The contract dispute between the Tennessee Titans and their rookie qb Marcus Mariota has garnered all of the attention this summer, even making national headlines last week. And as soon as it’s resolved, the focus will shift to head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Titans fans were initially ecstatic when coach Whisenhunt was hired. We all saw what he did in Pittsburgh, Arizona, and San Diego. An obvious upgrade over then-head coach Mike Munchak. After all, Munchak had no prior experience at the position.
But upon further review, looks can be deceiving.
Yes, Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh as Big Ben’s qb coach. Yes, he almost won the Super Bowl as head coach of the Cardinals, and yes, he resurrected his career with Philip Rivers two years ago in San Diego. Impressive, but we’re talking about three of the best qbs of their generation in Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner (Ari), and Rivers.
His coaching record without those three? Well…let’s just say it looks more like Tennessee’s record last year. A team that had no one on their roster that resembled those qbs.
The good news is that coach Whisenhunt has an opportunity to rewrite his script this season, but in order to do so, he will have to change his philosophy. He can start in the team vault, and break out the tape of the 1999 Tennessee Titans.
The 99 Titans featured a mobile qb with a strong arm (Steve McNair), a power running attack (Eddie George), and an indispensable veteran tight end (Frank Wychek). The power running game protected McNair, allowing high percentage passes…when they did throw…it was to his favorite target, Wychek.
May 15, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans first round draft pick quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) claps his hands as he breaks the huddle during his first minicamp work out at Saint Thomas Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Coach Whiz’s 2015 roster will also feature a mobile qb with a strong arm in Marcus Mariota, and a reliable veteran tight end in Delanie Walker. Rookie rb David Cobb and second year starter Bishop Sankey combined doesn’t equal one Eddie George, but together, can at least control the tempo while protecting their qb.
That is, if coach Whiz is open to change.
One of the big reasons for Whisenhunt’s struggles in Arizona after Warner retired, was his unwillingness to tweak his system when the talent level dropped off. He just continued to plug in qb after qb…to no avail.
Just like in Tennessee last season.
The 99 Titans were not a sophisticated passing team, they were a power team that played it close to the vest, worked their play action attack, dink and dunk to the tight end, extend drives, and eat up the clock type of offense.
It was seldom pretty, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder when you’re winning.
This year’s Titans have the components to transition into that type of offense. They have a platoon of running backs, they drafted a full back (which Tennessee had in 99), and added a second reliable veteran tight end in Anthony Fasano.
The 99 Titans often threw on first down out of a two tight end power set, leading to high percentage results. Fasano and Walker can be equally dangerous in that package.
And most importantly, Whisenhunt has a young qb with a high football IQ and freakish raw athleticism. Just like Tennessee had in 99.
The 99 Titans didn’t force Steve to become “Air” McNair overnight. They built an offense that he was comfortable with at that stage of his career, which allowed him to play instinctively…and with his legs…made him impossible to game plan for.
Mariota can have similar success over time, if he’s not forced into Whisenhunt’s round peg. McNair eventually blossomed into a prolific passer, and the offense opened up organically as a result.
Then head coach Jeff Fisher realized McNair’s maturation, and eventually broke away from his ground and pound philosophy. Something that I’m sure wasn’t easy to do.
Coach Whisenhunt never attempted to establish the run last year. His qb’s were under siege every week, and were constantly being helped off the field. You simply cannot afford to put your rookie franchise qb in harms way like that.
I’m not calling Mariota McNair, or predicting a 13-3 season. I am saying that Tennessee’s offensive personnel this year befits the 99 Titans’ approach, not Whisenhunt’s current one.