NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Coach Mike Mularkey warned the Tennessee Titans' 10 draft picks.
They better study hard because he planned to call on them during a team meeting the next day to test their knowledge of the playbook and didn't want any rookie embarrassed.
Sure enough, Mularkey brought the rookies in front of their teammates where he pulled a surprise by asking them to spell instead of questions about pass protections and quarterback blitzes.
A spelling bee in an NFL team meeting?
Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had never heard of such a thing in his 57 years in the league, but Mularkey got what he wanted.
The spelling bee left the Titans laughing for days, especially the memory of one rookie misspelling "physical," while also ensuring Tennessee's newest players pored over their playbooks.
"I think outside the box all the time of what can I do differently that will keep them constantly on edge and keep thinking," Mularkey said.
Being hired as an NFL head coach even once isn't easy.
And third chances are pretty rare, and Mularkey and his career 18-39 record has gotten just that in Tennessee after two seasons with Buffalo and one in Jacksonville.
Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk saw enough of Mularkey as he finished the final nine games last season as interim coach to give him the job after interviewing a handful of coaches in January.
Her decision made Mularkey the 16th man hired as a permanent coach of three or more NFL teams since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. He joined Seattle's Pete Carroll and John Fox of Chicago as the league's current coaches with their third different team. And both Carroll and Fox have coached in multiple Super Bowls.
"I must be doing something right that people believe in me and trust in me to take over their team and lead it," Mularkey said. "And I'm very confident in my ability. I think I'm very good at what I do regardless of records or personal comments from people that don't know me very well."
A ninth-round draft pick in 1983 out of Florida who played nine NFL seasons at tight end for Bud Grant in Minnesota and Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, Mularkey believes his diligent note-taking kept him around much longer than skill or his surgically repaired knees should have allowed. When Strunk fired Ken Whisenhunt on Nov. 3 last season, one of the first things Mularkey did was start checking the notes taken in meetings.
After a full offseason, Mularkey is seeing better answers to his questions.
"In team meetings, I call it rapid fire. ... I'll pop them a question that they need to know immediately in front of their teammates without looking at their notes, and it's been pretty impressive, especially the rookies," Mularkey said.
"I've picked on them a lot this offseason, and I think they've already been forewarned: 'You better be prepared when you come in that team meeting room.'"
Competition starts every morning during the team meeting usually pitting receivers versus defensive backs, offense against defense and special teams.
"Whatever he has in store for us, we never know," wide receiver Kendall Wright said. "We're just ready for it. It makes you think. It makes you go home and study stuff because you never know what he's going to do."
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who said NFL players love to compete even at rock, paper, scissors, understands what Mularkey is trying to achieve.
"If you have the mindset 'I have to compete against this guy across from me and I have to beat him and I have to win,' it definitely translates onto Sundays," Woodyard said.
"Me, I can only speak for me just being a linebacker that's made his career off of competition. It brings the best out of everybody, and we welcome it."
Yet as a head coach, Mularkey has only one winning season to his credit — his first when he went 9-7 in Buffalo in 2004.
He resigned after going 5-11 in 2005 and was fired in Jacksonville after going 2-14 in 2012 with a new owner who wanted to rebuild. Now he's trying to turn around a franchise that has had one winning season since last reaching the playoffs in 2008.
Mularkey believes the Titans are the right team at the perfect time for him.
"I'm happy with what's going on here," Mularkey said. "There's a lot of good things that are different than any of the previous two places I've been a head coach, and I'm excited.
"I'm a little bit different in the sense that if there's anything I'm trying to have a little more fun with the players, that they enjoy coming into work every day. We work hard, we work really hard, but we also are going to have fun doing it."
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