AFC South: Mike Munchak
“BE A PRO.”
Ken Whisenhunt certainly wants his players to be pros. But as the Titans' new coach sets a culture change in motion, even cosmetic alterations are underway just a month into his tenure.
The hallway sign is gone.
“Culture change” is a buzz phrase that bounces off the walls at every team facility where a new head coach takes control. It's about the coach's message and themes, setting new expectations, outlining how the coach expects the team to achieve its goals and getting players to buy in.
And it trickles all the way down to things like what's written on the walls.
“There are certain things that you do because you want the players to know when they come in, it's different -- when you get a chance with them and you're on the field and your routine changes and you make it clear it's different,” Whisenhunt said. “But there are things you do in the building that hopefully will get their attention. You put thought into it. ...
“You do want the players to know it is different. Because expectations are going to be different, at least from our coaching staff and how we put that message across to our players. Hopefully that'll show up on the field.”
After the parameters are outlined, the biggest element of NFL culture change is about the people.
Ryan Grigson is heading into his third season as general manager of the Colts. He was NFL executive of the year in 2012, when he helped craft a roster that turned a 2-14 team into an 11-5 playoff entrant.
“As he and coach Chuck Pagano revamped Indianapolis -- a job made far easier by hitting the Andrew Luck jackpot -- they considered personality as much as play in some evaluations.
Guys want a positive presence and they want consistency.” -- Jaguars LB Paul Posluszny
“I think in order to change it, you first and foremost need to identify who is and who isn't all-in,” Grigson said. “That's everyone in the building. To stay true to the message you're implementing, you may be forced to cut ties with some guys you really wish you didn't have to, because they may have the talent you are in dire need of. But in the big picture, it just doesn't pay to have cancers around to hinder or slow your overall progress. You need guys to buy in from top to bottom.”
As they assessed their roster, the Colts were wary of “independent contractors” and the sort of message that can create them. Players don't follow hollow talk, Grigson said, and have good sensors for what's genuine.
That certainly was the case last season in Jacksonville.
Coach Gus Bradley inherited a 2-14 team. His energy was contagious and his message was consistent. He didn't talk about winning; he talked about competition and improvement. If his team and each guy on it could just get a little bit better every day, they would be on track for long-term success.
It sounds simple and cliché. But middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said it worked. Even when the Jaguars got to the midpoint of their season at 0-8, they weren't drifting or doubting Bradley's message.
Posluszny has been part of four culture-changing situations. He was with the Bills when Perry Fewell became interim coach during the 2009 season and when Chan Gailey took over in 2010. He was in Jacksonville when Mel Tucker took over for Jack Del Rio in 2011, for Mike Mularkey's entrance in 2012 and for the start of Bradley's term in 2013.
“What guys have responded to the best that I've been around, Coach Bradley has, and that's just a very positive message,” Posluszny said. “He comes out and he's very truthful and he says, ‘I want to maximize the potential of everybody in this room. I want to do my best to have everybody play at their best possible level.’ He doesn't vary from that. He doesn't change. When we started off awful and we're 0-8, there was no variation from that.
“Guys want a positive presence and they want consistency.”
If they don't get it and the results aren't showing up, there is nothing to fall back on. Guys start to question the leadership and things can come apart quickly. Under other coaches, Posluszny remembers locker room talk that included lines like, “I don't know where the head man is coming from” and “The message is not getting across.”
How much different can one changed culture be from the next?
Posluszny said that with the Bills, Gailey consistently talked of sacks and turnovers for both sides of the ball. Good results in those departments would correlate to winning. The Bills were reminded of the team's stats in those categories and where they ranked.
In Jacksonville, Bradley hasn't talked about a single number, stat or rank.
“Never,” Posluszny said.
After weeks holed up at the team facility, the coaches have now emerged to observe workouts and talk to players at the NFL scouting combine.
Odds are, as they talk to prospects, they'll be asking the same question Grigson considers as part of his evaluations.
“With so much turnover every year, you're not only trying to find scheme fits but also trying to determine with your head coach, Is this guy one of us?” Grigson said. “You may love him off the film. But on the free-agent visit or the combine interview you may be completely turned off.”
Whisenhunt doesn't intend for his culture change to include ruling by fear.
But every player on the Titans feels some degree of uncertainty right now. The offseason program doesn't start until April 7. They may stop by to meet their new bosses and get some sense of how things will be. They may read everything the team is saying.
