NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For a moment after the Tennessee Titans clinched their first playoff berth since 2008, it felt like coach Mike Mularkey finally exhaled.
The noise surrounding the uncertainty of Mularkey's job security got louder as the Titans neared what would have been a terrible collapse. Mularkey said he didn't talk to his team about it. He didn't think he needed to.
But as Mularkey spoke about making the playoffs for the first time as a head coach, he explained why what he has done in his two-plus seasons should be enough for him to keep his job in 2018 and beyond. It was his pitch of progress. He has already sold his team.
"I feel good about sticking with a plan. We’re right with it because of it. It’s more gratifying because I was here for two of the years that we weren’t so good," Mularkey said. "To watch a team take a franchise and believe in something and watch it turn around and become competitive every Sunday, where they have a chance to win every single Sunday, is gratifying. That’s what you coach for. You like to watch guys have success, and that’s the gratifying part about it because I’ve been a part of this team when we weren’t. They’ve worked to get to this point, and I’m glad they were rewarded for it today."
Mularkey has done it his way -- a little stubborn, old-school, run-heavy, often predictable and maybe even "dump truck" football, as NBC analyst Tony Dungy called it -- but he's right in that this style gave his team a chance to win in just about every game it played, besides maybe at Houston in Week 4. It was enough to lead them to the playoffs.
It's with a little symbolic irony that the Titans clinched the playoffs in a similar manner to what they have done all season: largely ugly and frustrating on offense, with clutch plays in the fourth quarter.
In Mularkey's two full seasons as Tennessee's head coach, the Titans are 18-14. That's slightly better than average on the surface, but a look at where they came from -- 2-14 in 2014 and 3-13 in 2015 -- shows obvious signs of progress.
Yes, there needs to be more done to get quarterback Marcus Mariota more comfortable. Yes, the Titans underachieved based on their expectations, particularly on offense. Yes, there might still need to be some staff changes. And yes, starting in 2018, Mularkey will need to be more flexible to open up the offense. But his players believe in him, and he has a strong-minded group that wants to fight for him.
"This is for the city right here. This is for the city of Nashville. This is for everybody who doubted our head coach, our quarterback, our secondary, everybody, and we’re in the playoffs," said safety Kevin Byard, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with eight. "I’ve been around middle Tennessee long enough to see the change that’s been going on, and people need to respect that and know that we’re here to stay. We’re not just a one-hit wonder. We’re going to continue to be successful and keep winning games, so everybody should get used to this."
That sounds like progress, and maybe that shouldn't be so easily discarded.