While a coaching change might provide a wake-up call for the reeling Tennessee Titans, they remain a frustrated franchise in need of more than a quick fix.
Replacing the fired Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey takes over a visiting Titans team that can avoid a seventh consecutive defeat by keeping the surging New Orleans Saints from a fourth straight victory Sunday.
Sporting a 3-20 record in less than two seasons with Tennessee (1-6), Whisenhunt was fired Tuesday. Mularkey, an assistant who went 16-32 while head coach in Buffalo and Jacksonville, will be in charge the rest of the season.
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"When you're not winning and you can't win, that's when change happens in the NFL," Titans president Steve Underwood said.
After watching in person as Tennessee fell 20-6 at Houston last Sunday, controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk felt she had seen enough of Whisenhunt as coach.
"We have expected more progress on the field, and I felt it was time to move in a different direction," she said through a statement.
What direction that will be is uncertain.
Though rumors have swirled throughout the year that the Titans could be for sale, the team insists that's not the case and Strunk is expected to select its next head coach. For the time being, Mularkey gets first crack at turning things around while Underwood continues to serve in an interim role for this season.
"It's time to turn the page, and I am looking forward to this opportunity and can hopefully dig us out of the hole that we've - including myself - put ourselves in, and move forward from this point on," Mularkey said.
On the field, the problems hardly seem short-term.
Tennessee, which last made the playoffs in 2008, has dropped 16 of 17 and ranks 31st in points (17.9) and offensive yards (309.9) per game. None of its current running backs average more than 40.4 yards, and rookie David Cobb might not play this week even though he's eligible to come off short-term injured reserve from a calf injury.
Marcus Mariota threw four first-half touchdowns in the season-opening 42-14 rout at Tampa Bay, but has been limited to four games since because of a knee injury. With Zach Mettenberger starting the last two, the Titans have totaled 13 points and 30 first downs. They got a pair of Ryan Succop field goals and a season-low 211 yards against the Texans.
Though it's uncertain if Mariota will return Sunday, the priority once he does will be to keep him upright. Mariota's been sacked 19 times, and the 28 the Titans have allowed rank among the most in the NFL.
"Amy has repeatedly mentioned Marcus' health to me," Underwood told the team's official website. "I think she actually spoke to Mike (Mularkey) ... I know she had talked to Ken about it and to (general manager) Ruston (Webster). She is very concerned about making sure that we do everything that's necessary, including keeping (Marcus) out of games, in order to avoid making his current injuries any worse."
New Orleans (4-4) has recorded 12 of its 19 sacks during a three-game winning streak that the Titans must find a way to end.
Though Tennessee ranks third with an average of 197.9 yards allowed through the air, Drew Brees is up next and coming off a memorable afternoon. The 36-year-old signal-caller passed for 505 yards and an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns in last Sunday's wild 52-49 win over the New York Giants.
"It was like magic," teammate C.J. Spiller said. "I've seen him have performances like that from afar, but to be in it, you could tell he was locked in and ready to go. He showed you who he is."
Brees, who had thrown eight TDs in his first six games, is guiding an offense that's helped the Saints average 36.7 points in the last three games.
"This is a different team," coach Sean Payton said. "We've had good focus week to week."
Though the Titans don't possess an explosive offense, Payton needs to see some improvement from a defense that ranks 29th against the pass and allowed at least 300 yards passing for the fifth time this season.
However, after the offense tied the game with 41 seconds left, the Saints held the Giants to a three-and-out to help set up the winning field goal.
"It's a growing process that we're going through," rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony said. "As we continue to jell and continue to play together, we'll figure this thing out."
Brees went 36 of 47 for 337 yards with two TDs to Marques Colston as New Orleans won 22-17 in the most recent meeting with Tennessee on Dec. 11, 2011.