Nashville, Tennessee is not only the home of the Titans. It is also considered the country music capital of the world. So, it is only fitting that one of the most decorated country music artists of all time’s 1990 hit song provided a lesson that Titans’ fan can learn from now. Garth Brooks said it best, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
Josh McDaniels IS the Titans’ unanswered prayer.
It had been rumored in league circles from the moment Jon Robinson was hired as the team’s general manager in 2016, that he had eyes on reconnecting with his former colleague in New England. Many reports indicated retaining coach Mike Mularkey was required to be hired. While most would not want to be forced into keeping a coach they did not hire, Robinson came on board and gave it a shot.
After an improvement-laden 2016 season that saw the team finish with a 9-7 record, but barely miss the playoffs, hope remained Mularkey could shed his mediocre history and lead this team back to promise. But 2017 came with only disappointment. Even while riding a midseason win streak, it was obvious the team had regressed, especially on offense. The team continued to win though, so it was difficult to speak negatively of the coaches. In Week 14 however, the concerns about the team’s progress began to manifest in the form of a three-game losing streak. Two losses of which were against teams this Titans roster was clearly superior to. The alarm started to sound. The dream was over.
The displeasure with the progress of the team and the unimaginative staff finally felt like it had merit and had tangible evidence to speak to. While, to anyone who was really paying attention, it was obvious this team was fortunate due to a weak schedule and some lucky bounces, it was still hard to criticize a staff that had turned a perennial bottom feeder into a playoff contender, until the losing streak.
Like smoke, the whispers began to rise in the sky as the rumor fires began to smolder. The Titans were going to fire Mularkey and staff for their stubborn approach to play calling and the lack of development of the players. When phrases like “overcome coaching” and “I’d rather have Marcus (Mariota) calling the shots” start leaking to the media and players were openly dissatisfied with the plan, the move was obvious.
The McDaniels connection was a seemingly easy thing to spot and most around the league predicted that he would be the Titans top candidate when Mularkey was let go after the season. Then Mariota saved the staff with one of the biggest moments in his career and Titan history, securing a playoff berth and taking Jaguars safety Barry Church’s soul.
Hard to fire a coach who took a team that was 5-27 over two years to 18-14 and a playoff berth in the same time.
Instead of missing the playoffs and starting the coaching search, the Titans started to focus on a wild card matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Of course, Robinson & Co. still were evaluating candidates and preparing for the search, but it could not be openly discussed. And, more importantly, interviews could not be conducted. This meant the Titans could not interview any of the hot candidates that had an opening week bye in the playoffs; including McDaniels.
While this was disappointing, the Titans were major underdogs to Kansas City. Conventional wisdom was they would lose, fire Mularkey and get started a week later. No big deal. But, as always, Mariota saved the day. The Titans erased an 18-point deficit en route to one of the best comebacks in NFL playoff history.
Hard to fire a coach who led his team to an 18-point comeback, upset win on the road in the playoffs.
Titans’ owner Amy Adams-Strunk released a statement supporting Mularkey. Some took this as a guarantee he would be back as coach in 2018. Some saw it more as a one-week endorsement to quiet down the rumors of his firing. All the while, the Titans were losing another week to interview and McDaniels was interviewing with a hated division rival. The Indianapolis Colts had become major suitors for McDaniels and the Titans hadn’t even gotten a chance to meet with him yet. But, there was a game to prepare for. The team had to get ready for a divisional round matchup against the vaunted New England Patriots after securing their first playoff win in more than 10 years.
This time around, the players’ talents were not enough to “overcome coaching.” The Titans’ offense was anemic for most of the afternoon, while the defense was shredded by McDaniels’ offense. The play calling and schematic creativity was all on display as the Patriots cut through the Titans like butter. After the sting of the 35-21 shellacking faded, the pain of knowing McDaniels couldn’t be interviewed until after the Super Bowl, most likely, started to hit, but would the playoff win mean Mularkey would stay? The question that permeated throughout social media as Titans fans felt the collective anxiety associated with keeping the current staff was simply, was a playoff win worth keeping Mularkey?
Hard to fire a coach who just – wait, Mularkey refuses to revamp his staff? Well…
Shortly after the firing of Mularkey, the process began to find the new head coach. Unfortunately, the top name in the rumor mill since Robinson was hired and the top candidate available, McDaniels, was unavailable to interview and, reportedly, had now formed a verbal agreement with the Colts. Fair to say, the fanbase was disappointed. Some still believed Robinson could flip McDaniels, but realistically, it was a long shot. People in the NFL don’t typically go back on their word, as the risk of running relationships is high. So the Titans moved on to other options. Eventually, Mike Vrabel was hired. Some were excited, but it was hard to shake the disappointment as it felt like McDaniels was clearly the fan base’s first choice.
The following weeks went about as normal as expected. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl, McDaniels was announced as the next head coach of the Colts and the Titans filled up their coaching staff. A press conference was scheduled to welcome McDaniels the week after Super Bowl LII and his new staff began to sign.
Then Adam Schefter broke the internet.
McDaniels had left the Colts at the altar and peeled off in a drop-top convertible with Bill Belichick at the wheel and Patriots owner Robert Kraft standing in the back seat tossing one dollar bills out to the congregation. Ok, that didn’t happen, but you can imagine what’d it’d be like, huh!?
The NFL freaked out, the fans went crazy, and Colts general manager Chris Ballard did this. The Colts organization was in chaos. The collective NFL world took pleasure in their pain, while also slamming McDaniels for what most considered career suicide. Obviously, McDaniels was promised certain things from New England’s brass that enticed him to stay, but it is logical there are other factors that contributed that we may never know.
One of the strangest situations in NFL history was unfolding, but all I could think was this:
What if this were the Titans?
Imagine if the Titans had waited and passed up on multiple candidates, skipped out on interviews, lost coordinators for McDaniels to ditch the team at the last second and return to Foxboro. Imagine if the Titans, who historically do not always garner national respect, became the laughing stock of the league. The public embarrassment isn’t even the biggest downfall. This type of move would set an organization back. The Colts now have coordinators and assistants who have relocated to work for McDaniels. Now they must hire a new head coach and it is uncertain how the newly hired assistants will work with the new head coach. Does the new head coach keep them around for only a short time to bring in someone he is more comfortable with? Will you have to move your family twice in a few short months? So many unanswered questions the Titans don’t have to deal with.
The Titans truly dodged a bullet by avoiding McDaniels. The organization was already taking some heat for the handling of the Mularkey firing. If the McDaniels incident was piled on top of that, this would be one of the worst offseasons in franchise history, regardless of who wound up getting hired next.
Admittedly, I also thought McDaniels was the best possible choice along with a majority of the fan base. I felt disappointment when I knew he would go to Indianapolis. Thankfully, my hopes were not realized. This was a nightmare the Titans could not deal with at this time. A huge mistake was avoided.
This is no sermon, nor do I aim to preach, but Garth Brooks had a simple message that all Titans fans can relate to today,
“Sometimes, I thank God, for unanswered prayers.”