NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was clear when Marcus Mariota stood frustrated and, in his own words, “embarrassed” at the podium following a 35-14 playoff loss to New England last week that the Tennessee Titans were at a crossroads.
“You play to win the whole thing,” Mariota said after the game. “Yeah, it’s nice to be in the playoffs, but again, you don’t play to get in, especially coming into the divisional playoff and losing the way we did.”
It felt as if Mike Mularkey began to dig in his heels Sunday afternoon as he had an entirely different take from his starting quarterback, talking status quo and continuity in his season-ending news conference. This had a defiant, stubborn feel to it, like much of Mularkey’s 2017 season. In the end, Mularkey’s stubbornness and failure to scheme around Mariota did him in.
Mularkey and several of his loyal players spoke about how the 2017 season was a success despite how the media would portray it. The reality is the 2017 Titans were a mixed bag headed by an underachieving offense and often inflexible coaching staff; but they did sport a close-knit team that endured its first taste of playoff success in 14 years.
But Mularkey and Titans general manager Jon Robinson, along with Mariota, have different ideas of success. Mariota, when asked if 2017 was a success said: “I’m not really feeling that.”
For an organization that hasn’t had much success, it was a matter of differences between being happy with steady progress and preferring to become a true championship contender. Mularkey, who agreed to part ways with the Titans on Monday, seemed content with continuity and progress, as noted by his common saying “checking off boxes.” Robinson, who cut his teeth in the New England model of excellence, preferred to be all-in on championships.
It didn’t help that Mularkey took direct shots at the front office for the lack of support after the Titans’ playoff win at Kansas City.
The Titans had high expectations going into 2017 due to a well-built roster and an exciting, young franchise quarterback in Mariota. Tennessee underachieved offensively, finishing 23rd in total offense and passing offense. The Titans squeaked into the playoffs at 9-7, but their often predictable offense proved to be the biggest weakness.
Mularkey wanted to return his offensive coaching staff, explaining that offensive issues were caused by injuries, inconsistency and mistakes. This Titans team appeared to have a heavy risk of plateauing under Mularkey instead of reaching its stride as a championship contender.
Mularkey’s smashmouth offense did not appear a fit for the 24-year-old Mariota, and maybe his biggest mistake was not adjusting enough to what Mariota did best. He also never connected with the Titans’ fan base, many of whom didn’t want him as head coach and grew frustrated with his offense.
“We’re going to play to the players’ strengths and do what they do best. It’s always been that way,” Mularkey said Sunday afternoon, also noting he was happy with Mariota’s development.
Sorry, Mike, but that’s hard to believe after watching the 2017 Titans. At the very least, Mariota’s strengths were not maximized.
Mariota was expected to take a huge step forward in 2017, but he finished with a career-low 13 passing touchdowns and career-high 15 interceptions. He never appeared comfortable in Mularkey’s scheme that relied upon multiple tight end sets, a power running game and an overall slow flow to the offense.
It still seems true, at least to this writer, that Mularkey did a good job building a culture and a resilient mentality in the 2017 Titans while doing a bad job running the 2017 Titans’ offense. Mularkey’s unwillingness to change the latter likely cost him a chance to continue to do the former.
In an AFC South where Jacksonville has emerged as a true contender, Indianapolis is preparing for the return of Andrew Luck and Houston is awaiting the return of Deshaun Watson, Tennessee felt like a regression candidate under Mularkey next season.