The case for and (more) against Munchak
December, 27, 2013
By Paul Kuharsky | ESPN.com
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsMike Munchak has a .091 winning percentage versus teams finishing the season with winning records.NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Monday the Titans begin the process of deciding what to do with Mike Munchak, who’s under contract for one more year as head coach.
Let’s set aside all the predictions and expectations.
We know very little about how team president and CEO Tommy Smith will operate in his new role and how he will balance his family’s long-term relationship with Munchak against the results he’s produced as a head coach. We don’t know if Munchak has the backing of general manager Ruston Webster going forward.
We do know what goes into the case for him and the case against him. So let’s examine those and then delve into things I consider significant issues where I don’t see a clear counterargument in his favor:
For: The Titans are on the verge. They’ve lost six one-possession games this season. Make the jump in just half of those and they could be a 10-win playoff team.
Against: They are unable to finish games, and there is no reason to expect they find it all of a sudden under the same leadership.
For: The division is bad and there is room to get better in a hurry against rebuilding Houston and Jacksonville.
Against: The Titans are 3-8 in the division in the past two seasons and 1-4 this year heading into the finale against Houston. Tennessee lost to the Texans and Jaguars this year when it should be sweeping those teams when they are having down years. That’s the path to actually competing for the division.
For: This roster has stood firmly with Munchak. There has been no dissension. They haven’t quit on him and have been playing hard to the end. His message is working. They work hard to execute what is asked of them.
Against: Having a roster of guys committed to following a coach who’s not doing a good job is nice, but if he’s not doing a good job it doesn’t matter as much. What is asked of them isn’t right often enough. This team’s in-game adjustment to what opponents do is typically poor.
For: Smith has pledged another big offseason, and the Titans will create a spring and summer buzz much like last year’s, when they spent over $100 million on free agents and had the 10th pick in the draft.
Against: The fan base is angry and/or apathetic. The tickets are bought, in part because so many people are financially committed with PSLs. But that hasn’t meant they have showed up. A new coach and staff will also have a free-agent class and draft and that will do a lot more to get Nashville interested.
For: Though they were overmatched, the Titans stood toe-to-toe for a good while with some of the NFL’s best -- Seattle and Denver. They lost twice to the AFC South champion Colts by a combined 11 points.
Against: Munchak is 2-20 -- not a misprint -- against teams that finish the season with a winning record. Whether they are close to the caliber of those teams or not, that is a .091 winning percentage against winning teams. How can Smith endorse that?
For: They could be one player away, and we’ve seen them make a big addition and a big jump before.
Against: The odds of landing Jevon Kearse are small, and the 1998 Tennessee Oilers had more pieces in place than the 2013 Titans do.
For: They’ll move away from Chris Johnson and by doing so they’ll be in line to have the run game they expected this year. This offensive line needed time to jell. In 2014, Shonn Greene and a mid-round draft pick will be more effective.
Against: Three years in and a Hall of Fame offensive lineman as a head coach with a Hall of Fame offensive line coach still haven’t produced a team that can run consistently. How can they possibly say, “We need more time” and get it? How did lines with injuries in Seattle and Miami manage to play well enough to win? They have to replace David Stewart at right tackle, right? Another change positions them for more excuses about needing time to jell.
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsMike Munchak wanted the Titans to be a run-first team but inconsistency in the run game plagued Tennessee all season.
For: The Titans didn’t have their starting quarterback for nine games this year. Who wins without their starting quarterback? Injuries to Greene and center Brian Schwenke also hurt.
Against: It would be a good argument if Jake Locker was a proven NFL franchise quarterback. He is not and they sold Ryan Fitzpatrick as a top-flight alternative. We know Locker has potential and is injury prone. Pinning hopes on that for 2014 seems dangerous. The Greene and Schwenke injuries should not be regarded as hugely impactful and are on par with the sort of thing every team in the league deals with.
For: He doesn’t care about the peripheral stuff; he’s not going to play the game. He just wants to coach and do things the right way.
Against: Tough for him. A head coach is a CEO and the responsibilities require more. You have to be a PR guy and a marketer. He doesn’t embrace that stuff and it hurts the franchise. You can’t play the “I just want to coach” card until you’ve proven you can win.
A few other things don’t fit as neatly in a for-and-against format and mostly qualify as arguments against his return.
I think it’s very difficult to make a case for him based on his work in the division, his record against winning teams and his inability to explain what’s wrong.
Warped thinking: Munchak endorsed a foolish onside kick approach with an unconventional, tee-less spinner that kicker Rob Bironas clearly did not like. Worse, the coach judged his team to be 1-for-3 with it rather than 0-for-3 because San Francisco bobbled the kick before recovering it. Note to Munchak: Such a kick is judged a success if, and only if, you recover it. We know it’s very difficult to do. We also know it’s ridiculous to deem one a success when the other team comes out with the ball. Lo and behold, the Titans recover a conventional, high-bounce onside kick during a furious comeback against Arizona.
Straying from his philosophy: Over and over Munchak spoke of how the 2013 Titans would be able to get the tough yard on the ground. These Titans were going to throw it when they wanted to, not when they had to. But given a chance to win the Arizona game with 10 seconds left with a two-point conversion play from the 1-yard line after a penalty, he chose overtime. The team he promised shouldn’t have even considered kicking the extra point. In sharing more about his logic a day later, he said the team hadn’t run it in an hour as it played hurry-up to overcome a big deficit. Shouldn’t a team built around the offensive line and backs be able to run for a yard whether they’d been running it or not?
Salesmanship: He’s a better salesman than he is a head coach. In memorializing Bud Adams when he died, he spoke about how he used to walk the hallways of the team’s facility on a Saturday before the game with Adams and Adams’ friends, looking at the pictures of the team’s history and telling stories. It showed me that Munchak was shrewd in how he dealt with the owner, playing right into what the owner liked and taking Adams right where Adams liked to go. It endeared him to his boss and did a lot to make him the choice when the team and Jeff Fisher parted ways. I expect he will do well selling Smith on the plan going forward. But the team gets better by adjusting the plan, not by selling the plan better to a new person at the top of the organization. Old-time Oilers memories should mean nothing now.
Lame duck: His résumé certainly doesn’t warrant an extension. That means he and his staff would be working as lame ducks in 2014. Lame-duck scenarios aren’t typically healthy. They make it hard to attract players and assistants. They make it easy for a team to tune out if and when things don’t go well.