SAN FRANCISCO —Not long after Mike Mularkey stepped in as head coach of the Titans during the 2015 season, he began preaching about a successful team he wanted his squad to emulate. Take notes, Mularkey told his players, because this particular team has found the recipe for success.
"Offensively, it is a ball control, physical offense. They are very sound, they don't make a lot of mistakes, don't make a lot of penalties, they don't have a lot of negative plays, and they possess the football,'' Mularkey said. "Their defense is very stout and it's tough to move it on them. They complement each other, and when you throw in a special teams unit that's extremely well coached and playing well, it's a tough team to beat."
The team Mularkey was describing? The Carolina Panthers.
Yes, the same Panthers who were bottom-dwellers in the NFC South not too long ago. Carolina finished 2-14 in 2010, 6-10 in 2011 and 7-9 in 2012. Then came a turnaround. The Panthers have won three straight division titles since, and in 2015 they finished 15-1 during the regular season.
Here on Sunday, they'll face the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
The Titans, coming off a 3-13 season and with just five wins over the past two seasons, say they'd like to follow the same steps as the Panthers.
And players say they see some similarities between the teams. The Titans and Panthers squared off against one another during the regular season at Nissan Stadium. The Panthers led 17-10 after three quarters on November 15, but scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to win, 27-10.
"We have the same fight, but we have to have the will power to finish the game and that's something the Panthers have figured out how to do,'' tight end Delanie Walker. "Since he got the head coaching job, coach Mularkey has talked about the Panthers, and the way they play. They are physical, they run the ball, and they make plays when they need to. That's what he wants us to do."
"'I sure hope we can emulate that,'' cornerback Jason McCourty said of the Panthers. "I remember when we played them, coach Mularkey talked about not being them, but trying to emulate them as far as the tough-nosed team they are and a pounding-type team."
Like the Panthers did with quarterback Cam Newton in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Titans took quarterback Marcus Mariota after a 2-14 season. Newton has developed into one of the NFL's best all-around quarterbacks, something the Titans hope will happen with Mariota.
Along the way, the Panthers also showed some patience with coach Ron Rivera, who won six and seven games, respectively, in his first two seasons, and then started off 1-3 in 2013. About the time Carolina fans began getting disgruntled, the Panthers got hot, and closed out that season with 11 wins in 12 games.
The rest, as they say, is history.
"They have never wavered from what they started with,'' Mularkey said of the Panthers, "and obviously it's worked."
Titans tackle Byron Bell was with the Panthers during the turnaround. He sees some similarities between the two franchises.
Bell believes the Titans are headed in the right direction. Last month, the Titans named Mularkey permanent head coach following a season when he stepped in for Ken Whisenhunt during the year.
"I was in this exact situation (in Carolina) my rookie year, new quarterback, new system, the whole nine yards, and it's a process and guys have to trust the process,'' Bell said.
"I told Marcus, trust the process. The process is going to suck, but at the end of the day it gets greater. And I really believe it's going to get better. We trusted the process (in Carolina) and then won back-to-back division titles. Marcus is only going to get better, the defense is only going to get better. Just because we were 3-13, we weren't a bad football team. We lost some close games.
"The Tennessee Titans are going in the right direction and the AFC South is going to be back in Nashville in due time, faster than a lot of people think,'' Bell continued. "Once this team gets over the hump, the sky is the limit."
Mariota said he's ready to do his part.
He'd love to follow Carolina's lead.
"I think they were patient for a couple of years, they took their lumps and bruises and learned from it,'' Mariota said of the Panthers. "I think from that standpoint if we are able to learn from what they were able to do, be patient, find ways to get better, each and every one of us in that locker room, we'll have an opportunity to one day play in one of these."