We still have time—eons in the NFL world—for all the power-keepers in this year’s coaching search to manipulate and distort the common sense view of how the remaining candidates and teams should pair off.
But on Monday, when the Titans and head coach Mike Mularkey agreed to mutually part ways after he took the team to its first playoff game since 2008, an unshakable thought had to enter the minds of the other owners—John Mara and Steve Tisch, Jim Irsay and Michael Bidwill—who still have to hire a head coach this offseason: An opening in Tennessee is frightening.
Why? Nashville is a blossoming, trendy area with a beautiful downtown. They have a respected general manager from the Patriot tree who has already fortified the team with a strong foundation through the draft. Their franchise quarterback is only 24, and despite a down year which saw Marcus Mariota battle through injuries all season, he has the makeup of a star in the NFL.
Coaches understand that they may get two or three years tops to prove that they are worthy of a longer-term commitment. What sounds better right now? Mariota, or the final year of Eli Manning, a No. 2 draft pick and the prospect of sorting out that embattled locker room? Jon Robinson, or a talented young defense and weight of replacing Mr. Cool, Bruce Arians, down in Arizona?
It's a legitimate question, but the fact that it would give any coach pause is part of the problem for the Giants and Cardinals.
After the Titans lost to the Patriots on Saturday night, Mularkey talked about how Mariota strained his quad in the first quarter, which limited the Titans’ ability to get creative on offense. This was really the story of their entire season. Mularkey was never quite able to run his exotic smashmouth concepts to full effect.
When Mariota was healthy and the Titans were legitimately surprising teams in 2016, it should have made any prospective head coach or coordinator involuntarily salivate. That combination of healthy quarterback, offensive line and skill position players could do something special in the NFL right away.
This was a strange offseason for coaching moves. It feels like some teams—the Bengals—stayed with what they knew because there weren’t many other appetizing options. Both Patriots coordinators appear spoken for. The Andy-Reid disciple, Matt Nagy, was plucked immediately by the Bears and the Raiders are forking over the equivalent of an Orange County beachfront mansion every year just to put Jon Gruden’s name on a billboard.
If a team didn’t think they could attract the best of whatever was left, they sat out the dance.
The Titans were not going to enter the fray weeks late without the knowledge that they could pull down a big name—or at least the kind of coach who could do better than 18–14 (one playoff win, one loss). Other teams have shown that the status quo at their head-coaching position makes good enough business sense. So why would the Titans buck the trend? That’s what Arizona and New York are probably thinking right now.