McGinn Files: There is only one Mike Vrabel
His rise is no accident. From college to the pros to taking over the Tennessee Titans, Mike Vrabel was born to lead a football team. Our Bob McGinn talks to everyone who knows him best.
The McGinn Files is a series looking back at selected players from NFL drafts since 1985. The foundation of the series is Bob McGinn’s transcripts of his annual pre-draft interviews with general managers, personnel directors and scouts over the last 37 years.
Eleven players from Big Ten Conference football squads in 1996 were drafted before Ohio State’s Mike Vrabel in 1997, including Top-3 picks Orlando Pace and Shawn Springs. Michigan’s Charles Woodson was among the underclassmen that would have to wait another year for the draft.
Barry Alvarez, the coach at Wisconsin, led the East team that January in the East-West Shrine Game. Vrabel played four times against the Badgers as a Buckeye before working under Alvarez’ direction for a week in Palo Alto, Calif.
Later that spring John Brunner, the Midwest scout for the San Francisco 49ers, was discussing Big Ten players with Alvarez when Vrabel’s name came up.
“Barry told me,” Brunner said shortly before the draft in 1997, “that, if he had to take one guy in the Big Ten for his team, that’s the guy that he wants.”
Granted, Vrabel had been chosen Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year twice, and his career totals of 36 sacks and 66 tackles for loss remain records at Ohio State. But 90 players would be off the board before the Pittsburgh Steelers used a compensatory selection late in the third round on Vrabel.
As a Buckeye player, during a 14-year NFL playing career, three seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater, four seasons as an assistant coach for the Houston Texans and, since 2018, as coach of the Tennessee Titans, Vrabel has exemplified the “it” factor that football people throw around but struggle to define.
“He’s a winner,” Tom Boisture, the New York Giants’ director of player personnel, said in April 1997. “All he does is beat your ass.”
Some people seem born to follow a singular path in life. It has been that way for the 46-year-old Vrabel, who was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, played under Hall of Fame coaches Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh and Bill Belichick in New England and, after taking less than a week off, transitioned comfortably from playing to coaching.
“Being there with him in Pittsburgh, I knew he knew what his gift to life was,” said Charles Bailey, an executive in personnel for the Steelers from 1989-’99 during an NFL scouting career that spanned 28 years. “In the end, he found his niche. He loves the game. Football was his life, like it was mine.”
Of the seven NFL coaches that took over teams in 2018, just four remain on the job. Vrabel, the only one to inherit a playoff team, has the best overall record at 39-25, three games clear of Indianapolis’ Frank Reich. His tenure in Nashville hasn’t been marked by instant success, but that wasn’t anxiety-producing for someone who as a player backed up as a freshman at Ohio State and didn’t start a game until his fifth season in the NFL.
“Mike Vrabel wasn’t the flashiest guy as a player but you could count on him week in and week out,” Cowher said. “He wants dependability, and I think his team reflects that. They reflect his toughness, his resiliency, just the respect he has for the game. He’s about sustainability. He’s building something for the long run, not just for the short term.”
An only child, Vrabel was the son of parents that were school administrators in Akron. His father, Chuck, coached basketball. Vrabel’s junior season of football was interrupted by a back injury diagnosed by doctors as stress fractures in his fourth and fifth vertebrae. After two physicians advised him not to play again, a third fit him with a back brace and gave the green light that the 16-year-old desperately was seeking. NFL teams also examined Vrabel’s foot injury that required surgery in early 1996. The Oakland Raiders plugged Vrabel into the seventh round largely because of medical concerns.
“He dropped off some boards and everything else,” recalled Cowher. “Yeah, but I had seen this guy play in college. He had this in high school. Let’s not look for something that’s not there. It’s not like we’re taking a first-round pick. We’re talking about this guy in the second or third round.”
Vrabel played all four seasons in Columbus under coach John Cooper for teams that finished 41-8-1 and won a share of two Big Ten championships. Playing defensive end in a 4-3 defense, Vrabel stood out on a front four that also included nose guard Luke Fickell, a close friend.
“Never missed a game,” Cooper told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly after the draft. “He’ll rush and get blocked, get up and rush again. I can’t imagine a Pittsburgh Steeler player who will work harder than Mike Vrabel. He’s one of the best football players we ever had.”
