Mike Vrabel had a prolific and successful football career on the field, earning three Super Bowl rings as a linebacker and occasional end-zone target for the Patriots. The Tennessee Titans are hoping that success carries over to the sideline. On Saturday, the 42-year-old was hired to take the reins as Tennessee’s newest head coach.
“I am excited to have Mike Vrabel joining our organization as our new head coach,” Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk said in a statement announcing the hire. “In the interaction between Mike and Jon (Robinson) during the interview, you could see their connection right away from the history they have with one another – seeing the game in a similar way and talking the same language. Mike has a commanding presence and a deep knowledge for how he will attack this head coaching opportunity.
“Throughout his football career, he has played for, been mentored by and coached with successful teams and organizations. He knows what it takes to reach that level of sustained success – he has seen it first-hand. We have a chance to build on the solid foundation that we established over the past couple of years and I believe Mike is the right person to continue that progress.”
Vrabel started his coaching career at his alma mater, Ohio State, before becoming the Texans’ linebackers coach in 2014. He spent three seasons grooming players like Benardrick McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus for a team that boasted one of the league’s most fearsome defenses. He earned a promotion to defensive coordinator in 2017, but a litany of injuries ultimately derailed the team’s season.
That’s how a coordinator from a 4-12 team wound up as the Titans’ head coach just weeks after the season ended. Vrabel has worked with a wide array of talent in Houston and quickly built up a name as a solid coach. Now he’ll take over a team that was already in the playoffs.
So why Mike Vrabel?
Vrabel’s long career and ability to contribute in all three phases of the game made him an intriguing coaching candidate the minute he retired in 2011. While he’s only got one year as a defensive coordinator under his belt, his career as a Bill Belichick mainstay with the Patriots and quick rise through the coaching ranks made him a rising star in 2017.
“Of all the guys in this pool, the one I’d say who has the chance to be the best head coach is Vrabel,” one current NFL head coach with no ties to Vrabel told me on Monday. “It’s his presence, and the people he’s been around and learned from.”
With Vrabel as the team’s linebackers coach, Houston ranked third in yards allowed in 2015 and first in 2016, allowing a team without consistent quarterback play to win the AFC South in back-to-back seasons. He’s played a role in developing a swarming front seven that’s been the Texans’ only real weapon of late, and he’s got a championship resume from his playing days that commands respect.
Of course, Vrabel’s lack of experience could be a major negative. While his 2017 defense was deflated due to season-ending injuries to players like J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and Mercilus, no team in the league gave up more points than the Texans, who allowed more than 27 points per contest last fall. That’s his only season as a coordinator at any level, which gives him a pretty thin resume despite his name recognition.
And then there’s the Belichick connection, which may not actually work in his favor.
Eric Mangini: 33-47
Romeo Crennel: 22-54
Josh McDaniels: 12-20
Bill O’Brien: 31-31
This list teaches us two things. First, you shouldn’t coach the Cleveland Browns if you want to maintain a positive W-L ratio, and second, Bill Belichick’s coaching genius cannot be absorbed through osmosis.
What does Mike Vrabel have to work with?
The biggest question for now is whether Vrabel hires a new offensive coordinator in Tennessee, or if he retains Terry Robiskie for the role. Mike Mularkey was an offensive mind, but the lack of development of Marcus Mariota made moving on from the coach easy for the Titans.
After finishing his second season with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Mariota regressed in 2017 with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Getting the quarterback back on track would go a long way toward legitimizing the Titans as a contender in the AFC.
But the biggest impact Vrabel can make is by pushing the Titans’ defense into the elite tier. While it was tough to run against in 2017, it was a middle-of-the-road unit and struggled against the pass.
There are some real stars in the Tennessee defense — including defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and safety Kevin Byard — but it finished No. 17 in points allowed and No. 13 in yards allowed. With the AFC South suddenly looking much more difficult with the rise of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the impending returns of Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck, the play of the Titans’ defense will fall on Vrabel’s shoulders.