Until they get playbooks and until they get on the grass for OTAs and training camp, however, there is a lot they simply can't know.
“You're always uncomfortable with the unknown,” Whisenhunt said. “A big part of this game is about routines and knowing what it's going to be like. Knowing what practice is going to be like, knowing what the expectations are going to be like. When that changes, it is uncomfortable a little bit, but that's a good thing.”
Everyone gets a fresh start, everyone has to compete and everyone will know, Whisenhunt said, that if he doesn't buy in, he won't be on the team or he won't play.
Free safety Michael Griffin has visited with Whisenhunt and some of the staff. Brief hellos and chitchat can't answer all the questions he and his teammates will have.
“Right now I think a lot of players are uncomfortable,” Griffin said. “This coaching staff has nothing to do with the old coaching staff. ... It's kind of scary, it's a shake-up and everybody is kind of curious and wondering what's going to happen. ...
“Everybody is a little shook up and I think that's a good thing. Because that's going to probably get the best out of everybody. You've got to prove yourself all over again.”
For 31 years as a player and coach, he’s worn blue and white, an oil derrick and a fireball T. Fired after three years as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, he was on the market for the first time since he was a first-round choice by the Houston Oilers when he was coming out of Penn State.
The No. 1 rival for his teams while he played was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now Munchak is becoming a member of the Steelers’ coaching staff. Soon, the Scranton, Penn., native will be wearing black and gold and Pittsburgh’s steelmark.
Munchak interviewed for three head coaching posts -- with his alma mater Penn State and in Detroit and Cleveland. Penn State hired James Franklin, the Lions hired Jim Caldwell and the Browns remain open. Munchak also interviewed for the offensive line post with the Houston Texans, and presumably had an offer to join Bill O’Brien’s staff but chose Mike Tomlin and the Steelers.
Pittsburgh gets itself a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a solid citizen and a quality line coach who should help enhance protection for Ben Roethlisberger and create run room for Le’Veon Bell.
The Titans didn’t get great line play during Munchak’s three years in charge.
But for a long stretch before that he was one of the NFL’s best line coaches. He developed mid- and late-round picks into productive players. That list included David Stewart, Jacob Bell, Justin Hartwig, Zach Piller, Benji Olson and Kevin Long.
In 2005, when the Titans were ready to dedicate a high pick to the tackle spot, he helped identify second-rounder Michael Roos, who has had a very solid career protecting the blind side of Titans quarterbacks.
The move means Munchak will be relocating to the Pittsburgh area. But he’ll be back before too long. The Titans host the Steelers in 2014.
Publicly, they were supportive and loyal to a guy who defaulted to an overly passive defense and who needed to be propped up in his third year by Gregg Williams.
The fines that resulted were, of course, the fault of those that reported it, not the guy who said it.
It was incongruous with Munchak’s pledge that every member of the Titans should “be a pro,” know his job, do his job and be accountable.
Gray should have been told by his bosses that insulting officials isn’t a great idea and to be smarter. Perhaps he was. But to protect him from himself the Titans also changed a policy, limiting who could be on the sideline for the final two minutes of the game. Call it the Jerry Gray rule.
Monday in Mobile, Ala., John Glennon of The Tennessean ran into Gray.
Ran into Jerry Gray today in Mobile. Had no interest in talking: "Nothing to do with the #Titans. I cut that part right out of my life."— John Glennon (@glennonsports) January 20, 2014
Mike Munchak is a loyal guy. Had he hired a better coordinator, or cut ties with the only one he hired, the former Titans head coach might still have his job.
If Munchak and the Titans don’t read that line from Gray and think, “WE wish we cut HIM out of OUR lives” a year or two before his contract ran out, they’ve got tremendous restraint.
ESPN’s Ed Werder has even more details of why Whisenhunt chose to sign on as Tennessee’s new coach.
Part of it was that the team was "overly aggressive'' financially in the words of a source familiar with the negotiations. League sources told Werder the deal is longer than the typical four years and fully guaranteed. Coaching deals are generally guaranteed, so the choice of words suggested this one may include no offsets. That would allow a fired Whisenhunt to work elsewhere and collect his salary from the Titans in addition to getting paid by a new employer.
I have confirmed that is the case and that the coach the Titans recently fired, Mike Munchak, does have offset language in his contract.
