Mularkey gets fresh start with Jaguars
When the chance of a lifetime presented itself, Mike Mularkey left his job as Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator after four seasons and became head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars last January.
Nonetheless, the question lingers: If Mularkey had not found a job first, would the Falcons have chosen to part ways with him and hire a new offensive coordinator?
It is both hypothetical and unanswerable, especially since head coach Mike Smith continues to praise the job, with reason, that Mularkey did in Atlanta. On Tuesday, while preparing to coach against this former team Thursday night in the teams' final preseason game, Smith told FOXSportsSouth.com that Mularkey “was an integral part to our success in our first four years.”
And yet the question persists.
It persists in large part because of how adamant owner Arthur Blank was at a January press conference in which he talked about the team’s need for a fresh set of eyes at both of the offensive and defensive coordinator positions. That was after Mularkey and Brian VanGorder, the defensive coordinator who left for the same job at Auburn University in the hope of someday being a head coach of a major college program, had both found new employment, literally hours after the Falcons fell to the New York Giants 24-2 in a NFC wild-card playoff game. Irrespective of the new employment they found themselves, Blank’s vehemence suggests the possibility that the Falcons have might have elected to go in a different direction.
As alluded to earlier, Mularkey accomplished much in his time in Atlanta. In Matt Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft, he helped to mold a quarterback whose .694 winning percentage ranks fifth in the NFL among those with at least 48 starts. Mularkey was hired in large part in Jacksonville to create similar success with Blaine Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in 2011.
In running back Michael Turner, Mularkey had a running back in Atlanta who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2008 and led the NFC last season. In wide receiver Roddy White, he had a player who ranks second in the NFL in receptions, with 388, since 2008, the year Mularkey arrived.
Despite all of those achievements, a sense began to take hold, primarily last year because of the blockbuster trade that general manager Thomas Dimitroff pulled off for wide receiver Julio Jones, that Mularkey could not create the explosive offense the Falcons desired and believed they needed to win a playoff game. (Smith’s teams are 0-3 in the postseason.)
Philosophically, Mularkey’s approach was that of a power-running attack. But playing in the same division as the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons seem to think they have to compete in a similar aerial style, a style that many of the league’s elite teams, such as the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, espouse.
Asked if Mularkey’s message was not getting through to the players as clearly after four seasons or if his approach had reached diminishing returns, Smith disagreed.
“No, not at all,” Smith said. “It’s a process that you go through when you have changes on your staff. Mike Mularkey’s done a great job and will be a great head coach there in Jacksonville. Brian VanGorder decided he wanted to go. I don’t think it said anything about who was here. That’s the process you go through, and it’s a cycle that takes place.”
So the cycle has taken Mularkey to Jacksonville, where he has had his share of headaches already in his brief tenure as coach. Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL’s leading rusher last season, continues to hold out. First-round draft pick Justin Blackmon has been impressive on the field but struggled off it, as he was arrested on a charge of aggravated DUI on June 3. Early in camp, there were reports about Gabbert’s inaccurate throwing and Mularkey also threatened a $10,000 fine for any player who talked about injuries to the media.
On the positive side, there are signs that the Jaguars could have a very good defense under coordinator Mel Tucker, the team’s interim coach last season after Jack Del Rio was let go. Despite a 5-11 mark last season, Jacksonville ranked sixth overall in the league in total defense under Tucker, which is a good place to start.
Despite some of those setbacks, the tone out of Jacksonville during camp has mostly hit a positive note. Although preseason games don’t mean much, as they are often decided by third- and fourth-stringers who won’t even make their respective teams’ rosters, the games are important in helping a new coach to create a positive atmosphere. To that end, Jacksonville won its first two against the Giants and Saints — winners of three of the past five Super Bowls. Against the Saints, Gabbert impressed, completing 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for a 135.4 rating.
“I talked with Mike yesterday,” Smith said on Tuesday. “It’ll be different. I’m used to saying, ‘Mike’ in the headset when I’m trying to talk to the guy upstairs, so it will be different. I know Mike’s had I think a really good training camp. Those guys are playing hard. He’s put his stamp on that team through the offseason.”
After a two-year stint in Buffalo as head coach during which Mularkey went 14-18 in 2004 and ’05 and then resigned over differences with management, he might yet prove to be a successful head man the second time around, as has been known to happen in the NFL. He has a creative offensive mind and knows how to school players in his concepts. But his ivory-tower-style personal approach with players — as well as the media — might need some work.
As for his tenure in Atlanta, we will always wonder about the end.