The Tennessee Titans rallied to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 16-14 last week, in a game that head coach Ken Whisenhunt thought they were going to lose. Prior to that, they won handily, then lost by 16, 26, and 24 points, then 1, while giving up the largest road comeback in NFL history.
The Titans should get better this season. But they likely would have under their old head coach as well – or would have never been this bad to begin with. And their offseason switch from that coach, 22-26 lifetime record Mike Munchak, to 44-52 lifetime head coaching record Ken Whisenhunt, hinted of some possible wishful thinking.
Mike Munchak, a former no. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft (by the Houston Oilers, later to move to Tennessee and, ironically, become the Titans) made his head coaching debut for them, from 2011 through last season..
In doing so, he took over a team that under Marquee coach Jeff Fisher (now with the Rams), had gone 8-8 in ’09, and 6-10 in ’10. Under Munchak, Tennessee hit a 9-7 record in 2011, fell to 6-10 in 2012, and, keeping most games close but losing 2 out of 3 in overtime, slightly improved back to 7-9, last year.
Tennessee then released Munchak. For the former Cardinals head coach, Ken Whisenhunt.
In his first go round as head coach, Whisenhunt had been the Cardinals coach for 6 years, from 2007-2012. During that time he brought the team to the playoffs twice (2009 and 2009): winning a home wild card round game before losing in the divisional round in ’09, and, after a 9-7 season, all the way to a Super Bowl in ’08, where the Cardinals peaked at the end of the year, courtesy of his coaching no doubt, super star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, QB Kurt Warner and dramatically underrated and football passion filled Anquan Boldin.
(Warner and Boldin both even won Super Bowls with other teams: Warner before with the Rams; Boldin later with the Ravens. And, in the twilight of his career, he almost appeared in yet another one last year for the 49ers – the very team the Ravens had defeated in the Super Bowl the year before.)
Whisenhunt was a decent coach. But his overall record was only 44-51 – a losing record over a 6 season span. And after dismissing Whisenhunt following ensuing 5-11, 8-8, and 5-11 seasons from ’10 to ’13, the Cardinals dramatically improved under first time new head coach Bruce Arians in 2013, becoming one of the rare teams to finish 10-6 and not make the playoffs while competing in what had suddenly become the toughest division in football (The NFC West, in 2013). The Cardinals, despite playing in a now strong division, and losing key players to free agency and particularly injury and suspensions, nevertheless, are a still surprising 4-1 so far this year after defeating the enigmatically iffy Washington Skins 30-20 last weekend,
While 2013 is just one season, the fact that Arians turned the team around the year after Whisenhunt left, on top of this 44-51 record, is also relevant when comparing him to Munchak, who had no marquee players, only three years to work with, and a comparable record. And a team that battled last year.
Munchak also took over a bad team from – depending on who one listens to – a solid to very good head coach in Jeff Fisher, although it’s hard to see what Fisher is really accomplishing as head coach of the St. Louis Rams so far:
After making strong improvement with a perenially underperforming team in his first year, with two wide receivers drafted high overall by the Rams in 2013 from the same college team – both of whom benefited from a high octane offense and college throwing machine Geno Smith tossing them the ball – and despite a gift trade from the Redskins the year before dumping them a bunch of very high picks, they were – albeit in that very tough division – a half game worse in 2013; and, with a key preseason QB injury (while Tim Tebow’s football comeback skills rot away on morning TV), have fallen to 1-4 so far this year.
While many originally believed sacrificing draft picks and moving up to choose Geno Smith target Tavon Austin with the 8th overall pick, then his very own teammate Stedman Bailey in the 3rd, was a fine move, I didn’t. Although I didn’t have a blog then, it’s in a rant in notes to the 2013 draft, as well as an unusually scouring footnote (that will probably be axed) in the draft of the NFL strategy book I’m working on; which not only disagreed strongly with the Rams overall analysis, but went into detail on how teams continue to underestimate the “team” component and influence of fellow players and opponents on college performance.
Love of Fisher remains strong. (In part because he’s pretty calm and even keeled in press conferences, always seems to get a lot of respect from his players, very reasonable seeming, and sometimes creative.) Not that they had any direction to go but up, he has made St. Louis a better team (they just didn’t seem to keep it going this year – yet).
And more relevantly for offseason decision making, Fisher had done a solid job for the Titans, keeping them a playoff caliber team for several years, and early in the process taking them within a yard of tying none other than the St. Louis Rams – and Kurt Warner, who himself would later go on to assist none other than Ken Whisenhunt’s road to near Super Bowl glory – in Super Bowl “XXXIV” (34): There, only to be stopped, in a wild finish, by deserved future Hall of Fame inductee London Fletcher (Who himself, after 16 years of near constant tackling, finally retired after last season.)
So, bottom line – questionable or not, and perhaps after many years Fisher had simply lost his focus at Tennessee – it’s not like Munchak took over from a bad or even just average head coach, and he still if anything, improved the team. While the Titans have regressed under Whisenhunt.
But even had they gotten a little better instead, it still wouldn’t necessarily have meant the coaching switch made sense at the time it was made. A switch should warrant a strong argument for improvement between one coach and the next. If not, why make it, particularly when the current guy has been doing a decent if not promising job.