The Titans will pay Munchak $3 million for 2014. But if he gets the top job in Cleveland or coaches the offensive line for Houston, Tennessee would only be on the hook for the difference between the $3 million and his new salary.
ESPN’s John Clayton tells me no offset language like Whisenhunt got in "very rare" in a coach's contract.
More on Whisenhunt per Werder’s sources:
As Whisenhunt said at his introductory press conference, he was impressed with general manager Ruston Webster and sees him as a partner in building the team. Whisenhunt is also convinced he will have more influence and control then he ever would have had with the Lions or Browns.
While Whisenhunt was impressed with the Lions roster of players, closer inspection prompted questions about whether he could build a talented and deep team with three players – quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamakung Suh -- commanding such a high percentage of the salary cap.
He was what a team wants on this day: Cool, comfortable, conversational.
When it was over, the building was filed with renewed hope, just as it is after every coaching hire and introduction in the NFL.
A clean slate that comes with a fresh start and time to show us who he is, what he will be, how the staff he hires will convey his messages and teach, who he will choose to play and how they will perform for him.
Like a lot of people, I'm anxious to see what he brings.
But while he offered a much more presidential feel in his first press conference than Mike Munchak typically did, Whisenhunt didn't say a great deal.
Most of the questions he got, he'll get again, until he's had time to do the work to have more of an answer.
He deferred on opinions regarding quarterback Jake Locker and running back Chris Johnson and most specifics regarding what he's inheriting.
“We just got finished with our season two days ago," he said of the San Diego Chargers for whom he was offensive coordinator. "It's been a whirlwind. There is a lot of time that goes into that especially when you get into the playoffs. So I really haven't had a chance to study that.
"That's going to be a big thing over the next weeks and months, as far as evaluating out players and how they fit in. The one thing I'll say is, I liked Jake coming out. And one of the things that I think we've done a good job with in the places I've been is putting them in positions to be successful. And that's what our goal is to be here.”
I don't fault Whisenhunt for not having a more thorough answer. Ideally, a candidate has had time to study the roster and the tape and can tell a team his vision for important people and pieces.
Whisenhunt was busy with the Chargers' playoff run, though, and he was simultaneously a hot commodity in the coaching market.
The Titans didn't hire him because of his specific plan for Locker or Johnson or anyone.
They hired him because they believe he will craft a plan that maximizes those players and anyone else he inherits, as well as those he helps bring in.
But after interviewing with the Detroit Lions last week he’s interviewing with the Cleveland Browns on Monday.
It seems to me something Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said may be at play here. McNair’s research showed that only about 40 percent of coordinators without head coaching experience pan out as NFL head coaches.
That’s what lends to the candidacy of Ken Whisenhunt, who took the anemic Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl during his time as their head coach. And it’s helping guys like Jim Caldwell, who was interviewed by the Titans, and Munchak.
There is no formula that works, here obviously. You need thorough interviews, a smart gut and a sprinkle of good fortune in hiring the right coach.
What direction would you go? A fresh coordinator with upside but no head coaching experience? A guy who may not have had long-term success but knows what being a head coach is about? Or a guy from college?
Please vote in the poll.
He was elevated to head coach in 2011 and fired after three seasons last week.
He interviewed with Penn State for the head coaching job at his alma mater and with the Detroit Lions for a head coaching vacancy.
Now new Texans coach Bill O'Brien is set to interview Munchak for the offensive line coach job in Houston, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
McClain said last week on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville he expected O'Brien to hire Brian Ferentz, but no such move has been announced.
"It's not like 'Munch isn't here anymore because he wouldn't fire two guys,'" Munchak told Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. "In my eyes, that's not what we disagreed on. There was more to it than that. Obviously they made it easy. They fired all of us so they could start over."
Munchak was asked to fire a good share of his staff in order to stay, including those "two guys," offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and linebacker coach Chet Parlavecchio, two of Munchak's closest friends.
At least two other assistants had to go in the plan laid out by president and CEO Tommy Smith and general manager Ruston Webster.
Mark Howard of The Wake Up Zone in Nashville reported that offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was the final straw for Munchak, who didn't believe a change for the offense and quarterback Jake Locker would be helpful.
"It wasn't just about Chet or Bruce," Munchak said. "People say, 'Those are Munch's guys.' It was about the big picture. A lot of guys were going to be affected. If it was the right thing to do, I would do it. I have fired offensive coordinators (Chris Palmer) before. And I let go of a special teams coach (Alan Lowry)...
