By Des Bieler
NFL teams that make the playoffs for the first time in nine years don't generally fire their head coaches, especially after those teams actually win a game in the playoffs. Yet that is what happened Monday, as the Titans parted ways with Mike Mularkey, who had produced winning seasons in each of his two full years at the helm in Tennessee.
Adding to the unusual situation were reports Sunday that the Titans, having given Mularkey a vote of confidence the week before, were working on a contract extension with him. However, those talks broke down, with the team's controlling owner, Amy Adams Strunk, saying in a statement Monday that "in those discussions about the direction of the team, it became evident that we saw different paths to achieve greater success."
"I want to thank Mike Mularkey for his contributions to our franchise over his tenure with our organization," Adams said. "He took over our team during a low moment and together with Jon built a solid foundation for our franchise. . . .
"It is certainly unfortunate that we couldn't find enough common ground. I generally believe that continuity is the best path for success, but I also view this as an important moment for our football team as we try to make that next step to sustained success on the field."
Adams added that General Manager Jon Robinson "will begin the search immediately to identify" Tennessee's next head coach. Speculation about the team's preferred candidates includes Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who could also be courted by Indianapolis, which fired its head coach, Chuck Pagano, after completing a 4-12 regular season.
Mularkey took over as the Titans' interim head coach after they fired Ken Whisenhunt in 2015, and although he went just 2-7 in that abbreviated stretch, the team brought him back in 2016. That move paid off, as Tennessee went 9-7 and looked much improved on offense, Mularkey's area of expertise.
The Titans went 9-7 again this season, but that record was seen as more of a disappointment, particularly given the way it unfolded. Tennessee lost three of its final four regular season games to blow a shot at an AFC South title, and in arguably an even more alarming development, the performance of third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota sharply regressed amid an oft-sputtering, unimaginative attack.
Although Tennessee managed to qualify for the playoffs as a wild-card team, its first postseason berth since 2009, Mularkey was widely though to be on thin ice. After a stunning comeback win at Kansas City, though, Adams made a show of support, saying in a statement, "Just to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward."
The Titans' next playoff game, however, brought the good feelings to a crashing halt. The team was squashed Saturday, 35-14, by the Patriots, and Mularkey may not have helped his cause afterward by indicating that he wanted to bring back his staff, including much-criticized offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.
If the Titans want to replace Mularkey with McDaniels, who has earned praise for his work with New England's offense, they will have to wait until that team's season ends. The Patriots are set to play the Jaguars Sunday in the AFC championship game, and if they win, they will play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.