And time might hint otherwise (though there’s little way to tell since we don’t know what Munchak would have done); but there wasn’t a lot of reason to believe that Whisenhunt really represented much of an improvement, if any, from Munchak.
Yes, Whiz’ went to a SuperBowl. And even with Anquan Boldin (one of the most underrated players at the time to ever play modern football, and most key of all, someone who plays with passion, battles and inspires teammates, and rarely drops footballs) Larry Fitzgerald (perhaps, along with the Texans Andre Johnson, the best receiver in the league at the time), and superstar QB Kurt Warner (who probably only didn’t get it done as well when he was with the Giants because he had a thumb injury he kept playing with, causing him to lose control of the football) – that is a significant achievement.
And they might have even won the Superbowl, and Warner and Boldin both possessive of a SB ring with two different teams if the amazing James Harrison hadn’t picked off a one yard pass on a first and goal and returned it 100 yards for a 14 point swing versus a Warner TD throw (albeit one with a possession switch, since the Cardinals start with the ball after the Pittsburgh defensive TD, and had the Cardinals scored, the Steelers would start with the ball instead).
But Whisenhunt also had an overall 6 year losing record, with some good players. And Munchak might have done the same or better.
This suggestion isn’t necessarily an eminently gracious but analytically questionable “Pat Kirwan” type of “keep giving head coaches more time” perspective. I think continuity is relevant, but can be overrated – if a team is doing poorly, find out why. And the head coach is the most important component to a football team. (Kirwan, a former Jets director of player administration, is an often excellent CBS football analyst as well as Sirius Radio’s “Movin’ the Chains’ co-host extraordinaire. Although his current power rankings through week 6, hard as those are to do, are pretty iffy. And while Kirwan I believe was one of the many to say no one saw this coming after the Chargers (who he now ranks no. 1) upset the Seahawks in week 3, I was lucky enough in my one NFL twitter prediction, to call the game outcome in advance.)
And, very un-Pat Kirwan like when it comes to head coaches, during this offseason, if asked about Oakland, I couldn’t get the words “Not replacing Dennis Allen was ridiculous” out of my mouth fast enough.
Oakland did just recently finally fire Dennis Allen – during the season no less – after a not surprising miserable performance through the first four games.
Also not surprising, Oakland, with underrated interim head coach Tony Sparano – who represented a big improvement from Allen and who had done a great job taking over a 1-15 Dolphins club back in 2008 before faltering a bit a couple years later (though winning 4 out of his last 5 games made it an odd time to fire him before the season was over – although perhaps owner Stephen Ross was just following a normally rare, yet then momentarily chic late “in season” firing trend), took San Diego Down to the wire in week 6:
And in the process of “shocking” many but those who believed that yes, the Raiders are bad, yes the team received an energy bump from the sudden coach change and yes they had motivation playing their suddenly soaring arch rival division and state nemesis San Diego, but that head coaching in the NFL is extremely difficult, and Allen wasn’t ready.
So this assessment of the Titans major move is not just about a fealty toward simply sticking with the current head coach, a la Kirwan style.. It is about the fact that when Munchak took over the Titans, they were a bad team, and he didn’t do such a poor job that he necessarily had to be fired. But if he was going to be, the argument for losing that continuity and taking away the chance for one more year to see if he could pull the team together, would be to make a move toward a clearly more solid coach. Barring some strong inside knowledge and “feel” after speaking with Whisenhunt and investigating those involved with his last coaching tenure, which is going to materialize as the team rolls forward, there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the Titans did that.
Whishenhunt may yet turn out to be a relevantly better head coach. But at the time of the hiring, the assessment that he was, rather than he “might be,” was very questionable. And the decision to fire Munchak and bring in someone with probably around the same level of potential (albeit perhaps more, perhaps less), was, thus, in summation, likely a mistake at the time it was made.
For the record, I will be be rooting for the Titans and against looking prescient. But again, this is not about dismissing Whisenhunt’s talents as a head coach, or what winds up happening. But as with all decisions, it’s about the facts as they existed at the time the decision was made.
Yet, as just hinted above, there is some subjectivity and judgement here. So how Whisenhunt ultimately performs is relevant in terms of ultimately assessing the decision as well. And while the Titans may strongly improve under Whisenhunt – as, after building a solid base for competitive play in his first three years, they may have done under Munchak – if the Titans go deep into the playoffs multiple times under Whisenhunt, then maybe they were onto something.
(I still think they need a new General Manager though. Then again, I think that about most teams in the NFL, as given the disparate skill set of various types of strategic assessment, logic, and non crowd or common perception following (and very uncommon) objectivity that the job requires – I know I could do a better job.)
While players obviously also matter greatly, as great coaches have repeatedly illustrated, great coaching can trump player talent – winning football is ultimately passion and heart, followed by execution. (All of which coaches directly affect, particularly the first two). And over a six year span Whisenhunt’s team, with some good players, had a losing record.
Overall, respectable. But there was evidence to suggest that Munchak did a fairly respectable job with the team he had.
And, right or wrong, as the first link to this piece suggests, Whisenhunt – in a move that, as a complaint and excuse, is either questionable – or as motivation to his team, possibly brilliant (though if uttered for challenge and motivation the wording was a little odd) – now suggests that the players on his team are not as good as he thought they were.
Likewise, relative to who they brought in, maybe Munchak wasn’t as bad of a head coach as the Titans management thought he was.