It was a sparse crowd that showed up on a gloomy New Years Day to watch the Titans tackle the AFC South champion and playoff bound Houston Texans.
They buried 2016, where they came up short of making the playoffs.
Still it was a turnaround season for the Titans.
It may be a small deal to some, but for this franchise to get a 9-7 record smothers an 8-8 record for those who have been longing for a winning season. The 24-17 Titans win made it possible.
Perhaps the happiest person in Saint Thomas Sports Park is Titans head coach Mike Mularkey.
Mularkey is a lifer football coach, most of his 20-plus years in the NFL as an assistant coach.
This was Mularkey’s third NFL head coaching stop. He coached the Bills in 2004 and ’05. His first season the Bills had a 9-7 season and returned the following year at 5-11. He was replaced and didn’t land another head coaching job until 2012 when he took the Jaguars to a 2-14 season and shown the door.
Titans fans watched as the last two seasons produced a grand total of five wins. Many were reluctant to get excited when Mularkey was promoted to their head coach.
To think they could turn this season into a 9-7 record, especially after a putrid 1-3 start, was highly doubtful.
“I liked the way our guys competed this last game when there wasn’t anything at stake,’’ Mularkey said. We can start 2017 in the right frame of mind. It’s a really good feeling. I’m still disappointed that we are not playing. … It’s just a lesson learned.’’
Mularkey proved to be the coach for the job. The players played hard for him. He pushed them. They responded. When times got tough, they were resilient.
Yes, they botched a golden opportunity when they rolled into Jacksonville and got rolled by the Jaguars.
As Mularkey said, it was a lesson learned.
Next year will see even more of an upgrade on the roster. This was General Manager Jon Robinson’s rookie year in that capacity. He got outstanding grades both in the draft and free agency.
Some criticized Robinson taking Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, a running back, in the second round. Henry has proven he was worthy and his future is bright. He led the Titans Sunday with 65 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. He can also catch passes out of the backfield.
Henry backs up DeMarco Murray, a veteran who can share his NFL education with Murray. Murray ran for 1,287 yards this season, a 4.4-yard per carry average. Henry finished with 490 yards on 110 carries, five TDs and a 4.5 yard per carry average.
Robinson learned lessons along the way this season, just as the players and coaching staff did. You live with it and strive to not repeat the same mistakes. Robinson was not shy when he thought players were not 100 percent on board. He gave some of them pink slips and replaced them with a better fit.
Mularkey and Robinson appear to be a solid match. It is not so in a lot of NFL franchises. More than you would imagine.
Out of all the positive results this season, Mularkey singled one aspect that pleased him the most.
“The players that have been here with me the last two years when we’ve had the worst record,’’ he said. “Those players have stuck with us and believed in us and done everything we’ve asked them to do, coaches included. I’m very proud of them.’’
The future looks brighter than the past.
Joe Biddle is a WKRN.com sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.