Mike Vrabel can’t be stopped.
The former Houston Texans defensive coordinator and New England Patriots linebacker will be the next Tennessee Titans head coach. He’s not the youngest coach at 43 years old, but he’s been in coaching for just seven seasons. He’s been an NFL coach for just four years.
His resumé is short. But that’s part of what makes Vrabel so impressive. That’s what makes Vrabel so likely to succeed in Tennessee despite the hurdles he will face while righting Marcus Mariota and competing in a young, emerging AFC South.
“When you are around guys like Mike you know that it is inevitable that he is going to be a head coach,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien told the Titans’ website on Saturday.
Vrabel’s time as a player informs his time as a coach. He was intent on being a coach before retiring as a player, and often had strategic suggestions for Belichick as he developed the defensive game plan. Vrabel was a three-time Super Bowl winner who was a high-impact player on offense, defense and special teams. As a linebacker, he was smarter than he was talented, but he wasn’t going to let his athletic shortcomings stop him. He finished his career with 704 tackles, 57 sacks and 11 interceptions while playing for the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs. But the Patriots, in particular, couldn’t keep Vrabel off the field. He even managed to make an impact on offense with 12 receptions for 12 touchdown catches. He was only targeted 16 times in his career.
Two of those touchdowns came in two different Super Bowls. When he was on the field in the red zone, Tom Brady was almost certainly going to target him. But no defense could figure out how to properly limit Vrabel.
“Mike was a great player for us – very smart, tough, instinctive player, one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached, mentally and physically. He had great instincts and awareness in the game,” Bill Belichick said of Vrabel in his weekly September press conference the week the Patriots played the Texans this year. “His versatility – he’s got a lot of positives as a football player athletically – but mentally his toughness, his technique, his dependability and reliability on a daily basis was at the very top.”
In 2011, Vrabel started his coaching career at Ohio State where he worked as a linebackers’ coach with Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier and then as a defensive line coach with Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Johnathan Hankins, Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, among others.
When he moved into a role under O’Brien with the Texans, the organization couldn’t give Vrabel enough control. He grew within his role quickly, and in order for them to retain him in 2016, they had to promote him to defensive coordinator for fear of losing him to other teams. He was rumored to get interest as a coordinator and as a head coach during the 2017 offseason. So Houston removed Romeo Crennel from his position in order to accommodate Vrabel. Crennel became an assistant head coach, but the promotion wasn’t because of Crennel’s successes. It was all about Vrabel. The Texans had to promote him or lose him.
He’s done a terrific job developing the Texans’ front-seven with his hands on pass-rushers Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt along with stand-up linebackers like Benardrick McKinney, Brian Cushing and youngster Zach Cunningham. They’re largely the reason the Texans defensive front-seven looked like one of the NFL’s best over the past few years, even with Watt injured so often. Belichick got a look at Vrabel’s defense during training camp, and had high praise before facing them again during the regular season.
“With the Texans, I think he does a tremendous job with his players, with his unit,” Belichick also said of Vrabel back in that September press conference. “I was able to observe his on-the-field coaching down there in West Virginia. He’s a very active and high-energy coach that certainly commands a lot of respect from his players, as he should based on his accomplishments and his preparation and knowledge of the game.”
The Titans job was one of the more appealing openings on the market with Mariota, a talented quarterback, and a roster strong enough to make it to the divisional round of the playoffs. Vrabel, a defensive mind, may not have all the answers to fixing Mariota, whose 2017 season seemed more like a regression than a progression. Vrabel also sits in a tough division with his former team, a booming Jaguars team and Andrew Luck’s Colts.
But when looking at all that Vrabel has accomplished in the sport of football as a player and as a coach, his odds are still good to become an excellent NFL coach.
No one has stopped him before. It’s hard to see anyone stopping him now.