After an unconventional coaching hire, Tennessee is bucking tradition again with its throwback philosophy. Here are the details on old-school notes taking, surprise spelling bees and the growth of Marcus Mariota

By Emily Kaplan
August 10, 2016

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NASHVILLE — When the Titans announced the hiring of Mike Mularkey as coach, the overwhelming outside sentiment was: Huh? It felt like an uninspiring choice for a franchise with a budding star quarterback, defensive promise, and the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. In relieving the fired Ken Whisenhunt, Mularkey had gone 2-5 as interim, dropping his career coaching record to 18-39. 

What’s more, the Titans seemed uninterested in engaging in conversation with the hiring cycle’s hottest candidates: Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Dirk Koetter, Josh McDaniels and the like. 

Surely Mularkey, 54, had convinced Tennessee ownership he had learned from his previous coaching gigs—one lasting one season (Jacksonville in 2012), the other two (Buffalo in 2004-05)—and was ready to get this job right. 

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“I didn't get it wrong the first two times, in my opinion,” Mularkey says. “Remember, I resigned in Buffalo, for a variety of personal reasons. So I haven’t changed my coaching style one bit. My philosophy and message has been consistent for 20-something years: I like being a physically tough team, and I hope you do too if you want to be around here.”

As most of the NFL trends towards quickness, embracing technology and scientific edges, the Titans believe they can build a winning team by going old school. Instead of exploiting Marcus Mariota’s athleticism, the offense is committing to a ground-and-pound running game. Tablets are accepted, but coaches ask players to take most of their notes with pen and paper. Modern concepts take a backseat to experience; half of Mularkey’s 18 assistant coaches are older than 57. Three of those men—Bob Bratkowski, Russ Grimm, Steve Jackson—had been out of coaching for at least three seasons before returning to help with the Titans. And then there’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who, at 78, is using the same zone blitzes he essentially introduced to the NFL before most current players were born, but has stayed “in good enough shape to keep up with guys and yell in their face.” 

“Mularkey believes in a throwback culture,” Mariota says. “And I think guys have really bought into it. I have. Hopefully it makes us more successful.”

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Coach Mike Mularkey is asking Marcus Mariota and the Titans to play a more physical brand of football in 2016.
Mark Zaleski/AP

Mularkey played nine seasons as a tight end for the Vikings and the Steelers from 1983-91. At the time, Minnesota began camp later than most teams, and the players didn’t put on pads until halfway through camp. The Steelers, under Chuck Noll, hit nearly every day. Mularkey was inspired by the physicality-wins-championships approach and when he began his coaching career as a tight ends coach in 1994, he fully embraced it. “When I was coaching tight ends, we were going to be the most physical position group on the field,” Mularkey says. “The culture Chuck Noll built is the one I’m familiar with and the only one I’ve ever wanted.”

When Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson built the Titans coaching staff, they kept narrow focus. Every assistant coach on staff either played with or coached with Mularkey at some point—the only exception is assistant secondaries coach Steve Jackson, though LeBeau vouched for him. “This is the first time in my three tries that I got all of my guys,” Mularkey says. “I trust them. They don't have any hidden agendas to be coordinators, or have eyes on other jobs. They just want what I want and that’s to win.” That explains why on most afternoons, at least five or six chairs are crammed into LeBeau’s modest office. Or why the entire team embraces physicality. “Hitting is pretty much the same as last year, but guys coming off the ball, flying around a lot more,” Mariota says. “The tempo of practices has been a lot more intense.” 

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At an intersquad scrimmage at Nissan Stadium on Monday night, it didn’t take 15 minutes for evidence to emerge. Center Brian Schwenke walked off with a foot-long blood stain stretching from his stomach to his thigh (official injury: cut middle finger). Schwenke returned to action a few minutes later, by which point bodies were still flying. (After being rained out before an offday, the players hadn’t hit for two days.) Rookie running back Derrick Henry powered past tacklers, proving Robinson’s commitment to bruising backs this offseason—the Titans also signed DeMarco Murray—to relieve pressure and protect Mariota. The second-year quarterback appeared shaky, being intercepted by backup safety Daimion Stafford, but defense ruled the day anyway. Veteran safety Jason McCourty, who missed almost all of last season with injury, jarred a bar loose from towering receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. Even undrafted rookie defensive end Mike Smith, who sang the national anthem by nomination of teammates who were impressed by his shower crooning habits, recovered a fumble from backup quarterback Matt Cassell and returned it for a touchdown. 

