NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Management has two primary goals for the Tennessee Titans: win games and protect franchise rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. Ken Whisenhunt didn't do a good enough job in either category, so he was let go.
Now Mike Mularkey gets his chance in a nine-game audition for the job.
The Titans became the second NFL team to fire a coach this season, relieving Whisenhunt of his duties Tuesday morning after he went 3-20 in his tenure with the franchise. They turned the team over to Mularkey on an interim basis.
A former head coach with Buffalo and Jacksonville, Mularkey was a finalist in Tennessee in 2011 before Mike Munchak was hired.
President Steve Underwood said controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk wants the Titans to do everything possible to protect Mariota — including keeping him out of games if necessary to heal. This franchise hasn't been to the playoffs since 2008, and Mariota now is the third quarterback they've drafted within the first eight picks in the last decade.
"I don't care how good the rest of your team is if you don't have the right kind of quarterback it's hard to succeed long-term," Underwood said. "We now have another rookie quarterback who's very promising, and I think our future is bright. ... So much in our league begins and ends with the quarterback."
Whisenhunt helped draft Mariota at No. 2 overall last spring, but Underwood said Strunk had been thinking of making a coaching change for weeks. Underwood and general manager Ruston Webster told Whisenhunt he was fired.
"When you're not winning and you can't win, that's when change happens in the NFL," Underwood said.
Whisenhunt's latest loss came Sunday in Houston, where this franchise was founded and with Strunk in the stadium. That apparently was the last straw for Strunk, who was not at Tuesday's press conference. She took over as controlling owner in March, replacing Tommy Smith who gave Whisenhunt a five-year contract in January 2014.
"We have expected more progress on the field, and I felt it was time to move in a different direction," Strunk said in a statement.
Titans cornerback Perrish Cox, who missed the last two games with an injured hamstring, said on Twitter that the move was frustrating.
"For anyone who wants to kno, no i am NOT happy with wiz gone, he was a good coach, he wznt the prob and we all know it!!," Cox wrote.
The Titans (1-6) gave up seven sacks to the struggling Texans, leaving J.J. Watt surprised at not being double-teamed more. Mularkey said he talked with Mariota and told him they'll do some things differently to keep him "upright."
"Obviously, based on what's happened the past couple weeks with the protections, that's imperative," Mularkey said.
Tennessee has allowed 28 sacks, including seven in a game twice.
Underwood said Mularkey was chosen over Dick LeBeau, another former NFL head coach, as the interim coach based on his experience as an offensive coordinator. LeBeau is in charge of a defense currently fifth in the NFL in yards allowed.
Mularkey was hired as tight ends coach by Whisenhunt and promoted to assistant head coach in charge of the run game this offseason. Mularkey is 16-32 overall as a head coach. A nine-year player in the NFL with Minnesota and Pittsburgh, Mularkey also has been an offensive coordinator with Pittsburgh, Miami and Atlanta.
The Falcons had a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher in three of Mularkey's four seasons between 2008 and 2011.
The Titans have started four rookies on offense this season, including Mariota who missed the last two games with a sprained MCL in his left knee. Tennessee currently ranks next to last in the NFL, averaging 17.9 points per game, and in total yards per game. Mularkey said offensive coordinator Jason Michael will call plays, a job Whisenhunt previously handled.
"We dug a hole that we have to climb out of," Mularkey said.
This is the first in-season coaching change for the franchise since 1994 when Jeff Fisher replaced Jack Pardee. Whisenhunt went 2-14 in his debut season, the worst record since 1994 for this team and a big dropoff from 7-9 in 2013 under Munchak.
An opening 42-14 win in Tampa Bay was the only victory in 17 games, and Whisenhunt was just 1-11 at home. His .130 winning percentage with Tennessee ranks behind only Leeman Bennett with Tampa Bay and Rich Kotite with the New York Jets (4-28, .125) for the worst NFL coaching record since 1970 and tied Jim Ringo (3-20) of Buffalo, according to STATS.
This story has been updated to add the dropped word "was" to the ninth paragraph.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker