After two of the more disastrous seasons in a 17-year coaching regime spanning four home venues, Jeff Fisher and the Tennessee Titans finally reached their breaking point--and not a few weeks after it appeared Fisher had finally triumphed in the greatest coach-player (Vince Young) power struggle of an otherwise streamlined tenure.
To say it has been an epic offseason so far for the original AFC Oilers/Titans would define “understatement.” Truth be told, one may have to go back so far as then-new Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ unceremonious dismissal of coaching icon Tom Landry in 1989 to find a starker break from a decorated-but-stale tradition of NFL franchise functionality.
The savvy observer might expect an upstart NFL owner like Jones or Washington’s Daniel Snyder to make a clean break with the past, however glorious, with hopes of building superior pillars upon the foundations of his predecessors’ success. But when the 88-year-old creator/owner of a franchise decides to completely revamp the fabric of his long-standing house so far into the twilight of his years, that’s a different story.
Titans octagenarian owner K.S. (“Bud”) Adams Jr., his top brass and Fisher mutually agreed on an official “parting of ways” Jan. 27, but to let such a presumably coveted coaching free-agent get away seems a dubious course for an old man who dreams desperately of another Super Bowl before his passing.
It is widely speculated that the real final straw in the soap opera between Adams and Fisher was the coach’s recent string of clandestine contracts/extensions aimed at retaining his favored assistants, allegedly made without the blessings of Adams, club president/general counsel Steve Underwood and general manager Mike Reinfeldt. This revelation explains why embattled defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was re-signed immediately after the season only to be fired a week before Fisher stepped down.
So, for the first time in Nashville major-revenue pro sports history, a coaching change is afoot. (Fisher was hired in 1994 as the Houston Oilers’ interim coach before being promoted full-time that offseason.) But will the new hire constitute a regime change? Not necessarily.
Adams is famous for his tight-fisted ways, even if it seemingly leads to ham-fisted outcomes. With Fisher allegedly due $4 million through his contract buy-out, plus hundreds of thousands owed on assistants’ contracts that have since been terminated, you can take it to Bud’s bank that the next hire will be penny-wise rather than dollar-foolish.
More specifically, the consensus scuttlebutt is that Adams will simply look in-house for a short, quick, cost-cutting promotion process between a few loyal lieutenants.
While conventional wisdom might suggest that an outside choice is prudent--to bring a fresh voice and direction to the organization--that doesn’t seem to be the kind of gamble that Adams wants to make when he might be able to count the number of years he has left on one hand. Instead of a “Hail Mary,” he’ll likely hope that a couple of internal tweaks with the right candidate will get him to one more Super Bowl.
THE INSIDER CANDIDATES
- Mike Munchak, Fisher’s longtime offensive line coach, interviewed this past Monday for the head-coaching job. The factors that led many to believe Munchak is the frontrunner include “favored son” status with Adams and a relationship with Reinfeldt that goes back to their days as Oilers teammates circa the “Love Ya Blue” era of the late ’70s/early ’80s.
Though he lacks coordinator experience, Munchak is reputed as a key cog in Fisher’s success through his underrated influence in the Titans’ run schemes and steadying influence on a usually solid group in the trenches. The biggest pro of promoting Munchak would obviously be focused around streamlined organizational continuity and offsetting the price of Fisher’s exit for Adams. The biggest drawback, just as with the other Titans assistants being considered, is the question of where he will assemble his new staff from and how long his contract will be. If he is afforded a cheap contract with little more than an interim status attached to it, then the realistic best-case scenario he could hope for would be convincing the few assistants still on staff to stay and hustling to fill in the remaining gaps with the best available candidates, many of whom won’t think Munchak is being put in a position to compete in the AFC South. In an eerie way, a Fisher-to-Munchak torch passing would very closely mirror the Bobby Johnson/Robbie Caldwell switch at Vanderbilt almost exactly half a year ago.
