Monday, January 25, 2016

A deserved encore for Peyton Manning

He won an SEC championship at Tennessee and a Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts but I suspect the victory over New England on Sunday ranks as the most satisfying win of Peyton Manning's career.

The reward: a fourth Super Bowl berth.

This really is remarkable. A couple of months ago, we were writing the guy off. He was damaged goods. His body was breaking down. His football obituary was waiting to be posted. The Denver Broncos had turned to their quarterback of the future, Brock Osweiler, as their quarterback of the present.

But if Manning is riding off into the sunset, he's doing it on his own terms. There is no greater stage than Super Bowl 50.

I really do think this will be Manning's final game. Father Time waits for no man, including Peyton Manning. Win or lose, what better way to go out?

The foot injury that kept him out of six games in November and December is turning out to be a blessing in disguise. He appears fresh and about as healthy as a 18-year NFL player can be.

Contrast that to a year ago when he hit the playoffs wounded and worn. He had trouble setting up to pass. His throws had no zip. He was an easy target.

Not now. Granted, his accuracy has been off on occasion but the arm strength is there. His stats against New England were pedestrian by his standards -- 17-of-32 for 176 yards. When necessary, though, he was able to fit the ball into tight windows.

He also avoided the big mistake. He has not committed a turnover in two playoff games.

And then there was that 12-yard run for a vital first down midway through the second quarter against the Patriots. Nobody saw that one coming. When was the last time he had a 12-yard run? I'll answer that. He had a 27-yard run for the Colts -- in 2010.

In his previous three Super Bowl appearances -- two in Indianapolis, one in Denver -- Manning has been the driving force. Now he is managing the game for a team built around its defense and running attack.

In short, he's adjusted. That's what great athletes do.

In the process, he prolonged a remarkable football career. There is one more game to play.

And I'm betting he will play it very, very well.

Reach David Climer on Twitter @DavidClimer.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Titans ownership aims low and gets its man

I'm going to cut the Tennessee Titans some slack.

I'll give you a moment to let that sink in. In my previous professional life as a sports columnist for The Tennessean, I was never accused of being a slack-cutter.

But here goes:

Since the Titans fired Ken Whisenhunt as coach in early November, I'm going to assume the team's leadership group used all that time and did its due diligence in formulating a wish list of candidates. At a Jan. 4 press conference, team President/CEO Steve Underwood said the original list included 155 names.

That's casting quite a net. Although no identities were revealed at the time, I'm betting that list included some doozies. When you go 155 deep, you're probably hitting everybody from former successful NFL head coaches like Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy as well as hot assistant coaches and even some of the biggest names in college football.

So let's assume the Titans really did aim high. Again, we're cutting some slack here.

Then it came time to set up interviews. And it is at that point Titans ownership learned that hiring a coach is a two-way street. Just wanting to hire someone is only half the story. That person has to want to be hired.

And with this organization in such utter disarray and with the ownership group a running joke in NFL circles, the resulting pool of candidates was embarrassingly shallow.

Maybe this came as a surprise to the owners. As the heirs of a billionaire, the late franchise founder Bud Adams, they are accustomed to getting what they want. Their Christmas lists were never ignored by Santa Bud.

When all else failed (and what hasn't failed in the last few years where the Titans are concerned?), the owners circled back and did what many of us believed they would do all along: They hired one of their own, Mike Mularkey.

I won't bore you with a recap of Mularkey's past failures as an NFL head coach. Suffice it to say, he has struggled -- badly. With all the other opening around the NFL in the last few weeks, his name never surfaced in connection with another head coaching job. That tells you all you need to know.

But after previous failures as a head coach in Buffalo and Jacksonville, who knows? Maybe the third time's the charm.

Controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk explained the hiring, in part, as an effort to maintain continuity for quarterback Marcus Mariota. As I've written before, Mularkey's greatest accomplishment as Titans interim head coach is that he didn't get Mariota bludgeoned by opposing defenses quite as much as Whisenhunt did.

As for continuity, that's a stretch. After a rookie season where he missed one-quarter of the games due to injury, it would be better for Mariota to go through a total transition now than to postpone it for a year or two.

The next challenge is for Mularkey to hire a coaching staff that can find a way to squeeze a few victories out of a weak roster. Good luck with that. If the dysfunctional ownership group wasn't enough to scare off quality head coaching candidates, the state of the roster probably sealed the deal.

Titans fans deserve better. The city of Nashville deserves better. Marcus Mariota deserves better.

Titans ownership? They deserve Mike Mularkey.

Reach David Climer on Twitter @DavidClimer.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Strunk's absence from owners meeting is inexplicable

Unless the Tennessee Titans hire Ozzie Newsome as general manager and Bill Belichick as head coach by the end of the week, Amy Adams Strunk has some explaining to do.