Frank Smouse, the top scout for the Cincinnati Bengals, resided in Kent, Ohio, just outside Akron, and had been watching Vrabel since high school. “He’s a very good, solid football player,” Smouse said at the time. “Even if you’re positioned on Vrabel, he’s always got a counter-move. I think he will go higher than the third round.”
Brunner, the 49ers’ scout, pegged him for the second or third round. “Looks like he flails around some but the guy makes plays,” he said. “Great effort guy. The guy is a great kid. He’s a leader. You’d love to have him on your side.”
Mike Allman, the player personnel director for the Seattle Seahawks, scoffed at the idea of Vrabel being taken in the first round. Charley Armey, the Patriots’ director of college scouting, wasn’t high on Vrabel, either.
“But,” said Dick Corrick, a scout for the Atlanta Falcons, “the guy makes plays. I don’t think he’s a real gifted guy. He’s a better player than he appears.”
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In the spring before his senior campaign, Vrabel weighed 256 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.80 seconds for representatives of the NFL scouting combines. In February 1997, his weight was up to 270 at the combine in Indianapolis where he also measured 6 feet 4 1/8 inches and ran 4.93. His workout numbers — 29 ½-inch vertical jump, 8-7 broad jump and 23 reps on the bench press — weren’t impressive. His score on the 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test was 26.
The Steelers, who had lost Chad Brown (and his 13 sacks) in unrestricted free agency a month before the draft, actually had a greater need for a defensive end in their 3-4 defense than for an outside linebacker. Their 51 sacks in 1996 ranked No. 2 in the NFL.
“Mike Vrabel was liked by everybody in the draft room,” Bailey remembered. “He was just like Chad Brown, and we took him in the second round (in 1993). A Joey Bosa before Bosa came to Ohio State. Vrabel was the classic ‘tweener, between an outside backer and down defensive end in a three-man front. Now, if he didn’t pan out strength- and size-wise, we could put him at linebacker. Because he could turn and run and drop to a zone. We knew he’d play the run.”
Bill Nunn, the Steelers’ long-time scout, immediately saw Kevin Greene, the Steelers’ Pro Bowl outside linebacker from 1993-’95, in Vrabel. But, at 270 pounds, Nunn said he thought Vrabel could add weight and fill the void at the 5-technique.
“He’s tough enough and wants to play,” Steelers defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said after the selection of Vrabel. “It’s hard to keep guys like that off the field. He’s really active and emotional. We’re going to have to slant him, move him around. I think some day down the road he’ll turn into a 290-pound defensive end.”
Cowher, who made the decision to draft Vrabel in conjunction with director of football operations Tom Donahoe, said the idea of bulking up Vrabel was abandoned upon his arrival in Pittsburgh.
“He was used initially as a dime rusher,” said Cowher. “He’d come in on third down and you could put him inside or put him outside. Let him rush the quarterback. That’s what he did in college. He was very good at that. He was more of a third-down pass rusher and a linebacker that we could develop like we had done with a lot of previous players.”
The Steelers listed Vrabel at 275 in 1998 but, a year later, his listed weight had dipped to 250.
With Brown gone and Greg Lloyd nearing the end of a distinguished career, there was opportunity for Vrabel. But he also faced a substantial learning curve switching from a three- to a two-point stance. In 1997, he understudied Jason Gildon and Lloyd. Vrabel’s role basically remained as a dime rusher and special-teams regular from 1998-’00 behind Gildon, Carlos Emmons and Joey Porter, who arrived as a third-round draft choice in 1999. Porter finished with 98 sacks and four Pro Bowls in a 13-year career whereas Gildon posted 80 sacks and made one Pro Bowl in 11 seasons.
After four years, Vrabel’s 51-game statistics for the Steelers showed seven sacks, 56 tackles, three forced fumbles and three recovered fumbles. After posting an 11-5 record and advancing to the AFC Championship Game in Vrabel’s rookie season, the Steelers sagged to 7-9, 6-10 and 9-7 in his final three seasons. With his rookie contract expired and free agency looming, Vrabel had a meeting with Cowher.
