The general impression is that Mike Mularkey has made a difference as Tennessee Titans head coach.
In the three games since Ken Whisenhunt was fired there have been personnel and scheme adjustments. They even one won game and came from behind in the fourth quarter to do it.
Whether or not any of that is (or will be) enough to convince franchise ownership not to make another change during the offseason is decidedly unclear, and of no interest to Mularkey, whose every move is being studied.
“I’m coaching like I coach the tight ends or I’m an offensive coordinator,” he said Monday. “This is how I coach. I’m not trying to do anything more than my job, and my job is obviously now to have a little bit more control over other areas, but this is not for any other reason but ‘this is how I coach.’
“I’ve got plenty to do other than worry about what’s going to happen after the year. I’ve got to worry about the ‘now,’ right now.”
There were two major factors that led to the selection of Mularkey as interim coach instead of senior assistant/defense Dick Lebeau, who also has been an NFL head coach. One was the fact that management wanted to give Mularkey, a finalist for the job in 2011, a chance to audition. The other was that no one wanted to mess with the defense, which is sixth in yards allowed per game and third in sacks, among other positive signs, in the first year with LeBeau on hand to complement second-year coordinator Ray Horton.
Both work in in Mularkey’s favor, particularly the second. After all, if continuity on the defense was a concern now it likely will be no different six weeks from now.
“You see on both sides of the ball when guys are able to grow in a scheme and have some level of consistency throughout the years they get better and better,” linebacker Derrick Morgan said. “They get more comfortable. I think you’re seeing evidence of that with our defense being in the second year of our scheme and how we’re playing.
“If change occurs, you hope they don’t really touch the defense but that’s just part of the business. Guys, when they come in, like to bring in their own guys.”
As of now, though, players have embraced the switch from Whisenhunt to Mularkey.
“I think things have been real different,” wide receiver Kendall Wright said. “Coach Mularkey has a different attitude about he wants things (run) around here. We’re all trying to take on that attitude.
“He has a tough mentality and he wants things done a certain way. So that’s what we’re going to do.”
But for how long?
(Photo: Getty Images)
Justin Hunter’s 2015 season will end the same way the last one did – with an injury.
In the last two weeks, though, the Tennessee Titans wide receiver started to look like a different player.
“He had been blocking better the last two weeks, which has really been demanded of that group,” interim coach Mike Mularkey said. “We need those guys to block and … (when) he got hurt that’s what he was doing. He had a real good block and got hurt on that block. He was trying to get better and better.”
Hunter sustained an fractured ankle during Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The injury required surgery Monday afternoon and led the team to put him on injured reserve, which means he will miss the remaining seven games.
Also placed on IR Monday was cornerback Jason McCourty, who up until now has been a study in consistency during his seven-year NFL career.
Mularkey said franchise officials were exploring options for how to fill those roster spots, which is of greater importance given that the next game is Thursday at Jacksonville. He said the Titans definitely would add a wide receiver to replace Hunter but that their depth at cornerback might allow them to look at other positions to fill McCourty’s spot.
“We are looking at some [wide receiver] options, even from within with our practice squad, with [seventh-round draft pick] Tre McBride, and elsewhere,” Mularkey said.
McCourty became a full-time starter in 2011 and in the previous four seasons missed one game. He was inactive for the first three weeks this fall following groin surgery during training camp. He returned to the lineup and started four games but has missed the last two with a reoccurrence of the injury.
He will undergo a second surgery for the issue.
“He’s a good player,” Mularkey said. “That’s a loss. Not only that but just his presence on the field, his presence in the locker room, in the meetings – I’m going to try to keep him involved with all of that because I think it’s important that he’s around these guys. They have a lot of respect for him as the coaching staff does. It’s a loss, for sure.”
Before he was hurt Sunday, Hunter had four receptions, which tied his career-high. He scored his first touchdown of the season a week earlier at New Orleans, the first game after Mularkey replaced former coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Hunter finishes this season with 22 receptions, six fewer than he had last year when he played 12 games before a ruptured spleen sent him to injured reserve.
“He was getting better,” Mularkey said. “He had the touchdown against New Orleans. He made some plays (Sunday) that I hadn’t seen him do – coming back to the ball like he did on one of the curl routes.”
(Photo: Getty Images)
When asked, Mike Mularkey has been careful to be respectful of former Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt.
His actions, though, speak to a man who has some distinctly different ideas in how this team should be run.
Mularkey, the interim coach, sent a clear message Wednesday that he believes he and the rest of the coaching staff can protect quarterback Marcus Mariota with adjustments in personnel and scheme.