Last year, LeBeau was in an awkward situation as co-defensive coordinator with one of his protégées, Ray Horton. Though LeBeau’s influence was ubiquitous, he was frustrated by not being able to call defensive plays for the first time in his career. Back in the helm, LeBeau says he’s excited to blitz a bit more, especially since there is more depth in his front seven.

“I’d be very surprised if we are not a more aggressive team this year,” Mularkey says. 

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Nobody is immune to it—not the starting quarterback Mariota, not the hotshot rookie Henry. Mularkey plays role of disciplinarian. After a long meeting, the coach will demand a player to turn in his notes. “He just wants to make sure you’re paying attention,” Mariota says. “It reminds you of a pop quiz,” says undrafted rookie linebacker Aaron Wallace. “I was a little scared because I like to doodle a lot.”

Explains Mularkey: “You're Derrick Henry, you're the big back, you're No. 2, I want to see what you've written down in your role as a special teams player. Usually the first time, it’s not very good but the second time it's amazing how detailed and how much information they have because they don’t want to embarrass themselves.” The coach will then hand off the notes to position coaches, who can discipline at will. 

“No feedback is good feedback,” Mariota says. 

The old-school tactics are rigid, but Mariota says players are responding. Through OTAs, Mularkey displayed a chart each week listing the most-penalized players, hoping to fix bad habits through peer-humiliation.

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The coach has made at least one change to his style. “I’m trying to have a little more fun this time around,” he says. “I'm making it a little more fun to come into work.” Recently, Mularkey told 10 rookies there would be a pop quiz the next day. They would be called in front of the team auditorium and drilled on concepts that had been installed in the last week. 

“I know for a fact that 10 of them went home and studied beyond belief,” Mularkey says.

When the competition began, Mularkey called an audible. Actually, this is going to be a spelling bee. The entire room burst into laughter. 

Henry finished runner-up to guard Sebastian Tretola. The winning word: acceptable. 

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FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT THE TITANS

1. Mariota spent most of his first offseason working out at his alma mater, Oregon. A big focal point was his footwork, specifically drops under center. “Getting more depth, timing, everything,” he says. “Just being able to feel powerful doing a quicker drop while still getting the power I needed if I took a longer, deeper drop. This is something I feel like I’m significantly better at now than I was at this point last season.” 

2. One of the Titans quiet strengths last season was the defensive line, which finished eighth in the league with 3.9 yards allowed per rush. The defense actually ranked 12th in the league overall, impressive considering the team’s sputtering record. Much of the success is credited to ascending star defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, as well as pass-rushing linebackers Brian Orakpo, who notched seven sacks, and Derrick Morgan, who recorded 4.5 sacks in just 10 games. All return for 2016, as does another player the coaching staff seems to be high on: third-year defensive lineman Da’Quan Jones, a fourth-round draft pick out of Penn State in 2014. Jones was promoted into the starting lineup last year and quietly recorded 67 tackles and 15 quarterback pressures. “If he makes the same jump he did from year one to year two,” Mularkey says. “Then I think he could be something special.”

3. LeBeau doesn’t look 78, and he sure doesn’t act it. The Hall of Fame coach speaks with such passion for the game—and appears in fantastic shape—it’s hard to imagine him ever retiring soon. “I wish I could say I’m not done anytime soon, but the law of averages says otherwise,” LeBeau says. “I'm enjoying everything I'm doing, and as long as I have the vitality to do it, I can stay up with the guys and can feel like I'm contributing to the growth of the team, that's what I like to do. I do this because I'm a teacher, and you have to have players around to teach. You can't teach on the golf course.”

4. I’m always careful to take too much out of one training camp practice, especially an intrasquad scrimmage. But it was hard not to be impressed with Henry, who had a handful of powerful runs and scored on two touchdown runs. Looking at his physique and the way he powers his legs, he’s an incredibly tough runner to bring down. The Heisman-winner definitely has value as a bruising complement to Murray, but I’m curious to see how they will incorporate him into the passing game.

5. Not only did teammates nominate Smith, an undrafted rookie from Southern Mississippi, to sing the national anthem, but also the 6-foot-4, 282-pound lineman crushed it.

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