“He came in and I couldn’t make him any guarantees,” said Cowher. “I said to him, ‘If you have a chance to go somewhere else for more money and a better opportunity, then I would take it. I wish I could promise you more but with the guys we have right now, you’re going to be a role player. But I would love to have you back here.’ He was an integral part of our team (but) I had no regrets about the people we kept at the time.”
In the free-agent rankings that March I compiled annually for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Vrabel was my No. 22 defensive end for a 4-3 scheme.
In 2000, Bill Belichick inherited an 8-8 team from Pete Carroll that was well over the salary cap. After sacrificing a slew of veterans and finishing 5-11, he whacked outside linebacker Chris Slade among others in early 2001 and set out to sign a passel of veterans. Together with personnel chief Scott Pioli, the Patriots added 17 veteran free agents, including 10 from the unrestricted list and seven off the street.
Of those 17, seven started in 2001, five played as situational substitutes, three were integral performers on special teams and two were backups. What made this so stunning was the fact that the Patriots handed out merely $2.123 million in signing bonuses to procure those 17 players.
In the run-up to the Patriots’ shocking victory over the St. Louis Rams in the 36th Super Bowl, Pioli explained to me New England’s battle plan. “I know that Bill doesn’t have a lot of patience for players that don’t view football as being very important to them,” he said. “All these guys are passionate about the game.” Running back Antowain Smith, a former Buffalo Bill, had surpassed 1,000 yards but Pioli wouldn’t declare him the best of the 17. He quickly mentioned fullback Marc Edwards and Vrabel as also having had outstanding seasons.
On March 13, 11 days into the signing period, Vrabel agreed with New England on a three-year, $5.291 million contract. His signing bonus was $280,000.
“My first meeting with him, I brought him in my room,” recalled Rob Ryan, the Patriots’ second-year outside linebackers coach. “I said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to end up being a great player or we’re both getting fired.’”
Brad Seely, the Patriots’ decorated special-teams coach from 1999-’08, rated Vrabel highly and was thrilled getting Vrabel for the kicking game. A fixture there in Pittsburgh, he recorded 12 tackles on special teams in 2000.
“He was a really good special-teams player,” Seely said. “You put on that old Steeler film and he played a 5 right next to the kicker, and he’d be one of the first guys down the field. He could really run. I never saw him at 270. When we got him he probably weighed like 245 or 250. After he lost all his weight I’m going to say he was a 4.7 guy. There’s different 4.7’s. Whatever he could run, he was getting it all.”
Slade, the Patriots’ second-round draft choice in 1993, started for seven years, registered 51 sacks and made the Pro Bowl once. Belichick gave Vrabel first crack at replacing Slade at outside linebacker but it was a show-me situation. “From talking to the defensive (coaches), we didn’t really think of him as going to be that guy on defense for us that he became,” said Seely.
Vrabel met with Ryan four days a week, watching film for an hour before going out on the practice field together.
“That was back before they had rules against it,” Ryan said. “By the time OTAs started Vrabel knew the defense better than anybody on the team. When we went out there Vrabel would say all the alert stuff. Everybody was looking around saying, ‘Who is this guy? We just got him.’”
A defensive coordinator for the Raiders, Browns, Cowboys and Saints, Ryan currently coaches inside linebackers for the Ravens. “Long story short, he and Sean Lee were probably the two smartest players that I’ve ever coached,” said Ryan. “He was kind of like a Peyton Manning. He challenged me as a coach.”
Each week, Ryan would give his players 10 bullet points regarding the opponent. “Those were overall nuggets the whole group could grasp,” he said. To satisfy Vrabel’s thirst for information, Ryan prepared an additional four pages of scouting data.
“He would look at it and he would know it before the meeting was over,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if he has a photographic memory or something but he would know it better than anybody else. I’m telling you, the guy was amazing.”
Ryan recalled getting called out by Vrabel in linebacker meetings when he overdid his coach-speak, “respect the opponent” routine. “I’d be bragging on one of their blockers and he’d be, like, ‘This guy’s nothing,’” said Ryan. “They’d all be on me, giving me hell. That whole room with Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer. They were all smart and all extremely dedicated. Loved football.”
Mike Archer, the linebackers coach in Pittsburgh during Vrabel’s four years, faced a similar inquisition.