Among the latest roster moves was the decision to waive quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (pictured), a Whisenhunt favorite, and proceed with two quarterbacks on the active roster. Whitehurst’s departure freed up a roster spot for rookie running back David Cobb, who was activated from injured reserve.
Mariota’s health was a consideration in controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk’s decision to fire Whisenhunt following a 20-6 loss at Houston on Nov. 1, a game in which the Texans sacked backup Zach Mettenberger seven times.
“I know she had talked to (Whisenhunt) about it and to [general manager] Ruston (Webster),” Titans president Steve Underwood said. “She is very concerned about making sure that we do everything that’s necessary [to keep Mariota healthy].”
Titans quarterbacks were sacked an average of 3.4 times per game in 23 contests under Whisenhunt and no quarterback started more than six consecutive games. Jake Locker ended 2014 on injured reserve and Mettenberger missed the last three games with a shoulder injury.
Prior to Sunday’s contest at New Orleans, Mariota missed two weeks this season with a knee injury.
Against the Saints, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner attempted 39 passes (his second highest total of the season) but was not sacked. The starting offensive line had only two players in the same spots they were the previous week and two others, right tackle Byron Bell and left guard Joe Looney, at positions they had not played in the first seven games.
“We knew we had to make some changes,” Mularkey said Monday. “We had to do something different, especially when we had seven sacks the week before, to see if there was another lineup that would give us an advantage. We felt like that was the best one and as the week progressed it proved to be.”
Coaches also used running backs and tight ends to help with pass protection and first-time play caller Jason Michael, the offensive coordinator, focused calls that allowed Mariota to get rid of the ball quickly.
“We did some things with our bigger groups of three tight ends with throwing the ball, getting (Mariota) out of the pocket, just mixed it up very well and just had a good rhythm with the flow of play calling,” Mularkey said.
Obviously, it worked well enough that everyone involved feels a third quarterback no longer is necessary.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Mike Mularkey has experience as an NFL head coach but this is the first time he took over a team in the middle of a season.
So far, things have been pretty much the same – only a little better.
Sunday’s 34-28 overtime victory at New Orleans in his first game as Tennessee Titans interim coach was consistent with what he went through in his first games as coach of the Buffalo Bills (2004) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2012). In one rather important regard, though, it was different.
“I’ve been a head coach twice before and both of my first games as a head coach, we lost,” Mularkey said Monday. The first one was on the last play of the game, and the second one in overtime.
“So I’ve been in some games like that, and to be on the positive side of it with the situation our team, our organization was in just magnified the emotion. I was just really proud for our guys.”
In his first game with Jacksonville, Mularkey had a 23-20 lead after the Jaguars scored a touchdown and added a two-point conversion with 20 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. The Minnesota Vikings forced overtime with a 55-yard field goal as time expired in regulation and won it with a 38-yard field goal 3:54 into overtime.
With Buffalo, he lost his first game as an NFL head coach – to Jacksonville, no less – 13-10 on a seven-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
Thus the ebbs and flows of Sunday’s contest with the Saints were nothing new to him. The Titans missed a go-ahead field goal attempt when Ryan Succop’s try from 55 yards hit the crossbar. The Titans avoided last-minute heartbreak when they blocked a New Orleans field goal attempt with 56 seconds remaining in regulation.
The fluid nature of the coaching profession is not foreign to him either. He was fired after two seasons and a 14-18 record at Buffalo and lasted just one season, during which he went 2-14.
He intends to do things some differently this time in an attempt to convince Titans ownership to stick with him beyond the remainder of this season. He was named interim coach last week after Ken Whisenhunt was fired.
“I won’t say exactly what, but I’ve learned some things, both good and bad, from places I’ve been before,” Mularkey said. “I’m just trying to make some subtle changes here that the players recognize. I think, at least last week, some of the things we did were positive and hopefully will continue to be.”
He certainly got a better result.
Mike Mularkey is the one who added to the playbook the call the Tennessee Titans used to finish off the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
He did not sit on it, though, until last week when he became interim head coach. He installed it weeks earlier but former coach/play caller Ken Whisenhunt either was not inclined never got the opportunity to call it.
Mularkey knew the exact right place. The timing, as it turned out, could not have been better.
“We ran it Friday [at practice] and I told [offensive coordinator] Jason [Michael], ‘If we get the ball on the 5-yard-line that’s a touchdown,’” he said Monday.