"I can't fire someone when I don't believe they should be fired. Firing someone is awful. Too many people were going to be affected. I didn't do anything to look like I was a great, loyal guy who went above and beyond the call of duty by not firing coaches. I did what you should do and what I thought was right. For me to maintain a job and a lot of guys lose jobs on a plan I didn't think was right, I couldn't do that.
"I'll make tough decisions, but not if they're not right."
In a tweet that didn't make the story, Wyatt also has this from Munchak:
Munchak: “I stand up 4 guys who are good coaches. It bothers me when people say I'm not here because I didn’t want to fire my friends.”— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) January 6, 2014
Here's a write up of an interview Munchak did Sunday night on WKRN in Nashville.
He chose Option A, and it’s understandable.
The extension would have helped Munchak hire replacements for the fired staff -- which was going to include defensive coordinator Jerry Gray (who wouldn’t have been fired, he just would not have been renewed), offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio.
“I think [Munchak] is a guy that people like to work for and I’m sure we would have been able to attract some coaches,” Webster said of a lame-duck scenario.
Assistants were more likely to join Munchak’s staff given two- or three-year contracts.
I initially presumed any extension would have amounted to an additional, papier-mache year.
But per Chris Mortensen, Munchak was offered “a multiyear extension at almost double his $3 million salary, conditional upon Munchak making more than a dozen staff firings and demotions.”
While Munchak’s loyalty was admirable, coaches who joined him last year on short-term deals -- receivers coach Shawn Jefferson and running back Sylvester Croom -- may now lose their jobs as a result of their boss' commitment to other assistants.
Yes, they’ll be in line to still collect their salaries if they don’t work elsewhere next year. But it’s not only about the money.
One example: Jefferson’s son, Van, is a rising senior receiver at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tenn. A receiver like his dad was, he’s a top college recruit. If his dad’s job is elsewhere next year, the family will face time apart or an awkward move. That's life-altering stuff.
The biggest thing is, if president and CEO Tommy Smith and Webster were telling Munchak which coaches he had to fire, they would have certainly expected to approve those he went on to hire.
That would have effectively neutered Munchak going forward no matter his salary or length of his deal.
A four-year coaching contract in the NFL is set up for a determination to be made after three years. After three years, the body of work should indicate the coach is deserving of a second contract or needs to be replaced.
Munchak did not deserve an extension based on his 22-26 record, a 6-12 AFC South record and a 3-20 record against teams that finished with a winning record.
The Titans may have dressed things up for him. I’m unimpressed that Smith and Webster saw a scenario in which a multiyear extension and a raise were good ideas.
Ultimately Munchak didn’t have much of a choice. He couldn’t have stayed and maintained the level of control an NFL coach should expect, so he told them to fire him and saved them from a bad situation.
Working for a new president and CEO, Webster will have a great degree of power.
Tommy Smith took over the franchise in late October, after his father-in-law, the team’s founder and owner Bud Adams, died.
Webster and Mike Munchak went home Friday evening after returning from a meeting with Smith in Nashville and slept on it. They spoke by phone Saturday and concluded Munchak could not continue as coach.
“In the end we were not able to agree on the future or direction of the franchise and I felt it was time to make a change,” Webster said. "So we move ahead into the next phase of the Tennessee Titans and look for the next coach and for great things.”
To a follow up question about that answer, Webster said he and Smith decided.
Webster is hardly a power monger. And maybe it was just a default word choice. But I thought his use of “I” was significant here. It, and his tone through 15 minutes at a podium alone for the first time, says Webster was the key decision-maker. I believe that to be the case given Smith’s inexperience.
Now Webster will make his first coaching hire, calling on the situation he’s watched in Tampa Bay, under Rich McKay, and Seattle, the two places he worked before joining the Titans front office in 2010.
He said a person in his position will always have a list of potential coaches in case this situation arises. At least one is part of a staff in the playoffs, he said, and there could be an in-house candidate interviewed. That would almost certainly be senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams.
Two outside candidates for the job, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, will be Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Dallas special teams coach Rich Bisaccia.
Munchak’s staff has not been told anything, and Webster intends to talk to them Monday.
“This is a day I hoped would never come, but there is a reason for everything. Words cannot express the sadness for leaving this organization that I have been a part of for over 30 years.