“Mike was like a coach out there because he would always ask the extra question,” Cowher remembered. “’Why are we doing this.’ He’d go, ‘You want us to do this because of that? OK, great.’ With a lot of players, the more you gave them the slower they played. I think the more you gave Mike the faster he played. When guys ask extra questions, they’ve got coaching in their blood.”
In all eight of his seasons as a starting linebacker in New England Vrabel also played extensively on special teams. Seely penciled him in on the kickoff, punt and kickoff-return teams. Later on, he and Vrabel made a deal: once he made a tackle on a kickoff, he was removed for the rest of the game.
“Reason he’d want to get off kickoff team was smart,” said Seely, who retired from the Texans in June 2020 after building a reputation as one of the league's finest special-teams ever over a 31-year career. “He’d get tired. He had to go play defense.”
On some days Seely might have been guilty of belaboring a point during a meeting.
“Every once in a while, he’d be in the back and he’d go, ‘Brad, Brad, you’re over-coaching, you’re over-coaching,’” said Seely. “He had no qualms about speaking up. I loved guys like that. He would do that to Belichick in Bill’s meetings. I think Bill liked it because he knew what he was. And when he said something, most of the time it had a lot of merit.”
The Patriots’ improbable run to the AFC East title was followed by gripping playoff victories over Oakland (in the snow and overtime) and at Pittsburgh led to New Orleans and a date against the Rams, who were a 14-point favorite. The teams in the 36th Super Bowl didn’t have an extra week to prepare. On defense, the entire plan was based on hitting Marshall Faulk wherever he went. To that end, the player on the scout team impersonating Faulk wore a green jersey while the four other skill-position players wore yellow.
“Every play when we came out of the huddle I’d be screaming, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’” Belichick told me in 2008. “Then he’d shift and I’d go, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ By Thursday, Vrabel turns around and he says, ‘Hey, Bill. The son of a bitch is in a green jersey. Will you shut the f--- up?’ I said to myself, ‘I think I’m getting through.’”
Perhaps the most momentous play in Vrabel’s career came in the second quarter of that Super Bowl, the first of the four he played in. When the Patriots jumped into a ‘Bear’ front, Rams right tackle Rod Jones blew the protection turning Vrabel loose on Kurt Warner. Stunned to see Vrabel in his face, Warner made a wayward throw that was intercepted by Ty Law and returned 47 yards for a touchdown. The 20-17 upset of the Rams marked the first of three NFL championships for Vrabel, who in eight seasons in New England played for teams that went 111-34.
Late in that first season in Foxborough, Vrabel told the Boston Globe, “(Football) is fun now … I had to put in four years. I had to bide my time and wait.”
Ryan insisted Vrabel would have posted bigger numbers had he not taken one for the team during his first five seasons in New England. McGinest, who joined the Patriots in 1994 as the No. 4 pick in the draft, preferred playing the left side. It basically stayed that way through McGinest’s final season of 2005.
“He goes, ‘You do realize, Rob, that I’d have none of my counters to rush the passer,’” Ryan remembered Vrabel saying of playing on the right side. “But this guy unselfishly went over to the right because I wanted to leave McGinest on the left. This guy was the most selfless player I’ve ever been around. After McGinest left they moved him to the left and he did have like 14 sacks (actually, 12 ½, tied for the most ever by a Patriot under Belichick) one year (2007). He could have done that the whole time.”
How did Vrabel win as a pass rusher?
“He was a special hand fighter,” said Ryan. “A lineman would make one false step with the hands and (Vrabel) would tie him in a knot and go sack the quarterback. And he had those long vines for arms.”
Counting playoffs, Vrabel started 158 of 226 games for the Steelers, Patriots and Chiefs. He finished with 850 tackles, 66 sacks, 11 interceptions, 22 forced fumbles, 11 recovered fumbles and 44 passes defensed. As a goal-line tight end, he was targeted 16 times. He made 12 receptions for 17 yards, and all 12 were for touchdowns. His lone Pro Bowl appearance was as a starter in 2007. He was elected team captain in New England multiple times.
“One day he should be up for the Hall of Fame as a player,” Bailey said. “He was a team player.” With six tackles, two sacks and high grades on defense to go with a 1-yard touchdown reception on offense, Vrabel should have been the MVP of the 38th Super Bowl against Carolina, according to Ryan.
