NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans smiled and danced on the sideline, even after botching a 2-point conversion that would have tied the game up late.
Credit the confidence nurtured by a head coach with his third NFL team.
Mike Mularkey made it clear from the moment he first took over in November 2015 as interim coach exactly what he expects from Tennessee, certain he could turn around a franchise known more for losing seasons and a revolving door of coaches and quarterbacks.
His belief has filtered through the Titans (8-6) who are poised to go from worst in the NFL a year ago to the playoffs tied for first in the AFC South with two games left.
“He’s kind of calm, cool and collected in all situations,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said Tuesday. “He’s confident, and we really kind of feed off of that.”
Being an NFL head coach again isn’t something Mularkey expected after a two-year stint in Buffalo and one season in Jacksonville left him with a record of 16-32.
When the Titans fired Ken Whisenhunt on Nov. 3, 2015 , after going 3-20, Mularkey seized the opportunity not knowing how long it would last.
Mularkey went 2-7 down the stretch with the Titans finishing 3-13 for the No. 1 pick overall in the draft.
He won over a new general manager in Jon Robinson and already had earned the trust of the Titans by being honest with them from the moment he took over.
“With him being honest, we really believed in him and trusted what he was saying, and he just brought the team together,” Mariota said.
“In a situation like that, that’s kind of what you have to do, and I thought he did a great job of that.”
Linebacker Derrick Morgan said Mularkey made it very clear what he expected from the Titans, including the physical identity he wanted as the team nobody wants to play.
“We understood it very clearly what was expected of us and how we were to conduct ourselves and how we were to play,” Morgan said.
“It kind of fit the personality of the team already that we had hardworking and hard-nosed guys here. To have Mularkey paired with that personnel is letting us flourish.”
Mularkey has rewarded and punished as needed.
The coach paid for a shaved ice truck to treat players on the field after Wednesday practices during the heat of September and into October.
Mularkey also checks notebooks to ensure rookies and veterans alike are paying attention in meetings, and he calls out players by name when talking with reporters when wanting more from someone.
Kendall Wright missed meetings and was late the day before the Titans beat Denver 13-10 , and Mularkey deactivated the wide receiver.
Message received, Wright started at Kansas City and was the first player to reach Mularkey when Ryan Succop’s 53-yard field goal cleared the crossbar in a thrilling 19-17 comeback win .
That kind of accountability had been lacking in a franchise that went 5-27 between 2014 and 2015 with only three winning seasons since the previous playoff win in January 2004.
DeMarco Murray, who studied the Titans before agreeing to be traded by Philadelphia to Tennessee in March , said he would not be with the Titans without Mularkey.
The running back is in the midst of the second-best season of his career with 1,224 yards rushing, second-best in the NFL.
“You hear around the league of what teams and organizations do, and I think he’s turned this organization around in the span of a few months and I think he deserves a lot of credit for that,” Murray said recently.
Mularkey can notch his second winning record as a head coach Saturday with a win at Jacksonville (2-12).
Jaguars interim coach Doug Marrone, who interviewed for the Titans coaching job in January, said Mularkey has done an outstanding job.
“If you say, ‘Are you surprised by the job he did?’ Absolutely not,” Marrone said.
Turning around a franchise quickly takes a lot of hard work, and Kansas City coach Andy Reid said nothing comes easy in the NFL.
“But he’s willing to do that,” Reid said last week. “He always has been. That’s the kind of guy he is.”