NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before heading to Senior Bowl practices last month, two buddies traveled to West Tennessee to go duck hunting.
It was a quick break from the grind for Titans general manager Jon Robinson, and head coach Mike Mularkey. In a serious, bottom-line business, the two men regularly deal with long hours and plenty of stress, but they've found ways to manage it together.
The most recent example was their trip into a flooded cornfield by the Obion River, Robinson's neck of the woods.
"We are a lot of like, with a similar sense of humor,'' Mularkey said of Robinson. "For example, before we went (duck hunting) I texted Jon that I was going to get some shells for my shotgun. I asked him if I can pick up any for him. He says, 'I got plenty, all I need is six (the duck limit). I'll be done after my first six shots.'
"I texted him back: I am going to need more because I am going to try and shoot mine when they are flying. He did a 'lol' back. I got him …"
It's been a little over 13 months since Robinson was hired as the team's GM, and since Mularkey was awarded the job as head coach on a permanent basis. In their first season working together, the Titans won three times as many games as the previous season to finish 9-7. The foundation has been set for years to come.
Over the past year, Robinson made a number of key acquisitions via trade, free agency, and the draft. Mularkey helped changed the culture and got winning results while coaching the team. Robinson and Mularkey both said they worked together throughout the year while making critical decisions for the organization.
"In the end, Mike's goal and my goal is what is best for the football team,'' Robinson said. "It is not about him. It is not about me. It is about the team, and what is best for us to put us in the best position to win."
It was during Senior Bowl week a year ago where Mularkey and Robinson first got on the same page.
The two men spent hours in the stands watching practices, just like they did last month. They talked about the prospects, but also gave each other a crash course on different areas.
Robinson, who worked previously in personnel with the Patriots and Buccaneers, familiarized Mularkey with some of the players available in the 2016 draft. Mularkey, who'd served as interim head coach being named permanent head coach, gave Robinson background on the players on the roster at the time, from what they were like in the locker room, meeting rooms, information Robinson hadn't been privy to until then.
They talked about the mindset they wanted from players moving forward. It helped shape the roster for 2016, and beyond.
"From the beginning I felt like we were cut from the same cloth, if you will,'' Robinson said. "We had a similar mindset, a somewhat similar path into the National Football League. Mike obviously played in the NFL; I wasn't good enough to play. But we both have a strong passion for football and doing things the right way.
"The conversations from the beginning were good, very informative. And we enjoyed talking football."
During the course of that week, the two also found out a lot about one another.
"I took him to some of my hangouts (in Mobile),'' Mularkey said. "He likes holes in the wall and cold beer, and so do I."
Their travels continued to Indianapolis last February. It's where they'll also spend this week, at the NFL Combine.
"We throw it on country music,'' Robinson said of the music selection while on the road. "Being in Nashville, that's kind of what you do. I mix in a little hip-hop occasionally, to try and keep him fresh. On the way back home (from our first trip to Mobile) I think we stopped at Subway and got a sandwich and Diet Dr. Pepper and hit the road. I think I got M&Ms, I don't know if he got them."
On the drive home last year in Mularkey's truck, the two men spent seven hours together. It helped set an offseason plan in place.
"Driving home gave us a lot of time to talk about the direction we wanted to push this team and everything about this organization from A to Z, and how we can improve things,'' Mularkey said. "I think we said a number of times that week as we were eating sub sandwiches – we didn't eat real well that week – that we were living the dream."
More than a year later, Robinson and Mularkey are on the same page. The two men made trips to pro days last year, in addition to the NFL Combine. And during a long NFL season, they had daily conversations. Those continued into this offseason.
In the course of the past year, they've come to know each other a whole lot better. They traveled to Mobile together this year as well. They've been to a number of Nashville Predators games. Last week, the two men, dressed in tuxedos, met fans together at the team's event for season-ticket holders. They've both become pretty popular.
On the heels of a season when the organization made great strides, Robinson and Mularkey want to keep things moving in a positive direction. Mularkey said he has a lot of respect for Robinson, as a colleague and friend.
The feeling is mutual.
"I think Mike is a really good football coach, and I think he is a smart football coach,'' Robinson said. "He has a really good coaching style, he resonates with the players. … He is not set in his ways with things, nor am I. He can talk to me about personnel and players he has some familiarity with and the possibility of adding those guys. He is not afraid to come to me with that, nor am I afraid to go to him to and ask questions about, 'Why are we doing this?' Or 'What happened here?' And that went throughout the course of the season.
"I think for the general manager and the head coach relationship, that's the way it has to be. You have to have those conversations. They are not argumentative. He asks me questions and I ask him questions. They are productive conversations. In the end, again, his goal and my goal is what is best for the football team. We are in this together."
In it together, through the good and the bad, they say.
Which brings us back to last month's duck hunting trip.
It turns out Robinson, Mularkey and others in the party didn't reach the six duck limit on the trip. All told, they managed to gun down just three birds that day.
"We'll keep who killed how many nameless,'' Robinson said with a grin. "Let's just say it was a pretty good day for the boy from Union City."
Still, they ended up eating sausage casserole, egg casserole, and "a cinnamon roll that was about as big as a hubcap" for their big meal. They bragged about the size of the cheeseburger they ate along the way. It sounded like they ate just about everything but duck, perhaps because there wasn't enough bird to go around.
But they had fun. The trip provided a quick getaway, and also offered Robinson a chance to show off the duck call he makes with his hands. He credits it for drawing the ducks to the area that day.
Telling the story, well, it gave him a chance to get a dig back at Mularkey.
"It was great fellowship, a really good time," said Robinson, just before making a pretty impressive duck call noise with hands. "Now I don't think Mike can do that. Heck, we probably wouldn't have killed three had he called."
The Titans celebrate 2016 season, look ahead to 2017 with season ticket members during Tailgate & Tuxedos event at Nashville's Music City Center. (photos: Donn Jones, Gary Glenn)