NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The 8-4 "dump truck" Tennessee Titans. Hall of Fame NFL coach and NBC analyst Tony Dungy gave that description Sunday night when describing the "ugly," yet winning, football the Titans have played this season.
"If it means we're boring and we're a load to handle, I'm OK with that," Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said with a smirk.
Mularkey does well to ignore it, but he's seen the pessimistic national outlook on his team and the even more puzzling calls for his job by those wishing the Titans' throwback offense looked a lot more like 2012 Oregon.
Why all that negativity for an 8-4 division leader? The most likely reasons are because the Titans are boring with an offense predicated on an inconsistent ground-and-pound game, they often struggle to get past sub-.500 teams that other contenders blow out and they have a minus-16 point differential. Each of those are valid reasons. The Titans aren't scaring anybody come playoff time.
However, the NFL doesn't have a BCS system or College Football Playoff voting. What Marcus Mariota said Sunday is true, "they don't have pictures on the scorecards." And the Titans are 3-1 against teams over .500 with wins over the Jaguars, Seahawks and Ravens.
If winning matters most, Mularkey should get more love. The most common description for Mularkey's January 2016 full-time hire was "uninspiring." It made some sense then given Mularkey's .333 winning percentage in his first two stops as a head coach. But take a look at where the Titans are now compared to where they were less than two years ago and realize that Mularkey has done well in his third head-coaching opportunity.
Before Mularkey became full-time head coach, the Titans were competing for the top overall draft pick, not the AFC South crown. They went 3-20 in 2014 and 2015 under previous head coach Ken Whisenhunt before Mularkey took over as interim head coach in November 2015. He had a 2-7 interim record, but the Titans believed in his vision. So far, at 8-4 and very likely to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, it looks like they were right.
Among the seven head coaches hired in the 2016 offseason, Mularkey is tied with Philadelphia's Doug Pederson for the best record at 17-11. It's funny to see that now considering Mularkey and Pederson were at the bottom of most of the media's 2016 coaching hire rankings.
The Titans have a young, aggressive and hard-working front office led by general manager Jon Robinson, but they're successful primarily because their personnel decisions line up with Mularkey's style. It's led to a tough, tight team of solid players with an innate ability to show up clutch in the fourth quarter. The Titans are 8-0 (4-0 in 2017) in games decided by four points or less since the start of the 2016 season.
"In past years, we didn't have the fight," tight end Delanie Walker said. "This year, we expect to win close games. That's our identity, we ain't gonna give up."
Left tackle Taylor Lewan added: "My first two years here, it was the exact opposite. Anytime it was a close game, we would find a way to lose. The leadership today really makes that what we are."
This Titans team doesn't win in spite of Mularkey and his coaching staff. They have assumed the identity he planned for them.
The NFL is clearly an industry that gives third chances, and maybe for Mularkey the third time proves to be the charm. So for a hire that was once considered by many as uninspiring, Mularkey should receive more love for his early success.