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Broncos continue head-coaching search by talking to Mike Munchak

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When President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway spoke of qualifications for potential head-coach candidates, he didn't specify that they had to be a coordinator at some point in their coaching lives. But he did want them to be successful in an area of expertise.

Few are better experts in their specific area of football than Steelers assistant coach Mike Munchak with the offensive line. His time-tested ability to build some of the league's most effective and cohesive units, built on a foundation of a 12-season playing career that vaulted him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, vaulted him into consideration for the Broncos' vacant head-coaching position this week.

After completing his interview with the Broncos earlier Friday, Munchak became the second candidate (along with former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano) to meet with the Broncos who possesses previous head-coaching experience, having guided the Tennessee Titans from 2011-13 after the departure of long-time coach Jeff Fisher. The Titans went 22-26 under Munchak despite having three different quarterbacks combine to make a majority of the starts in his seasons.

A strong work ethic distinguished Munchak's teams in Tennessee. His calm demeanor helped provide steadiness through external chaos.

"He's not panicking or freaking out when some things are not going right," Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva told the Associated Press last year. "He's always the same consistent person every single day."

Munchak's personality has been perfect for maximizing his players' abilities while nurturing a culture of respect, focus and levity when the time is right.

"He'll make fun of you in a funny, nonaggressive way, not to where (you're offended)," guard David DeCastro told the Associated Press last year.

"If he makes fun of you, you laugh about it but then it's still in the back of your head, so you remember (the lesson) at the same time."

Munchak turned the Steelers' offensive line into perhaps the best unit on the team -- hardly a small feat on a roster blessed with talent at wide receiver, quarterback, running back and edge rusher.

"He created an offensive line and an offensive line is not about individuals, it's about the collective culture you have in the room," Villanueva told the Associated Press last year.

"I've been nothing more than a product of his environment, the standards that he sets and the way he coaches.”

Nowhere was Munchak's work most evident than in the Steelers' improved pass protection. In the 10 years prior to his arrival, Steelers quarterbacks -- almost always Ben Roethlisberger -- were sacked once every 12.5 pass plays. Under Munchak, that improved to one sack every 23.8 pass plays.

That meant that Pittsburgh's sack rate improved from the league's second-worst in 10 years before Munchak joined its staff to the league's second-best in five years with him. Only New Orleans had a better sack rate in the last five years.

Munchak's work in Pittsburgh is top-notch, but it's his three years as Titans coach and the lessons he learned from there that provide an extra boost to his candidacy.

After ascending to the head-coach spot following 17 years on the club's coaching staff -- the final 14 as offensive-line coach – Munchak kept the Titans competitive despite issues at the quarterback position.

Tennessee's plan was for Munchak and his staff to guide 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker to a long-term role as the starter, and for some brief moments, it looked like the Munchak-Locker-Titans triumvirate had the potential to be a long-running Nashville act to rival the late Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry.

Locker's brief, dynamic bursts energized the Titans, but the slight-framed-and-mobile quarterback took a physical drubbing. In 2013 -- what proved to be Munchak's final season as Titans head coach -- the team started 3-1 before Locker succumbed to a hip injury in his fourth start that year. Tennessee lost its next two games, then split the next two after Locker returned to the lineup. But in Locker's third game back, he suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his right foot, sending the Titans on a 1-5 spiral.

Despite the woes, Munchak kept the Titans competitive. One of their losses in that six-game stretch was in overtime to a Cardinals team bound for its first winning season in four years. Two of them were to the eventual AFC South champion Colts by a combined 11 points. Tennessee closed the year with back-to-back wins to finish 7-9.

But six days after that season, the Titans and Munchak parted ways. Titans management wanted Munchak to fire some coaches. He refused.

"I can't fire someone when I don't believe they should be fired. Firing someone is awful. Too many people were going to be affected," he told The (Nashville) Tennessean shortly after his Titans stint ended. " ... For me to maintain a job and a lot of guys lose jobs on a plan I didn't think was right, I couldn't do that.

"I'll make tough decisions, but not if they're not right."

While Munchak quickly joined the Steelers and added to his reputation as perhaps the best teacher of offensive-line technique in the sport, the Titans foundered without their three-decade stalwart. After averaging 7.1 wins per season with Munchak, they won just six of their next 36 games before finally recovering their footing in 2016.

At the time of his departure from Tennessee, Munchak knew he might never get another shot at being an NFL head coach. But he knew he couldn't do the job under terms that differed from his own, and he made a stand on principle.

"I know the chance of me being a head coach again in the NFL aren't that great. Most guys get one shot at it," he told The Tennessean in 204. "But I wanted to do it with the right people, and do it the right way."

And now Munchak might get that second chance.

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