In 2005, Vrabel was asked to play inside linebacker when Bruschi suffered a mini-stroke and Monty Beisel was found lacking. The next year, he played on the inside again after Junior Seau went down in the 11th game with a fractured forearm.
“Gritty, tough, smart, durable, dependable,” Cowher replied when asked to describe Vrabel’s career in New England. “I think going up with Bill was a perfect mesh for him at the time. He played tight end up there because of how smart he was. One of those guys who could play any position. He wasn’t going to flash at any one of them. You’re not going to worry about where Mike Vrabel’s at. But just understand, he could be anywhere, and he’s going to make plays. He just maximized his athletic ability because of his smarts. That’s what made him an efficient player and that’s what I think makes him an efficient coach.”
In New England, Vrabel loved nothing more than to jump in at free safety on the scout team and run around confusing Tom Brady and the offense. “He would talk shit the whole time,” said Seely. “He would try to screw with Tom, he’d start yapping at Tom. He’d get to him. He would make Tom so mad. He was just fun, you know?”
Vrabel reminded Ryan of comedy icon Chevy Chase with his deadpan humor. In December 2009, the Browns had just defeated the Chiefs when Ryan met up with Vrabel in the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium before the Browns’ buses departed for the flight home.
“I had a couple beers with him and I told him he was a heck of an athlete,” Ryan recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, but just think how good I would have been if I didn’t smoke like a pack of cigarettes a day.’ This guy, he’s a beauty, man.
“He can be an asshole because he’s so smart. Some people don’t deal with his shit, I guess. I always loved him. He lights up the room, you know? I guess he’s got an ego, but he doesn’t give a shit about that. He just wants to win.”
With Brady out in 2008 with a knee injury, the Patriots went 11-5 but missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. In November, Vrabel was critical of Patriot Place Mall — the commercial acreage surrounding Gillette Stadium filled with expensive restaurants and shops — in an interview with Ron Borges of the Boston Herald. At the time, Vrabel was the Patriots’ player rep and a member of the NFLPA executive committee that was headed toward contentious negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
With Brady on the mend, Vrabel, 33, became a throw-in player in the late February 2009 trade that sent quarterback Matt Cassel to Kansas City for a second-round pick. The Chiefs had hired Pioli as general manager about months earlier. In an oft-cited statement, Belichick said of Vrabel: “(He) epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, playmaking, leadership, versatility and consistency … Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike.”
Vrabel started 30 of 32 games at outside linebacker for Chiefs teams that went 4-12 and 10-6. He was weighing a return in 2011 when Jim Tressel was forced to resign at Ohio State on May 30. When the Buckeyes elevated Fickell, their linebackers coach, to interim head coach, Vrabel announced his retirement on July 11 in order to fill Fickell’s post coaching linebackers.
“Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I ever coached,” Belichick said in another statement. “I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners.”
The Buckeyes went 6-7 under Fickell in 2011. With Urban Meyer taking over in 2012, Vrabel shifted to coach the defensive line for Ohio State teams that went 12-0 and 12-2. From there, he coached the linebackers for the Houston Texans under Bill O’Brien from 2014-’16 before being promoted to defensive coordinator in ’17. The Texans went 9-7, 9-7 and 9-7 before slipping to 4-12 in 2017, when Vrabel’s defense finished tied for 16th in takeaways, 20th in yards and 32nd in points.
The Titans qualified for the AFC playoffs in 2017 for the first time in nine years, and knocked off the Chiefs in a wild-card game. After his team was bombed by the Patriots, second-year general manager Jon Robinson fired coach Mike Mularkey.
Robinson interviewed Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and Vrabel. The first seven of Robinson’s 12 years as a member of the scouting department in New England coincided with Vrabel’s final seven seasons in New England. Vrabel also interviewed for the Lions job that went to Matt Patricia. He joined at least three other former Ohio State players that became NFL coaches: Sid Gillman (Rams, Chargers, Oilers), Don McCafferty (Colts, Lions) and Dick LeBeau (Bengals).
After the Titans went 9-7 for the third straight season in 2018, they caught fire late in 2019 behind running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. In the wild-card playoffs, they ended the Brady era in New England with an upset in Foxborough before eliminating the top-seeded Ravens, 20-12, in Baltimore. A step away from Super Bowl, the Titans were ousted by the Chiefs, 35-24.