The Titans got the ball to the 5-yard line on the opening drive of overtime. Sure enough, Mularkey was right. Marcus Mariota’s pass to tight end Anthony Fasano, who was wide open in the end zone, lifted the Titans to a 34-28 overtime victory in their first game after Whisenhunt’s ouster.
Of course, he had reason to believe it would work. The first time he witnessed it, he was head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and none other than Fasano, then a member of the Miami Dolphins, scored a touchdown against him.
“I’ve seen that ball sailing in the air to Fasano,” Mularkey said. “I just happened to be the head coach of the Jaguars when that ball went to him with the Dolphins. So it was the exact same play.
“I brought him in because I had pulled that play up and I wanted to put that play in. It was not a good feeling then, But it was a good feeling (Sunday).”
Overwhelmingly, the first impression of the decision to fire coach Ken Whisenhunt must be a positive one.
Granted, the Tennessee Titans had a little more than the standard 60 minutes to pile up stats, but their 483 yards of total offense, 371 passing yards and 19 passing first downs all were season-highs. They accomplished that behind a retooled offensive line that kept quarterback Marcus Mariota from being sacked for the first time in his career.
The fact that the Titans never led until they scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime – a five-yard pass from Mariota to tight end Anthony Fasano – showed that interim coach Mike Mularkey instilled a renewed belief in a team that had lost is previous six games this season and 16 of its last 17 dating back to last season.
A closer look at some of the significant moments and performances from this contest:
TITANS PLAYER OF THE GAME
Delanie Walker, tight end
He caught seven passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Plus he scored the two-point conversion that tied it with 7:11 remaining in regulation.
Three of his receptions came off deflected passes, including the first – a 61-yard catch and run for the Titans’ first touchdown. It was the longest play of the year for the offense and shook that unit out of early doldrums (0 first downs on first 11 plays). The fact that it was a terrible throw that should have been intercepted seemed only to fuel the belief among the Titans that anything was possible.
• Byron Bell, RT: For the first time this season he played the position everyone expected when he signed as a free agent, and the line had its best game of the season.
• Brian Orakpo, OLB: His desire got the best of him when he was called for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for arguing a single call. The rest of the time it manifested itself in a standout performance – two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and a pass defensed.
• Dorial Green-Beckham, WR: In his most extensive playing time thus far, the rookie wide receiver set personal bests with five receptions for 77 yards. All five catches, including two in overtime, went for first downs.
Fasano’s game-winning five-yard touchdown reception
Given all this team had been through during the first seven games of this season, it was not safe to assume that the Titans would win until the outcome was final. Too often they have been forced to deal with being close only to lose.
The play capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive to open overtime and took advantage of the aggressive nature of the Saints defense. All the action went right while Fasano snuck into the secondary to the left. Mariota rolled right as well and threw back the other way for what was probably his easiest completion of the game given that Fasano was completely uncovered.
• Coty Sensabaugh’s blocked field goal with 1:01 to play in regulation: He didn’t get all of it but he did enough to make sure the 46-yard attempt fell well short and that the game went to overtime.
• B.W. Webb’s third-quarter interception: Signed off the practice squad a day earlier because of injuries to Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, he was forced into action when Perrish Cox went out with a reoccurrence of his own injury. Webb’s interception (the first of his career) in the end zone after the Titans had cut the deficit to one, created a feeling that the pass defense could hang in there.
• Justin Hunter’s touchdown catch with 7:06 remaining in regulation: It was his first touchdown catch of the season – his first in nine games, and combined with Walker’s two-point conversion it tied the score.
THEY SAID IT
• “It was an (absolutely) great win for this team. They are so competitive. They want to win so bad. They have come up short so many times. To keep the resilience throughout the game (says a lot). It could’ve got bad early. At times, that has happened with us. Never once did they ever flinch.” – interim Titans coach Mike Mularkey, on the win.
• “It’s something we’ve worked on this entire season. It’s kind of been in our game plan the entire year. Fasano did a great job selling it and guys up front did a great job selling it. And he just popped wide open.” – Mariota, on the final play.
• “(Two Saints players) ran into each other, I turned around and saw the ball pop out, grabbed it and ran it in for a touchdown. The ball was just bouncing our way (Sunday).” – Walker, on the first touchdown.
It is premature to say that all is now well with the Titans.
They still haven’t won at home (0-4), in the division (0-2) or in the conference (0-5) – and that’s a lot to have to overcome in a relatively short time. They haven’t won back-to-back games since the last two weeks of 2013 and have not strung together more than two straight wins since September 2011.