Strunk, the alleged controlling owner of the Titans, did not attend Tuesday's session of the NFL owners meetings. Never mind that the meetings are being held in Houston, and Strunk lives in the Houston suburb of Waller.

I guess her chauffeur had a hang nail and couldn't drive.

The explanation given ESPN by Titans spokesman Jimmy Stanton is that Strunk "is focused on our G.M. and head coach search."

Stanton pointed out that Steve Underwood, the team's president/CEO, has focused on the situation in Los Angeles and is "keeping Amy informed."

OK, the big order of the day on Tuesday was the relocation of at least one NFL team to Los Angeles. Underwood certainly has a better feel for the ramifications of relocation than Strunk since he was in the middle of the then-Houston Oilers' relocation to Nashville.

But sometimes it's important for the controlling owner of a franchise to be at a meeting like this even if she is not well versed on the subject matter. This is one of those times.

It is no secret in league circles that other owners, and likely the commissioner's office, are less than happy with the current structure of the Titans' ownership group. Who can blame them? Since franchise founder Bud Adams' death, the ownership group has had trouble finding common ground. It is comprised of three entities: Bud's daughters, Susie Adams Smith and Strunk, and the three heirs of Bud's late son.

It's a mess. Susie Adams Smith originally was installed as controlling owner and her husband Tommy Smith served as president/CEO. But that changed early in 2015, with Smith resigning and Amy Adams Strunk replacing her sister as controlling owner.

Given such turmoil within the organization and with concerns around the league about whether the Titans' ownership structure complies with NFL bylaws, the organization needs to do whatever is necessary to show it is committed to doing business properly.

Having the controlling owner at the NFL owners meeting is the least the Titans could do.

Reach David Climer on Twitter @DavidClimer.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

UT's Jones believes being pretty good isn't good enough

In the days leading up to Tennessee's Outback Bowl appearance, Vols coach Butch Jones spoke about his plan to "continue to evaluate everything, from A to Z ..."

The letter Jones wound up focusing on was D -- defense.

In parting ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek on Wednesday, Jones sent the message that pretty good is no longer good enough at UT. As the Vols enter the offseason, Jones recognized the need for a defensive upgrade, beginning at the top.

Considering Jancek's track record, it's hard to believe Jones made the move without already having identified his next defensive coordinator. The most likely name out there is Bob Shoop, who has been a fixture on James Franklin's staffs at both Vanderbilt and Penn State.

As for Jancek, give him credit. He arrived with Jones at UT in 2013 and took over a defense that was in total disarray after the failed Sal Sunseri experiment under Derek Dooley in 2012. He got a lot out of an undermanned defense.

Although the 2013 Vols defense lacked overall speed and athleticism, Jancek made the unit competitive in most games. UT's defense got better in 2014.

This season, UT's defense ranked No. 16 nationally in points allowed -- 20 per game. But the Vols struggled at times with missed tackles and blown assignments. They had crucial fourth-down gaffes that contributed to losses to Oklahoma and Florida.

All told, UT failed to hold double-digit leads in three of their four losses this season. And while offensive breakdowns contributed to those come-from-ahead losses, Jancek's defense was the primary culprit.

All in all, this is a defining moment for Jones. With such great expectations already pinned on the Vols for the 2016 season, he could have stuck with a defensive coordinator whose system the returning players understand.

Instead, Jones is swinging for the fences. With a loaded roster on both sides of the ball, he is trusting that the defense will be further upgraded with the hiring of a new coordinator.

It's a high-risk, high-reward gamble for a head coach that is proving he is willing to take chances.

Reach David Climer on Twitter @DavidClimer.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Mariota's influence extends to Titans coaching search

In my previous professional life as sports columnist for The Tennessean, I collaborated with Dave Ammenheuser on a list of the most influential sports figures in Middle Tennessee.

The list, which was published in September, put Marcus Mariota at No. 4.

Based on recent developments, it looks like we undersold his influence. Upon further review, he should be moved up -- three spots.

How much influence does Mariota have? So much that Titans management plans to share its list of finalists for the head coaching position with him before making a decision.

"Like with anything else, I think we would at least like for him to know and have his view of those people," said Steve Underwood, Titans president/CEO. "I think that would be important."

Note, please, that Underwood didn't say management would run the list past, say, Delanie Waker or Jurrell Casey. Among Titans players, the list is for Mariota's eyes only.

I'm telling you, the guy's got some clout.

I understand the desire to keep Mariota engaged. As it stands, he looks like something the Titans have lacked for a decade -- a true franchise quarterback.

Just the same, let's not get carried away here. We're not talking about Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. We're talking about a guy that just finished his rookie season, a year in which he showed great promise but also a year where he missed one-fourth of the team's games due to injury.

This, though, is how the Titans' inexperienced ownership group sees things. Mariota is the one thing this organization has going for it. And the owners are doing everything they can to keep him happy, healthy and involved.

