The biggest winner of the Tennessee Titans’ dismantling of the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs was not anyone who wore a uniform and played in the game. It wasn’t anyone who was wearing a headset on the sideline.
The Titans’ players and coaches were great in the win, but the singular biggest winner of the game was general manager Jon Robinson.
By winning and advancing to the AFC Championship, the Titans proved that Robinson’s 2018 decision to part ways with former head coach Mike Mularkey, a bold and incredibly risky move, was the right one.
REMEMBERING MULARKEY’S TITANS TENURE
In his two years as head coach of the Titans, Mularkey brought the franchise back from the grave.
When the Titans hired Mularkey in 2016, the organization had won a putrid five games over the previous two seasons. He turned things around by implementing a solid culture inside the locker room that proved to be a foundation for on-field success.
The Titans went 9-7 in Mularkey’s first year as full-time head coach, barely missing out on the playoffs. If not for a freak injury in Week 16 to QB Marcus Mariota, they may have made the cut.
Mularkey’s second year saw the Titans post another 9-7 record, which happened to be good enough for a wildcard spot that season. However, it was a much less impressive 9-7 than the previous one.
In 2016, the Titans used a powerful rushing attack to knock off more playoff teams than anyone else in the NFL, but their struggles within the AFC South kept them out of the playoffs.
The 2017 Titans, though they did make the postseason, somewhat backed into that spot by beating a bunch of backup quarterbacks and otherwise injury-plagued teams.
A DECISION TO MAKE FOR TENNESSEE
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When the Titans were soundly defeated by the Patriots in the 2017 divisional round, one week after they notched an impressive comeback win over the Chiefs, Robinson had a decision to make.
Would he keep Mularkey, or look elsewhere?
The easy decision—and arguably the one that, without hindsight, he should’ve made—would have been to keep Mularkey. Teams don’t usually fire a coach after he wins a playoff game.
The Titans’ 2017 playoff appearance was the franchise’s first in nearly 10 years, a tribute to Mularkey’s abilities. Mularkey was also very well-liked by his players.
On the other hand, Mularkey’s run-first philosophy seemed to have hit a major brick wall, and his offensive system looked to be holding Mariota back. He was also tied at the hip to perplexingly ineffective offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.
Robinson took the risk and parted ways with Mularkey, paving the way for Mike Vrabel to become the Titans’ head coach.
THE ISSUES WITH THAT DECISION
The decision was a bold one.
Whenever a team hires a new head coach, especially a first-timer like Vrabel, there’s always a chance that he ends up as a complete disaster.
That kind of result is always a possibility, regardless of how “confident” an organization is in the new hire.
Need an example? Look no further than the Titans themselves, who got into a bidding war for Ken Whisenhunt, Mularkey’s predecessor, back in 2014 only to have the hire blow up as one of the worst of the decade.
Robinson and the Titans also ran the risk of Vrabel having a lengthy learning curve. While it’s now clear that Vrabel quickly caught on, it could have taken him several years to establish his culture and get the Titans past the point that Mularkey got them.
FAST FORWARD TWO YEARS
Two years later, though, it’s clear that Robinson made the right choice.
We’ll never know if one playoff win actually was Mularkey’s ceiling, but his replacement has already surpassed that point. That’s what matters.
Vrabel’s Titans are one win away from a Super Bowl berth, something Robinson surely had in mind when he decided to move on from Mularkey.
Plenty of NFL franchises continuously settle for slightly above average results, never having the courage to make a bold move with the goal of reaching higher standards.
Robinson had that courage, and the Titans organization is being rewarded handomely as a result.
Cover image: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today