Jim Wyatt, The Tennessean
When Tommy Smith assumed control of the Titans following the death of franchise founder and owner Bud Adams in October, his first thought wasn't to make a change at head coach.
Just a week earlier, the family had asked Mike Munchak to give a eulogy at Adams' memorial service.
The friendship dates back to 1982, Munchak's first year with the only NFL team he's ever worked for, first as a player, then as a longtime assistant and eventually as head coach.
With the Titans struggling for the second year in a row, however, Smith finds himself agonizing over a difficult football decision, and Munchak's future with the franchise hinges on his conclusion.
"It's awful," Smith said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "I have known Mike for 30 years, and it's hard to find someone of higher character, with greater integrity than Mike Munchak. He is a very intelligent guy and a good man. We would like things to work out for Mike in that capacity."
But Smith, who took over as president and CEO on Oct. 29, knows the NFL is a results-oriented business. And lately, the results have been bad. After a 6-10 finish in 2012, the Titans are 5-8 this season, with losses in seven of their last nine games.
Munchak, whose contract runs through 2014, is 4-12 against the rest of the AFC South since becoming head coach in 2011. His overall record is 20-25. Smith knows fans expect better.
"You have to win games. Fans are paying hard-earned money on these tickets, and they expect to be entertained and they expect to have a winning organization. I understand that very well, and I feel the same way they do," Smith said. "I want the same thing they do. So I hear them, and I know they are disappointed. They want to see something better. But for that matter, Mike wants to see something better.
"Everyone is displeased with the record right now. If there is anything that is a bright light, I believe the players are still playing hard for Mike, and I think that is a testimony to his character. A lot of these other teams are not. We just need to finish out the season the best we can, and then we'll evaluate and see where things stand."
The Titans face the Cardinals on Sunday at LP Field, then close out the year against the Jaguars and Texans. Smith made it clear his plan is for Munchak to finish the season. Making a move like the Texans did recently, firing coach Gary Kubiak, isn't under consideration.
Munchak's fate could hinge on what happens in the final three games, Smith said.
"Bud in the past would fire people at the drop of a hat. I think sometimes you need to keep the gun in the holster. ... I think we need to sit here and look at these three weeks, and let's play hard. Let's see if we can win some games. When we sit down with Mike at the end of the season, I expect Mike to come in and tell me why he thinks we're in the position we are, what he thinks needs to be done for us to improve," Smith said.
"This thing didn't fall apart overnight, and it's not going to be put together overnight either. But we certainly had higher expectations than what we are seeing right now, across the board, I can assure you of that. Now let's see if we can win three in a row."
The Titans spent more than $100 million on free agents during the offseason, and Adams told The Tennessean he expected his team to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
"If we don't make the playoffs, then we're sitting," Adams said. "We have some great talent we brought in, and we paid them a lot of money to get them there. I am banking on us getting it done at once."
Adams died on Oct. 21. Smith, son-in-law of the late owner, took control of decision-making a week later. The Houston resident has attended the two home games since then - losses to the Jaguars and Colts - and has remained in close contact with general manager Ruston Webster and executive vice president Don MacLachlan. He was also in contact with them before Adams died.
Smith is also no stranger to franchise business over the years. In the late 1990s, he oversaw the relocation from Houston to Nashville while serving as an executive assistant to Adams.
While acknowledging frustration in the fan base, Smith also said he likes the nucleus of the team and believes it isn't far from competing for division crowns.
"I think we can play with teams like Indianapolis, we have the talent to do that. It's disappointing to me we didn't win one of those games. And we've played some good teams close. But it is not good enough to say you played them well, you have to beat them. At the end of the day, you have to win games," Smith said.
"I am pretty much a type-A type guy. I am very much a results-oriented guy, and I believe you have to have a mutual understanding on how you are going to progress. Things come up in football, I understand that. It is tough in this league to win. When your quarterback goes down like Jake Locker did this season, you have to take those things into consideration to some degree. But it is the totality of things."
Munchak is not the only key figure who will be evaluated at season's end. The Titans face decisions about Locker and running back Chris Johnson.
Locker, who played in seven games this season before going on injured reserve because of foot surgery, is under contract through 2014. By May 3, however, the Titans must decide whether to activate a fifth-year option that would pay him roughly $13 million for the 2015 season. While the Titans aren't expected to pick up the option, Locker remains in the team's plans.
"I think Jake is a high-character guy. I like him, I like his toughness. Unfortunately, he's had some injuries," Smith said. "But a lot of quarterbacks deal with injuries. These things happen in football. I am hoping he has a speedy and successful recovery. Jake is a tough guy and you saw how he started the season, I thought he was coming along very well. The coaches and personnel people are very high on him. So I do like Jake, but we have to evaluate that position like every other one."
Johnson's base salary for 2014 is $8 million, which is a hefty price considering his drop-off in production. He's making $10 million this season but has just 820 yards, averaging 3.8 per carry. Smith said it was "premature" to suggest that the three-time Pro Bowler won't be on the team in 2014.
"Chris has done nothing but what he's been asked to do there. He suits up and he plays every game. I think they need to figure out how to use him and his skill set better, but he has been a good teammate and a good player," Smith said. "Chris, like every player, we are looking at all of them. ...We are evaluating each and every position on this team, and we are only going to keep players we think will contribute, and earn their keep."
Smith is looking forward to the next three weeks. Plenty is at stake.
"I am looking at each and every player, each and every coach," he said. "We have a lot more work to do, it's very clear. But as we sit here today and continue for the next three weeks, it is important to evaluate every aspect of the football team, and I assure you that is going on."