You can make the argument that Mariota's well-being is what got Ken Whisenhunt fired at midseason. Likewise, the fact that Mike Mularkey is being seriously considered for the permanent head coaching position is due to the way he handled Mariota in the final nine games of a terrible season.

Mularkey got the job on an interim basis because Whisenhunt's offense and protection schemes were getting Mariota killed (19 sacks in five games, plus a two-game hiatus due to a sprained knee). Of course, a 3-20 record over two seasons didn't help Whisenhunt's cause.

On Nov. 3, the day of Whisenhunt's ouster and Mularkey's elevation, Underwood said controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk had indicated to him that Mariota's health was a primary concern.

Note: This is the way things go at Titans Central. The controlling owner says something to the president/CEO, who conveys it to the public. Some organizations would cut out the middle man and have the owner meet with the media when there are major developments. Not the Titans.

"Amy has repeatedly mentioned Marcus' health to me," Underwood said. "... She's very concerned about making sure we do everything necessary, including keeping him out of games, in order to avoid making his current injuries any worse."

Mularkey's a smart man. He took the hint. He realized his future with the franchise depended on keeping his quarterback upright and out of the hospital.

Protecting Mariota became Job 1. And Mularkey did a decent job of it -- for awhile. In his debut as interim head coach, Mariota went virtually untouched in a 34-28 victory at New Orleans. He was sacked just once the following week in a loss to Carolina.

In time, though, the Titans week offensive line and other breakdowns (running back Antonio Andrews failed to execute in blitz protection when Mariota suffered what proved to be a season-ending knee injury against New England), were too much for any coach to overcome.

In retrospect, it is fair to wonder if Whisenhunt got a bad rap. It is impossible to overcome a bad offensive line. And that's what the Titans had, despite all the investments via the draft and free agency.

As for Mularkey, his final pitch for getting the head coaching gig was to hold Mariota out of the season finale at Indianapolis at a time when the rookie may very well have been able to play.

Moving forward, we'll see how much weight that carries when Titans management runs its list of coaching finalists past Mariota for his approval.

Reach David Climer on Twitter @DavidClimer.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A dysfunctional Titans franchise tries to right the ship

When Steve Underwood was talked out of retirement by the Titans dysfunctional ownership group last spring and installed as interim president/CEO, his stated top priority was to hire his own successor.

On Monday, Underwood agreed to remain in his role on a permanent basis.

Good luck, Steve. You're going to need it.

With the dismissal of Ruston Webster, Underwood's top priorities now are hiring a general manager and a head coach -- in that order.

Here's how it should work: Underwood hires a proven general manager (Bill Polian should be his first call) and the new general manager identifies and hires his head coach.

But remember, these are the Titans. The odds they get it right aren't good. With ownership in disarray and with rumors out there that the team soon may be up for sale, many quality G.M. and coaching candidates are going to look elsewhere ... with good reason.

For everything positive about this organization (quarterback Marcus Mariota is a future star, the Titans have the No. 1 draft pick and Nashville is a heckuva place to call home), it's difficult to overcome unstable ownership when you're competing with other teams for top executives and coaches.

At least they got it right with the ouster of Webster, whose contract was expiring and was not renewed. The team the Titans put on the field this year lacked quality and depth. And that's Webster's fault.

Since being elevated to the general manager role in 2012, Webster had the final word on the draft and free agency. He failed far too often.

When it came to the draft, Webster's whiffs were many. His second-round picks in 2012-14 look like busts -- Bishop Sankey, Justin Hunter and Zach Brown. If you consistently miss in the second round, you're not doing your job.

Likewise, Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan, the first-round picks in 2013 and '14, have yet to play up to their draft status. Warmack was the No. 10 overall pick and Lewan No. 11.

Webster's most recent draft was punctuated by some question marks. While he certainly got it right with Mariota and while second-rounder Dorial Green-Beckham shows great potential, other picks raised eyebrows.

Webster drafted Jeremiah Poutasi in the third round with the vision he would be a solid right tackle, even though most draft analysts saw Poutasi as a guard. After a handful of games, it became clear Poutasi did not have the quickness or range to play tackle in the NFL. He was moved inside but struggled so badly that he seldom got on the field in the second half of the season.

Considering how terrible the Titans offensive line was, the fact that Poutasi still couldn't get playing time was telling.

Likewise, picking Jalston Fowler in the fourth round was a head-scratcher. Although Fowler did a solid job when he was on the field (Pro Football Focus graded him No. 2 among all fullbacks this season), his involvement in the offense was limited. Fowler played only 149 snaps in 16 games. Since the Titans ran 966 plays, Fowler participate in just 15.4% of the snaps.

In short, Webster had to go. But finding a quality replacement isn't going to be easy with all the concerns about the current state of ownership.

Steve Underwood, you're on the clock.

David Climer is a former sports columnist for The Tennessean who recently accepted an early retirement buyout. Reach him on Twitter @DavidClimer.