titans’ offense under Mularkey, concurs.
“Marcus kind of opens the playbook up a little bit more, gives you more options,” Robiskie said in a published report. “He creates more problems for the defense. A whole lot of what we talk about as a team is going to have to be about not only protecting the football, but protecting Marcus. He’s a special talent, and we have to do all we can to keep him upright.”
Easier said than done, as Mariota was sacked 38 times in 12 games last season and Mularkey quarterbacks have been sacked an average of 33 times per game over his 11 seasons running an offense. So don’t be surprised if the Titans use that first overall pick on an offensive lineman to keep Mariota’s jersey clean.
More running from the quarterback, and a coach who has had at least some success developing the position (see Matt Ryan), should make Mariota a more viable fantasy weapon. And much of Robiskie’s coaching background has been spent working with receivers, so the Titans can develop the likes of Dorial Green-Beckham, Justin Hunter, Kendall Wright and Tre McBride to help Mariota upgrade the offense.
What the Titans’ roster appears to lack to fit the Mularkey blueprint is a hammer at running back. Could David Cobb be that guy? Antonio Andrews? Will Day Two of the draft yield a Michael Turner type like Mularkey relied on in Atlanta? Tennessee already has the tight end and fullback personnel to run Mularkey’s beloved heavy packages, and if they can find a back there’s fantasy value to be had in the sheer volume of carries.
The hiring of Mularkey was an unimaginative, company-based decision by the Tennessee front office—but then you don’t end up with a top-two pick in back to back drafts by making smart moves. However, that doesn’t mean fantasy value can’t be culled from the 2016 Titans—notably Mariota with an uptick in rushing attempts and the potential of a backfield hammer, be it the volume of Cobb or perhaps someone like Derrick Henry at the top of the second round in the upcoming draft.