To think that one coaching change and one victory suddenly transforms this team to one that will roll through the second half of the season and into the playoffs is simply unrealistic.
However, it sure beats the alternative. At least now there is reason to believe that things will be better over the next eight weeks. Given the preponderance of losses in recent seasons, ‘better’ sure is better than not.
(Photo: Getty Images)
The Tennessee Titans experienced first-hand three weeks ago how a coaching change can make a positive difference for a team.
The Miami Dolphins ripped the Titans in their first game under interim coach Dan Campbell in what was the best possible result of such a move.
Tennessee has to hope for something comparable in the first game under interim coach Mike Mularkey. The Titans’ attempt to transform themselves during the season comes in Sunday’s game at New Orleans (noon, CBS) against one of the league’s hottest teams at present.
Three reasons to believe the Titans will win Sunday
• Change for the better: It is hard to imagine the decision to fire Ken Whisenhunt and name Mularkey interim head coach can make things much worse. There’s only so much that can change from a personnel or scheme standpoint but just the shakeup that such a mood provides ought to spur the players in some sort of positive direction.
• Repeat performance?: The fact that Saints quarterback Drew Brees tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes last Sunday makes it seem the Titans are in trouble in this one. Yet only eight people have done that in the last 71 years, so it’s not likely to happen again, particularly not a week later.
• Well grounded: Mularkey has said he would like to run the ball more in order to establish a more physical presence and take pressure off rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. This is a good time to try. The Saints are 24th in the NFL in run defense. All eight of their opponents have averaged at least four yards per rush and six of them had 115 rushing yards or more.
Three reasons to believe the Titans won’t win Sunday
• Turn it around: New Orleans has shaken off a rough start and has won its last three games – and it did not need to make a coaching change in order to do so. After a 1-4 start, the Saints have outscored their last three opponents 110-71 and have put themselves in the race for an NFC wild card. They clearly have things headed in the right direction.
• Multiple options: Tennessee has four rushing touchdowns as a team. New Orleans running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson each have at least that many on their own. The Titans’ leading receiver, Delanie Walker (pictured), has 35 receptions. Three different Saints have more than that. Tennessee’s defense is tough, but New Orleans’ offense looks to have an option for whatever is needed to move the ball and put points on the board.
• Broken line: Changing coaches does nothing to alter the fact that the offensive line has never settled in as a unit. Injuries and inconsistent play have forced changes from week to week and within games, none of which is likely to be any different this week. The Saints have 12 sacks in the last three games, so if the Titans are forced to pass often this will get ugly.
The bottom line
Anything is possible, but it still seems unlikely the Titans can beat the Saints, particularly on the road.
Their problems through the first seven weeks were not limited to coaching. They still have a dearth of playmakers and some of their best players are out or playing at less than 100 percent.
They should exhibit more energy and enthusiasm as a result of what took place this week, but those things will only get you so far.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Ray Horton did not point fingers at anyone.
The Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator made it perfectly clear, though, that he does not expect any to be aimed at him or his players.
Thursday, when coordinators typically speak to the media, Horton stuck to a small and consistent script as he discussed this Sunday’s game at New Orleans (noon, CBS), the current state of the team and what’s to come after coach Ken Whisenhunt was fired two days earlier.
“We want to be a championship defense,” Horton said. “We’re playing at that level right now. We want to maintain it and we want to get better. I’m preaching – on the road and at home – be a championship defense.”
That was the third time in just over five minutes Horton used virtually those exact words to describe the state of affairs.
The Titans have the AFC’s worst record (1-6), but clearly the man who shares leadership responsibilities with Dick Lebeau on defense believes his unit has performed much better than that.
He’s not the only one. Franchise president Steve Underwood said Lebeau received consideration for the role of interim head coach, which went to Mike Mularkey, partially because management did not want to disrupt the operation or performance of the defense.
DIVISION OF RANKS
A look at where the Tennessee Titans’ offense and defense rank among the NFL’s 32 teams in several key statistics:
Yards per game
Yards per play
Points per game
“The message we gave to our guys is we want to continue to be a championship defense,” Horton said. “It doesn’t matter where you go – at night, day, parking lot, home, road, rain, snow – we want to be a championship defense.”
Horton was much more specific in discussing the Saints and the challenge their offense, led by quarterback Drew Brees, presents. He talked about his personal relationship with Whisenhunt and briefly conceded the coaching change made this week anything but business as usual.
Otherwise, though, he was clear about his impression of things.
