Mike Munchak remembers.
His days as a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers seem to be as fresh in his mind as if he actually had played a game every week for the previous 16 years instead of serving as an assistant coach, which was actually the case. He still knows the feeling of being asked to perform under pressure, to distinguish between pain and injury and to deal with the expectations of fans whose passion seemingly knows no bounds.
The 51-year-old also remains keenly aware of whatever perceived mistakes Jeff Fisher made and obviously has no desire to do the same.
So his first season as Tennessee Titans coach has been an opportunity to step back in time, so to speak — to make the players and fans aware of franchise history and to approach his job much the same way he did during his playing career.
“As a player, I didn’t worry about myself,” Munchak said. “I was worried about letting down my teammates. As a head coach, I’m the same way. I don’t want to let the guys down.
“I’m going to do what it takes to get prepared to play on Sunday. Even if it’s something we’ve never done before, we’re going to do it, and [I’ll say] this is why we’re going to do it.”
Owner Bud Adams’ decision to promote Munchak in late January effectively ended weeks of tumult that were unprecedented during the team’s time in Middle Tennessee.
First, Fisher won a power struggle with quarterback Vince Young just as he had done years earlier with former general manager Floyd Reese. That seemed to quell any lingering uncertainty from a 6-10 season.
The decision was made that Young would be released or traded, but weeks later Fisher suddenly resigned or was fired or both (no clear summary of events ever was made public by those involved).
Munchak, who had been on the staff every year of Fisher’s tenure, the vast majority of them as offensive line coach, quickly made clear that his promotion was not a move meant to maintain the status quo. He replaced the majority of the assistant coaches, all of whom already had been signed to extensions by Fisher, including coordinators Chuck Cecil (defense) and the late Mike Heimerdinger (offense).
As replacements, he primarily hired coaches who had been — like himself — better-than-average players, as was the case with offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, and/or didn’t rely on negativity to convey their message to players. He overhauled the approach to playing defense and quickly made clear his intolerance for anything less than complete professionalism.
He instituted policies for the locker room and travel designed to mimic those of his playing days, when athletes interacted more often and — he believed — built a better sense of camaraderie.
He ordered that artwork in the training facility be rearranged or updated to tell the story of the franchise and its successes. For example, a display of Titans Pro Bowlers was created on the wall in the main hallway to the meeting rooms.
His addresses to the entire roster on nights prior to games often include some recounting of the franchise’s history with that particular opponent. Game plans often take into account that history, as do some of the decisions he makes during the course of play.
Perhaps the starkest contrast to his predecessor was the fact that he displayed no apparent interest in being the single most identifiable personality within the organization.
“I’m a delegator,” he said. “I’m going to let people do their job. I think I’ll direct them and let them know what to expect so guys know exactly where they stand with me and what I’d like to accomplish. Then I’ll get out of the way and let them do their job.”
Munchak never claimed to have all the answers, and his first season was hardly a study in precision or consistency. Chances are, though, he’ll learn from whatever mistakes he’s made this season and, therefore, avoid being doomed to repeat them.
“Like anything, I think the first year is the hardest because you have to sit down and think of a lot of things that you never had to think about before,” Munchak said. “It’s easy to say, ‘If I was the guy I would do this, this and this.’ Well, now you are the guy. So you have to really sit back and give a lot of thought to ‘If I do this, then it affects this, this and this.’ So how do I want to handle this? Or what’s my philosophy on this?
“You have to really give it a lot of thought.”
And Munchak found it helpful to think back.
Top Titans stories from 2011
CJ’s holdout/flop: Running back Chris Johnson skipped all of training camp in the preseason in an attempt to get a new contract, which he did. At the time, his six-year, $53.5 million deal was a record-setter for running backs. He then had the worst season of his professional career.
Quarterback change: After five years of rotating between Vince Young and Kerry Collins — with mixed results — the Titans wiped the slate clean. Jake Locker was drafted eighth overall in April, and Matt Hasselbeck was signed early in free agency to give Locker time to develop.
Heimerdinger passes: Mike Heimerdinger, the offensive coordinator who presided over some of the most productive years in recent franchise history, passed away in September due to an aggressive form of cancer, which was discovered late in the 2010 season.
Britt locked up/breaks out/breaks: Wide receiver Kenny Britt endured numerous legal issues, which included arrests in Tennessee and New Jersey, but avoided a suspension after meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell. Through the first two weeks of the season he was one of the best wide receivers in the league, but his breakthrough was cut short by a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.
Ignominy in Indy: In the thick of the AFC wild card chase, the Titans go to Indianapolis and lose 27-13 to the 0-13 Colts.