- Another logical choice for coach/caretaker (as the NFL heads into relatively uncertain times during the new collective bargaining agreement) would be linebackers coach Dave McGinnis. Also Fisher’s assistant head coach, McGinnis first earned his stripes as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals (2000-03), where he went 17-40 with one of the NFL’s more inept rosters. McGinnis’ elevation could easily be validated through his past experience in directing a rebuilding franchise that’s recently fallen from performance peaks; before his promotion to head coach at Arizona, he was the defensive coordinator for the 1998 team that reached the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Phoenix. However, McGinnis is 59 years old, relatively old for a pro coach to begin such a massive undertaking and his hire would be equally met by media, prospective coaches and free-agents with long-term skepticism and questions about the short-term upside of the Titans. Like Munchak, McGinnis would have a hard time hiring a competitive AFC staff.
- Fisher’s longtime offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, in a vacuum, would easily be regarded as the most innovative and pedigree-strong in-house candidate. However, even as a potential caretaker, Heimerdinger’s hire would be regarded as the shakiest of the in-house candidates due to his ongoing cancer treatment and chemotherapy. In fact, had Fisher stayed, it was questionable as to whether ’Dinger would ultimately be well enough to carry on in a coordinator’s role through 2011 since he indefinitely relinquished his play-calling duties Nov. 24. Once a burgeoning candidate for several NFL skipper openings, his candidacy for the Titans or anyone else right now might be a non-starter, though he did interview for the job Tuesday.
- Like Fisher, Jim Mora Jr. is a successful former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator and was the victim of a “coach-killer” star quarterback during a somewhat successful tenure as Atlanta’s head coach (2004-06), where he went 26-22 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game in his first year. He also shares some “Six Degrees” familiarity with the AFC South through his dad, Jim E. Mora, whose 13-3 Colts squad lost an AFC divisional round home playoff game in 1999 to the Titans, 19-16, during Tennessee’s Super Bowl run. Reinfeldt, previously the Seahawks’ VP of Football Administration, worked with Mora Jr. in Seattle, albeit very briefly for half a month in early 2007 (just after the Seahawks hired Mora as assistant head coach and just before the Titans hired Reinfeldt). Few know what impression Mora left on Reinfeldt during that sliver of time, but there is no doubt he is a promising young coach with a wealth of coaching connections and personnel resources. He was fired after going 5-11 during his only season as Seahawks coach in 2009 following Mike Holmgren’s coaching retirement, but his dismissal was more a function of a general manager switch than judgment of an overall body of work.
- Alabama coach Nick Saban was rumored to have met with the Titans this week as part of their search, and believe it or not, he has an organizational connection that goes back longer than Fisher or Williams. Saban served as the Oilers’ defensive backs coach in 1988-89 before spending the 1990 season as Toledo’s head coach. Apart from Saban’s abbreviated stint as head coach of the Dolphins, where he went 15-17 from 2005-06, he also served as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Browns from 1991-94. After winning a national championship at Alabama in 2010, the itinerant taskmaster may feel his batteries are properly re-charged for another shot at the big-time in an organization where he already has a comfort level. Oh, and he probably wouldn’t have to sell his house. If hired, Saban could and would likely push for significant control over personnel matters and be able to hire a stellar staff. Hey, there’s certainly worse PR moves than hiring a “Belichick disciple.”
- Former Titans wide receivers coach Ray Sherman is talking with the brass in Tennessee this week about the gig, but it is likely only a token interview to fulfill the NFL’s Rooney Rule requiring the interviewing of at least one minority candidate for a vacant head-coaching job. Like McGinnis, Sherman is nearly 60 and hasn’t served in a coordinator’s role since 1999 (as the offensive coordinator of the Vikings). He has been out of coaching this month since the Cowboys decided not to bring him back for the 2011 season.
- Former Colts coach Tony Dungy seems to me like a perfect match on paper for the Titans. His newfound celebrity as a Christian author would play well deeper into the Bible Belt and his defenses are always solid regardless of the personnel available to him. He has one Lombardi Trophy under his belt (two if you count the 2002 title Jon Gruden won with his staff and players in Tampa Bay) and might feel re-energized enough to try again at the helm of his old AFC South rival. And while he is a defensive match for Fisher as a coach, his schemes would bring something new and exciting to Nashville and he could probably reel in virtually any available assistant he wants on staff. Then again, the former University of Minnesota quarterback and ex-Vikings defensive coordinator may feel compelled to wait and see what happens with Minnesota’s coaching position after the 2011 season, where Leslie Frazier’s coaching security is relatively tenuous.
IN THE MIX: Also reportedly in consideration are former Buffalo head coach Mike Mularkey and Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.