“There’s going to be an emotional letdown on Tuesday and Wednesday, when they found out the news, but I think the players are resilient,” Horton said. “But again, here’s what our mantra has been to the defense: Be a championship defense. It doesn’t matter if you’re at home or on the road, day or night.
“So nothing should change for us.”
It’s not the job that Jason Michael finds disconcerting.
It’s the circumstances that led him to it.
Michael is the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator this week, just as he has been since early last year. The difference, though, is that when the Titans play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday (noon, CBS), he will be the one who actually calls the plays.
That is one of the most obvious changes that resulted from Tuesday’s decision by controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk to fire head coach Ken Whisenhunt. A former offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt also served as the team’s play-caller during his 23 games in charge.
“I’ve gone about every game as if I am that playing caller, [considering] what I would do in those situations,” Michael said Thursday. “So my preparation for the week hasn’t changed.
“… I’m prepared. And I think if you’re prepared you feel comfortable.”
Still, it will a first for Michael, a college quarterback at Western Kentucky who has been an NFL assistant since 2005. Before he joined the Titans he worked for several teams as a position coach, most recently as tight ends coach at San Diego. Whisenhunt was the coordinator during the last of Michael’s three seasons there.
His challenge is to try to get more out of an offense that currently ranks 31st in the league in yards and points per game and is tied for 30th in yards per play.
“To sit here and say this is all on me … it’s not on the coordinator,” Michael said. “It’s the offensive staff. It’s us as a team going out and trying to find a win. It’s the communication, the game-planning we’re doing this week with all the position coaches and what they like.
“Are we going to go out and change the whole offense? No. We’re not going to do that. But we’re going to try to find ways to tweak it, whether it be with routes, whether it be getting the ball out quicker, whether it be with protections, giving the help. That’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
Similarly, Michael will work from the pressbox during the game just as he has for the previous 23.
League rules prohibit anyone from there communicating directly with players who are not on the sideline. Thus he will dictate the play call to quarterback coach John McNulty, who then will relay it to the quarterback through the coach-to-quarterback device.
Previously, he consulted with Whisenhunt throughout the game. Ultimately, though, it was the head coach who not only made the call but called it in to the quarterback.
Now that impediment, so to speak, has been removed.
“It’s a situation you don’t want to be in,” Michael said. “… You never want this situation to have. I have a lot of respect for, and feel greatly about Coach Whisenhunt.
“I don’t want it to be in this situation but the opportunity is here, this is the role that I’ve been given and I’m excited about that.”
The Tennessee Titans are back at square one.
Sunday’s game in New Orleans (noon, CBS) is the first of the post-Ken Whisenhunt era and thus a chance to start fresh after a six-game losing streak that has left Tennessee with the AFC’s worst record (1-6). The bottom line was that the number of games Whisenhunt won (three of 23) was insufficient for him to continue.
Mike Mularkey inherits that record but also has promised some changes that he hopes will add up to a few more victories over the season’s remaining nine weeks.
A look at some other notable numbers as they pertain to this contest:
3 – touchdown drives of 80 yards or more by the Titans’ offense this season. The most recent was in Week 3, when that unit went 80 yards in nine plays and scored in the final minute against Indianapolis. The Saints had six TD drives of 80 yards or more in last Sunday’s victory over the New York Giants.
6 – touchdown passes by Titans quarterbacks during the current six-game losing streak. Neither Marcus Mariota nor Zach Mettenberger has thrown more than one in any of the last four weeks. Mariota, of course, had four in the opener.
7 – touchdown passes by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (pictured) last week against the Giants. Brees is fifth in the NFL with 15 touchdown passes on the season. All but two of those have come in the last five games, four of which the Saints won.
12.9 percent – third-down conversion rate by Tennessee’s offense in the last three games. The Titans have just four third-down conversions total in those three contests and have dropped to 30th in the league with a 29.3 percent conversion rate for the season. New Orleans is fourth in the NFL in third-down defense, having allowed opponents to move the chains 31.9 percent of the time.
28 – sacks allowed by the Titans in their first seven games. That is tied for third in the NFL for most allowed, but the other five teams that have given up 22 or more all have played eight games. Thus, Tennessee’s average of 4.0 sacks allowed per game is most in the NFL.
35 – career sacks by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, a first-round pick (24th overall) in 2011. He is one of only two players (Houston’s J.J. Watt is the other) with at least 30 sacks and 20 passes defensed over that span. The Saints are 19-5 when he has at least one sack, 7-0 when he has two or more.
(Photo: Getty Images)
POSTDATA: WARRANTY DEEDS