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, 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 teams 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 Wildcard playoff game. Irrespective of the new employment they found themselves, Blanks 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 who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2008 and led the NFC last season and 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, something Smiths regime has failed at in its three tries. Philosophically, Mularkeys approach was that of a power-running attack. But playing in the same division as New Orleans, the Falcons seem to think they have to compete in a similar aerial style, a style that many of the leagues elite teams, such as Green Bay and New England, espouse.
Asked if Mularkeys 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. Its a process that you go through when you have changes on your staff. Mike Mularkeys done a great job and will be a great head coach there in Jacksonville. Brian VanGorder decided he wanted to go. I dont think it said anything about who was here. Thats the process you go through and its 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 NFLs 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 for aggravated DUI on June 3. Early in camp, there were reports about Gabberts inaccurate throwing and Mularkey also threatened to fine any player 10,000 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 teams 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. While preseason games dont mean much, as they are often decided by third- and fourth-stringers who wont 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 last 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. Itll be different. Im used to saying, Mike in the headset when Im trying to talk to the guy upstairs, so it will be different. I know Mikes had I think a really good training camp. Those guys are playing hard. Hes 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 may 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.