What Does the Firing of Ken Whisenhunt Mean for the Tennessee Titans?

Will Mike Mularkey be able to provide a spark?

Finding a good NFL head coach isn't exactly easy.

Being a skilled offensive or defensive coordinator isn't a guarantee of success as the lead man, but it's tough to get NFL head coaching experience without, you know, being an NFL head coach.

After playing a part in the Arizona Cardinals' success from 2007 to 2012, Ken Whisenhunt, on paper at least, had some merit to continuing his stint as an NFL head coach. After one year as the offensive coordinator with the San Diego Charters, Whisenhunt headed to Tennessee, but things haven't been good ever since. After a 3-20 record with the team, Whisenhunt was fired earlier this week.

Now, last December, Joe Redemann took us down the yellow brick road and exposed Whisenhunt for who he has been in the NFL: a great offensive coordinator but a terrible head coach.

That's why the streets of Nashville and fantasy owners everywhere were rejoicing at the decision by ownership to finally go in a different direction.

We Welcome You to Mularkeyland

Mike Mularkey was named interim head coach of the Titans, but I hope ownership isn’t expecting a Dan Campbell-esque infusion.

For one, have you seen Campbell? I’d say that most players will at least listen to what he has to say. Campbell benefitted from inheriting a talented roster and starting his coaching career against two of the worst teams (Titans and Texans) in the league.

So, what does Mularkey bring to the table? Experience. He has been coaching at some capacity in the NFL since 1994.

Has he been a productive coach, though? For that, we'll have to examine the Net Expected Points (NEP) scores for the teams he has commanded.

For those new to numberFire, NEP is our signature metric that factors in situational variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or players’ production to historical expectation levels. Not all stats are equal, as a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-9 is much more valuable than a gain of 10 yards on 3rd-and-22, for example. For more information, visit our glossary.

Year Team Role Adj. NEP Rank Adj. Pass NEP Rank Adj. Rush NEP Rank Adj. Def NEP Rank
2001 PIT OC 4th 5th 4th N/A
2002 PIT OC 17th 14th 26th N/A
2003 PIT OC 23rd 14th 32nd N/A
2004 BUF HC 16th 15th 25th 3rd
2005 BUF HC 27th 28th 22nd 27th
2006 MIA OC 28th 27th 25th N/A
2008 ATL OC 5th 5th 9th N/A
2009 ATL OC 9th 9th 12th N/A
2010 ATL OC 3rd 3rd 12th N/A
2011 ATL OC 11th 9th 14th N/A
2012 JAC HC 31st 30th 26th 32nd

A cursory glance at the chart shows that Mularkey is a terrible head coach right?

It’s difficult to judge, as the quarterbacks in his stable were not of the highest quality. In 2012, he had Blaine Gabbert. Do I even need to continue? Out of 39 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 pass plays, Gabbert ranked 35th in Passing NEP per play. The 2005 Bills were led by J.P. Losman and Kelly Holcomb. Holcomb was 21st and Losman was 42nd out of 46 quarterbacks in Passing NEP per play.

During Mularkey’s first season as a head coach, he had a 32-year-old Drew Bledsoe on his last legs guiding his team. Out of 36 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs, Bledsoe ranked 24th in Passing NEP per play. This was the only year that a Mularkey-led team finished with a winning record (9-7), but it was primarily due to a dominant defense.

His stints as an offensive coordinator were more successful, especially in Atlanta. It helped that he had one of the more polished quarterbacks coming out of the college ranks in some time. From 2008 to 2011, Matt Ryan ranked 5th, 14th, 6th and 7th in Passing NEP per play out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks.

It is the 2001 season in Pittsburgh that I want to focus on though. Not because it was the most prolific offense or highest ranked according to our metrics but because of who quarterbacked that team: Kordell Stewart.

Stewart (aka Slash) was a dual-threat quarterback who burst onto the scene in 1997. During that magical year, he threw for 3,020 yards with 21 touchdowns through the air and 11 on the ground. Like most running quarterbacks, Stewart struggled in subsequent years when defenses took away the run game and forced him to beat them through the air. The next three years were rough.

Then Mularkey was named offensive coordinator in 2001, and Stewart balled out to earn his only Pro-Bowl appearance. Stewart completed a career high 60.2% of his passes and finished sixth out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks in Passing NEP per play that year.

What does Stewart have to do with anything?

Remember that guy the Titans selected with the second pick in the 2015 NFL Draft? Marcus Mariota is a dual-threat quarterback who was already adept in the short-to-medium passing game. The experience that Mularkey had in coaching Stewart, coupled with his creativity, could infuse energy into an offense that was hampered by the stubbornness of Whisenhunt.

Mularkey has already stated that the Titans will “do some things differently offensively, scheme-wise.”

Savior or Witch?

The Titans' offense is dead last in Adjusted NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP. Their franchise quarterback is 23rd out of 33 quarterbacks in Passing NEP per play. The offensive line is rated dead last in pass protection according to The leading wide receiver, Kendall Wright, is out with a knee injury.

As mentioned earlier, Dan Campbell took over a team stocked with talent. Mularkey is entering a bleak situation that even the Great Oz would have difficulty with.

Could Mularkey be the savior? Sure, but the more likely scenario is that one witch (good offensive coordinator and bad head coach) is probably being replaced with another witch --- just like in the Wizard of Oz.

Even though Mariota could see some new usage, the offensive weapons could continue to stifle the team from finding success. Expect more losses and another high draft pick, as our algorithms predict a 5-11 record.