Long-time Titans fans might remember the 2001 season – the one year during the five-year run from 1999-2003 where the team did not make the playoffs.
As the Titans now search for a new head coach to replace Mike Mularkey – one who can further advance Marcus Mariota as a quarterback – there is an interesting comparison to be made between now and where the Titans found themselves during the middle of that season almost 17 years ago.
In 1999 and 2000, the Titans had been built around a stout defense and a strong running game that featured Eddie George. Quarterback Steve McNair, save for the occasional heroics like the AFC title game in Jacksonville following the ’99 season or the final near-miss drive of the Super Bowl, was a supporting actor, while George played the lead role in the offense. In a five-year span from 1996-2000, the Titans had ridden George hard, as he averaged 1,375 yards and 353 carries a season.
By ’01, that workload had taken its toll on George in a form of a nagging turf toe injury, and he would not even reach the 1,000-yard barrier that season. That, plus injuries on defense, had crippled the Titans who would finish the year 7-9 overall.
But there was a silver lining in that season, thanks to the foresight of offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who realized and finally convinced head coach Jeff Fisher that the Titans’ best chance for victory was to hand the keys to the offense to McNair and open things up by basing the offense around his athleticism.
The results were outstanding as McNair blossomed into a franchise quarterback. In his first six NFL seasons (four as a starter), McNair had thrown just 65 TD passes. From 2001-03, when he was directing the offense, he threw 67 touchdown passes, helped the Titans to the AFC Championship Game in 2002 and shared a league MVP Award with Peyton Manning in ’03.
Fast forward to now, and the Titans found themselves at a similar crossroads this season with Mariota.
In his first two seasons, he had shown plenty of signs of being a franchise QB, even tossing 26 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions in 2016. All that while in a system that was really not made for him, but instead played to the talents of running back DeMarco Murray, who led the AFC in rushing that season.
When Murray slowed down this season, and Derrick Henry proved to be hit-or-miss as his replacement, instead of asking Mariota to do more, Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie stayed with their same philosophy, and as a result, the offense suffered. Certainly, Mariota’s injury issues played a role in that reluctance. But the injury issue is almost a moot point when one considers McNair’s injuries were the stuff of legend.
In evaluating the situation, GM Jon Robinson realized that for Mariota and the Titans offense to take the next step, the formula had to change. Like McNair took flight as a quarterback in 2001, Robinson and controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk realized that it is time for Mariota to leave the nest as well and spread his wings as a quarterback by playing in a system that – in the words of Robinson on Monday – will “maximize his skills set.”
As the Titans begin interviewing and evaluating new head coaching candidates, seeing what their plan for building around Mariota will be high on the inquiry list.