“A lot of times when you got a defensive player who’s been a defensive coach you expect him to spend most of his time on defense,” Robinson said in July 2020. “But he loves football so much he spends as much time on the offensive side and in the kicking game as he does on defense. He’s been really, really more hands-on than I expected him to be.”
Last season, the Titans went 11-5 to capture their first division title since 2008 despite a defense that ranked 28th. In a playoff rematch, they squandered an early 10-point lead at home and fell to the Ravens, 20-13.
Presently, the Titans are joined by the Ravens and Chiefs at 8-4, one-half game behind the Patriots in the AFC. After a 2-2 start, they went on a six-game winning streak to become the AFC favorite in the eyes of some. A loss to lowly Houston at home followed by a 36-13 setback in New England leaves the Titans in need of a turnaround following the bye week.
“I think he’s done a good job kind of building the team (and) putting players on the team that fit his profile,” said Blake Beddingfield, a member of the Titans’ personnel department from 1999-’17 who rose to the position of director of college scouting. “Meaning the tough, dependable player kind of in his image. Maybe they will sacrifice talent a little bit for guys that just kind of fit the profile they’re looking for. I think that’s served them well in a division that has really been poor.”
Jacksonville has been the AFC South doormat since Vrabel took over, and Houston joins the Jaguars at 2-10 this season after a collapse to 4-12 a year ago. The Colts have been reduced since the retirement of Andrew Luck in August 2019. Vrabel owns a 14-8 record against his division foes, including 8-2 the past two seasons.
Dominating the division is one surefire avenue toward coaching success. The other is turnover differential, the metric that for time immemorial has separated coaches.
Counting the regular season only, the Titans under Vrabel are plus-9 in 60 games. Currently, they’re tied for 27th at minus-7 after leading the NFL a year ago at plus-11. They were plus-2 through 10 games before going minus-9 against the Texans and Patriots. In the nine seasons before Vrabel’s arrival in Nashville the Titans were minus-39.
Vrabel has spoken of the critical importance of turnover differential. He should know, having played under two of the masters of it. Belichick is an astounding plus-216 in his 27 regular seasons (minus-5 in Cleveland, plus-221 in New England), and Cowher finished plus-72 in his 15 seasons. In Vrabel’s 14 years as a player the Steelers were plus-15, the Patriots were plus-57 and the Chiefs, under coach Todd Haley, were plus-10 for a total of plus-82.
“You have to prioritize it,” said Cowher. “When people are turning the football over and you don’t do anything about it, that’s on you as a coach. You’ve got to hold people accountable. You take the ball out of their hands. You see what Bill (Belichick) does. You fumble there, you’re probably out for the rest of the game. You can say, ‘Well, it happens.’ No. No! Protecting the football is paramount.”
Belichick and Vrabel each cut their teeth as young coaches on special teams, an area where the Titans have been decidedly middle of the road under Vrabel. Under Seely from 2001-’08, Vrabel played for units that ranked among the NFL’s top 10 five times in Rick Gosselin’s rankings. The Titans were 16th in 2018, 18th in 2019 and tied for 24th in 2020. They’re in the bottom quartile this year.
“He could have been outstanding as a special-teams coach because he knew it and had done it,” Seely said. “Myself, being a lifelong coach, you see guys that have coached a few years and you think, ‘Why is he getting those opportunities (as a head coach)?’ But he was one of those guys where I said, ‘I’d hire this guy, too.’ He’s obviously got street cred with players because he’s been in their shoes, and he’s really intelligent.”
As a player, Vrabel loved to discuss the rulebook and delve into gamesmanship. As a result, he was a natural when the Patriots designated him as their “second timeout guy.”
“What that meant was, at the time you couldn’t take successive timeouts but there was no penalty,” said Seely. “So we’d take a timeout to maybe freeze the kicker and then Mike was in charge of faking like we were maybe taking another timeout, which they weren’t supposed to give us. Actually, we did it against Houston and they gave us the second timeout. But it would screw the kicker up a lot of times. He’d be standing there thinking they’re going to freeze me again because he didn’t know the rule. Well, we weren’t going to freeze him, but he might relax a little or just stop a bit in his conscious thought, and then they’d snap the ball and sometimes it worked. Mike was all into that stuff.”
