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The Titans are starting over after 7 years of disarray

Mike Mularkey is taking his team back to basics because that's the only place they have to go right now.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE --€” A proven NFL path is for teams to acknowledge where they have been in order to get where they want to go. Here at the Tennessee Titans training camp, the assessments are blunt. The optimism is fertile.

The Titans have not been a playoff team since 2008 --€” that season they went 13-3 and lost in the divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens. Their records since were 8-8, 6-10, 9-7, 6-10, 7-9, 2-14 and 3-13. During that ruin, head coach Jeff Fisher was followed by Mike Munchak who was followed by Ken Whisenhunt who was followed by current coach Mike Mularkey.

Venerable Titans owner Bud Adams died in October 2013. Whisenhunt was fired after seven games last season.

His 3-20 tenure with the Titans was a calamity.

"There is no question that coach Whisenhunt came here as a successful NFL coach with big, successful ideas, but I don't think what he wanted to do here fit with what we had and who we are here," said eight-year Titans cornerback Jason McCourty. "You win two games and three games in each of the last two years, that is tough and there is enough blame for that to go around to the players first and then to everyone else involved. But I am one of the few players here who played for each of the last four head coaches here. And when the season was over last year a few of us had a talk with coach Mularkey about what we see and what this team needs. And he listened. And I think he was honest with ownership and management about it."

The Titans locker room was a literal mess.

"There was a strong message needed here of team first and individual second," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "The locker room itself was divided by walls that separated the team with the offense on one side and the defense on the other side; when you have that, it can build on the differences that can happen within a team on its offense and defense."

Reputations of what the Titans were and how they operated scuttled throughout the league.

"I think this was a place that was becoming known among NFL players where you didn't have to worry as much about being released, that your job wasn't on the line every day and there was a reputation that this was an easy place to be," said Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. "There were players we needed to get rid of and there were coaches we needed to get rid of, too."

Mularkey moved from tight end coach to interim head coach last year for the final nine games. He heard it from the players. He heard it from the coaches.

But more importantly, he saw it.

"You get nine games, you don't get the record you're looking for, but it was a difficult situation," he said of the Titans finishing 2-7 once he led them. "Not a lot of change can happen in the middle of a season to fix what we needed to fix. I knew what needed to be changed. I couldn't change it then."

He was asked exactly what that was.

His answer: "The facility, the locker room, the coaches, the players, the schemes and the culture."

That's a lot, he was told.

"And, pretty much," he said, "all that's been changed."

* * *

Amy Adams Strunk took charge as owner in earnest for her father and retained Mularkey and hired Jon Robinson as general manager. Mularkey and Robinson have already turned over nearly 41 percent of last year's roster. Mularkey has made significant staff changes, among them hiring deeply respected veteran NFL coach Terry Robiskie as offensive coordinator.

The Titans locker room here at Saint Thomas Sports Park has been artfully redesigned. Their Nissan Stadium home has been upgraded and refurbished.

"It's been good change, and everything that comes with it," Woodyard said. "It's the first time in the three years I've been here that guys enjoy being in this locker room and are connecting. They used to go and not come back. We hang out here together now. We're building something. We're in the dog days of summer training camp here. It makes a difference for a team to have that."

Mularkey is sternly clear with the Titans players that the makeover in aesthetics, the revamping in roster and staff and the renewed camaraderie this team is experiencing are only gateways. None of it is the end, the place where the Titans are going, he says.

He is a direct coach who challenges his players to win their matchups and win when winning plays are to be made. He does not gloss over this demand privately or publicly.

He has the last two Heisman Trophy winners on his roster --€” quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry -€”- savvy veterans like McCourty, punishing defenders like Avery Williamson and Casey, in his sixth year from USC who has quietly compiled an impressive career, a player who many here quickly name the most talented player on the defense.

And though the Titans are still building the roster, the culture, Mularkey insists that a smash-mouth brand of football solves riddles.

Mularkey turns 55 on Nov. 19. He played tight end with the Minnesota Vikings (1983-1988) and with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1989-1991). His coaching career includes two head coaching stops (Buffalo and Jacksonville) and three stints as offensive coordinator (Pittsburgh, Miami and Atlanta). His NFL experience colors how he is molding the Titans.

"In Minnesota, we came to camp two weeks later than everyone else," Mularkey said. "We didn't put pads on for awhile into camp. In Pittsburgh we had full, padded practices every single day. We learned to physically beat teams because we beat each other in practices. We were teams in Pittsburgh that got off the bus and everyone knew what was coming. So, only one of the teams I played for won  Super Bowls. Now, which way do you think I'm going to choose to coach?

"I know it's a passing league but people don't talk enough about the running game and how that is pure will and physical and how it opens up all things. You just have to have aggressive, physical, committed players in this league. That's what I coach."

It is what several NFL coaches are coaching in 2016, a return to physical play rather than letting the finesse-oriented mode and flair of the modern passing game permeate everything that they do.

* * *

It is why Henry is here.

The Titans running backs corps now includes DeMarco Murray's quickness and flash. But Henry is expected to play the role of power runner that Mularkey says his team must possess.

Henry is suited with a 6'3, 247-pound frame. He worked this year with training guru Tom Shaw in Orlando at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. Shaw said Henry "was by far the best back in (last April's) draft, the most talented, the strongest, and the back in this draft who I believe will be a quintessential NFL back."

Henry responds: "I watched Eddie George (the Titans' all-time leading rusher) growing up. I'm hungry. I'm working. The power game of football, yeah, definitely, that's my style."

LeBeau likes it. It's his language.

He said the Titans defense will be a "3-4 blitzing defense" that has to play strong up the middle. As far as being a physical one, he said, covering his 58 NFL years as a player and coach: "That's a philosophy I have never left."

In the AFC South, Tennessee confronts a faster Houston, Andrew Luck-driven Indianapolis and youth-inspired Jacksonville. The Titans do not like where they have been, downtrodden and looking upward. To fix it they have been busy fixing themselves.

"There is excitement here," Mariota said. "There is pressure. We have a do-whatever-it-takes mindset. If you can dictate tempo of a game from a physical standpoint, you are then able to do whatever you want to do. We're finding ways to get better. We are becoming a physical team."