MOBILE, Ala. -- Mike Mularkey won’t have success if Jon Robinson doesn’t. And vice versa.
The Tennessee Titans' new coach and new general manager are at Senior Bowl practices together this week, their first appearance at an NFL event since the franchise hired the tandem.
A coach-GM setup is all the Titans have known in their Tennessee history, and their best days came when Jeff Fisher and Floyd Reese collaborated well. Mularkey has power over his staff, and Robinson has final say over the Titans' 53-man roster. As they grow together, they would be wise to heed what has worked for other successful pairings.
“It’s the ability to not be concerned with who does what or who’s in charge of what,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of his working relationship with GM Ozzie Newsome. “We’ve got kind of a deal. People say they agree to disagree. We have a rule against that. We agree to agree. It takes a lot more work to find a common ground, but you talk things out, hash things out if you have to, and come to an agreement on what direction you need to go.”
Harbaugh and Newsome have one of the league's best coach-GM relationships.
Mularkey and Robinson need to mimic the best of that and avoid the sort of pitfalls that nearly killed the Colts after four years of Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson leading Indianapolis. After a stream of reports through 2015 detailed a damaged relationship, Pagano was presumed a goner. But owner Jim Irsay officiated as the two renewed their vows and got contract extensions that line up.
Mularkey said he and Robinson spoke the same language right from the start, which was on Jan. 16.
The pitfalls of a poor relationship between coach and general manager can sometimes be difficult to avoid.
No team in the NFL is held up as an example of stability more than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Over 47 years, they’ve had just three coaches -- Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. The franchise has had similarly long tenures for GMs.
Not even the Steelers, however, have been immune to a coach-GM strain. After the 1999 season, the Rooney family was in position to choose between Cowher and GM Tom Donahoe, and the coach won.
“It’s not always going to be perfect,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said. “You’re going to have disagreements. You have to be able to respect that and understand how to work though it if you have one.
“Things happen. You know it happened with us one time. It can happen that way. You just hope you can avoid it.”
Everyone knows the fault lines, Harbaugh said, and needs to take care not to allow one to fracture, for the good of the team.
The Fisher-Reese relationship in Tennessee frayed, as so many do, when things started to go wrong more often. Both had experienced success and blame began getting assigned more frequently than it was shared.
Fisher “won,” and Reese didn’t get a new contract from owner Bud Adams after the 2006 season, ending their 13-year connection. The coach got four more years, with a more powerful voice in how the franchise functioned and who was drafted.
Houston Texans GM Rick Smith has worked with Gary Kubiak and Bill O’Brien in Houston. In his view, coach-GM relationships work when respect is combined with honesty and communication.
“Two guys have to feel comfortable with being honest, because that’s the only way you solve real issues,” Smith said. “That’s a key element to it. If there is a level of respect, it becomes an organizational decision and then there is no finger-pointing. It was a collective decision.”
Mularkey and Robinson might ultimately see an issue in completely different ways. The hope is that instead of those ideas clanging off of each other, they meld into something just as good or better than one or the other.
“I think the biggest thing is just communication,” Robinson said. “There are going to be things that we don’t agree on. It’s much like a marriage, if you will. And sometimes you’d rather plant tulips, and she wants roses. You come to a decision. You may end up planting daisies.
“You just have to work and sit down and talk it out rationally and make the decision that’s team-first. Take any agendas that I have, take any agendas he has, put those aside and make the decision that’s best for the Tennessee Titans.”