In the 2019 playoffs, the Titans stole about a minute of time from a Brady-led comeback midway through the fourth quarter against New England by taking a delay-of-game penalty on a punt followed by an intentional false-start penalty. A few months earlier, Belichick had exploited that loophole and wasted more than a minute against the Jets.
“That’s Mike to a ‘T,’” Seely said. “He’s going to take something like that and use it to his advantage because he’s a smart dude.”
In early December 2000, Pioli told Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal that he had seen a maturation in Vrabel that would bode well for his future as a coach. “As a player he was so smart, he knew so much, he often didn’t have patience for people that weren’t as smart as him,” said Pioli. “Being that smart is a blessing; not having patience can be a curse. But Mike has matured and developed an understanding that people aren’t going to keep up with him, and he can deliver a message without being condescending.”
Wesley Woodyard, who started 110 of 180 games in a 12-year career for the Broncos and Titans, told a Nashville radio station in March that Vrabel didn’t deal well with those that might differ with him. According to Woodyard, defensive coordinator Dean Pees “didn’t really call any of the plays” in the loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game when Patrick Mahomes passed for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Pees retired the next day, only to return this year as the coordinator in Atlanta under Arthur Smith, Vrabel’s offensive coordinator in 2019-’20. Shane Bowen, who coached with Vrabel in Houston, has run his defense the past two seasons.
“Everybody that fights and everybody that gives any kind of pushback to Mike is not received with any open arms,” Woodyard told 104.5-FM. “It’s always disciplinary. Nobody can come in that building and overpower the head coach. You were brought in to have a great defensive scheme, and we haven’t seen it so far. So we’ve got to hold you accountable too, Mike. Once you’re out of fingers to point who else are you going to point that blame?”
Owner Amy Adams Strunk, who signed Vrabel to a five-year contract after saluting his “commanding presence,” later extended Robinson’s contract so both deals will be up after the 2022 season.
“I have not heard about an extension (for Vrabel) but I would think that happens,” said Beddingfield, who owns and operates a football consulting business and also writes about the Titans at PaulKuharsky.com. “They’re getting to be an older team. Tannehill is 33. (Rodger) Saffold is 33. Ben Jones is 32. (Taylor) Lewan is 30. (Julio) Jones is 32. Janoris Jenkins is 33. They’ve got to hit now. That’s why this year is so important because I think, salary cap-wise, they’re going to be in trouble next year. They haven’t hit on the draft choices so they don’t have those young players that are ready to take over roles. There will be a big gap in talent so I think the owner will want to keep him around for a couple more years. Kind of ride this out as long as they can.”
LaFleur lasted one season as the coordinator of an offense that ranked 25th in yards, giving too few carries (215) to Henry and too many (155) to Dion Lewis. Sources said Vrabel told LaFleur to seek employment elsewhere because he wouldn’t be back calling plays in 2019, and after he landed as coach of the Packers the Titans promoted Smith from tight ends coach to coordinator. With Henry rushing 303 times for 1,540 yards (and 83 times in three playoff games) in 2019, the offense improved to 12th.
Henry was phenomenal in 2020, rushing 378 times for 2,027 yards, and was off to another great start this season with 219 carries for 937 yards in eight games. Then he suffered a Jones Fracture Oct. 31 in Indianapolis, a foot injury that likely will sideline him until late December if not beyond. ManGamesLost.com, which charts injuries in the NFL, reports that Tennessee and the New York Giants have been the most injured teams in the league.
“All right, now you don’t have your bell cow,” said Cowher. “You don’t have Derrick Henry. Can you still win without him? That’s a great challenge ahead right now.
“I’d be very careful. He’s one of those guys, when people disrespect you to some degree, you can make it personal. Mike will make everything personal, as he should. I used to do that. I made every game personal.
“’Vrabel, you’re too slow to play outside linebacker. You’re not tough enough. We’ll put you out there and see if you can survive.’ Then, ‘I’ll show you I can survive. You want to see survival. I’ll show you survival at its best.’
“’Now they don’t think we can do anything without Derrick Henry.’ Now you make it personal and you create another narrative to do something that people don’t think you can do. This is a great time for him. They’ve got to find a way.”