"My goal as head coach was to do things the right way with the right people and I felt confident that the results would follow. Sometimes rebuilding a team and its culture takes time, but I truly believe we were on the verge of great things. Unfortunately my vision did not match that of the organization, so we will part ways.
"My family and I would like to thank the Adams family for all of the opportunities that they have given me over the last three decades.
"I also would like to thank my players and staff for their on-going support and I wish them all the best.
Also, to the fans that have hung with me, I want to say 'thanks.'"
Team president and CEO Tommy Smith said early on a decision on Munchak's fate would be torture.
So after Munchak and GM Ruston Webster met a bunch this week, Smith and the GM met with Munchak in Houston on Friday.
Munchak was told of the changes he'd have to make in order to remain on, and returned to Nashville to ponder them.
Saturday he apparently declined, resulting in his firing.
Perhaps the way the Titans played this was a masterstroke?
They didn't outright fire one of the most beloved and important figures in the team's history. They put him in a situation where he was the one making a decision. But without an extension, having to replace several assistants, including, presumably, two of his best friends, was untenable.
How could Munchak have made big changes, including with offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and linebacker coach Chet Parlavecchio, when all he had to sell new assistants would have been a year?
The guys Munchak may have gotten fired over will still be fired themselves, just not by Munchak.
I thought Munchak would have a hard time with cutting members of a staff he crafted just to his liking a year ago. Still, the lure of the job usually outweighs such things in the NFL.
In Munchak's case, it appears he stood up for his people.
A commendable end for him and a fresh start for a team that needs one arrive in one move.
There are a number of ways the Titans can go in an opposite direction from Munchak now, but I think his replacement is highly likely to be a high-energy guy who's very visible.
He’ll be ready and willing to spend extra time at a Kiwanis Club if that’s what team brass feels is needed to give the franchise a jolt and energize a lagging fan base.
Munchak did well selling himself to Bud Adams, the late owner who promoted him to the top job in 2011.
He didn't do nearly as well selling himself or his team to the public. His biggest shortfall was in performance -- the Titans were 22-26 in his three years, 3-20 against teams that finished with a winning record. His inability to sell himself and his vision to fans might have been second on the list of his shortcomings.
The Titans’ next coach needs to be a top-flight communicator who can connect with fans.
I bet he will be.
“First I want to thank Mike Munchak for his professionalism through this process and thank him for his years of dedication to the Titans/Oilers organization. He is first-class and I wish him and his family nothing but the best. I also want to praise Tommy Smith for his involvement during the weeklong process. He was thorough and thoughtful.
"The last week has been a difficult time trying to navigate through many issues to find the best resolution for this franchise moving forward. Tough choices were presented to all sides and the end result was to part ways and move forward without Mike.
"We will immediately begin a search for a new head coach.
I am confident that we will find a coach that can continue our growth as a team and lead us to sustained success.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mike Munchak is an admirable, dignified and honest man. He’s been a loyal employee of the Oilers and Titans since 1982.
Now he's a former NFL head coach, fired by Adams' son-in-law, team president and CEO Tommy Smith, per a report from Chris Mortensen.
Munchak was fresh air at the start, talking about how he expected guys to know and do their jobs and preaching about how everyone on the team needed to “be a pro.”
But his team full of pros in his third season lost to a Houston team that won only twice, managed a loss to the 0-8 Jaguars and finished 7-9 after pledging a dramatic improvement following 2012’s 6-10 disaster.
This year’s team was better. It didn’t get blown out. It didn’t stop fighting. But it was not better enough.
Quarterback Jake Locker, who missed nine games this season because of injuries, has not established himself as a franchise player at the position. Munchak was fully on board with selecting Locker eighth overall in the 2011 draft.
Now a new coach will have a year to sort out what Locker is while Munchak is likely to wind up a highly coveted offensive line coach with multiple options to move to another team if he wants to. He could also be in play for the vacant head coaching job at his alma mater, Penn State.
While he maintained the respect of his players, Munchak and his staff were poor at adjusting to game circumstances that strayed from the initial plan.
In that regard he seemed like many very successful professional athletes who didn’t fare nearly as well when they became head coaches.
As an NFL offensive guard, he could formulate a plan and execute it because he was so good.
As an NFL coach he didn’t have anything close to the same advantage.