The coaching search is very young. As of today, no one has even interviewed for the job. However, as an outsider, it is clear and very encouraging that Jon Robinson will be thorough in his search. While it may not seem like it, we are in uncharted territory in that regard. Consider the franchise’s history—When we learned that Jeff Fisher was out as Head Coach, we learned almost simulatenously that Mike Munchak would be his successor. After Munchak was fired, it appeared as if the team was content with waiting for Dan Quinn until after the Super Bowl (side note: The rumor was that Mike Mularkey would have been his offensive coordinator. Weird, huh?). However, Tommy Smith became impatient, disrupted the process, and decided to offer Ken Whisenhunt a large contract that he couldn’t refuse. After Whisenhunt was fired, it was obviously clear that Mike Mularkey was Amy Adams Strunk’s guy. Now, we are here. Finally, it appears as if the team’s general manager will thoroughly go through an entire head coaching search, and I think that it will be for the better. That being said, the anxious fan in me is ready to make my personal endorsement. After doing research on each of the candidates, I firmly believe that Vrabel is the right man for the job, and could fit perfectly with this team. While I have seen fans express some of the usual concerns, I will try to make the case for why he fits:
Flexible: For the most part, there seems to be a prevailing theme when we all envision the next Head Coach of the Titans: A young, fresh, flexible guy who can adapt to different situations and the opposition. Typically, when we envision someone who fits this profile, we picture a "hotshot" offensive coordinator, like Josh McDaniels. This is especially true after we just saw how successful Sean McVay was in Los Angeles. That being said, those guys are few and far between. Teams try to chase this type of guy every single coaching cycle, and it regularly fails. For every McVay, there are about 3 Hue Jacksons, a Denver version of Josh McDaniels, and a Chiefs version of Todd Haley. On the surface, it appears as if these coordinators are less flexible than we've been led to believe. Time and time again, we have seen the offensive coordinator of a top offense inserted into a head coaching position in an entirely different setting, and trying to replicate the success that they saw with their previous team. However, all of a sudden the system that was working in one place is not working in the next and we quickly see that supposed flexibility evaporate. They will cling to the system that they've seen work in an entirely different context, and try to make the players fit that system. Not to mention being a head coach is entirely different than being an offensive coordinator. Again, with these offensive coordinators, we typically see them coming in and calling the plays on top of all of the other responsibilities of a head coach. It is like a teacher being promoted to principal and saying that they will still teach their 4th grade class. It is a ton of responsibility, and can be overwhelming for a first year head coach. I promise that I will get to Vrabel in a second, but I believe that it is important to first establish that even though we all obviously want this offense to take the next step, innovation and flexibility does not only come from "hot" offensive coordinators.
Bringing it all back around to Mike Vrabel, I believe that he could prove this point. Despite being a defensive-minded head coach, all signs point to Vrabel being flexible and willing to adapt to situations. He played for Bill Belichick, who emphasizes preparation and being able to adapt. Unlike his assistant coaches who'd only seen Belichick in action, Vrabel lived it. He understands how Belichick's approach works through a player's eyes. While it may sound cliche, I believe that it's the difference between him and some of the other failed assistants to come out of New England. He will not try to be the next Belichick, but he will draw on those past experiences as a player. In an article recently published by Sports Illustrated, we were able to catch a glimpse of that previously mentioned drawing on his exprieinces, and how it translates to his coaching style:
When considering Vrabel or any coach’s philosophy, the process should be very similar to evaluating a quarterback out of college. When we considered Marcus Mariota, we looked at the overall traits, rather than the exact offense that was being run at Oregon, which only makes sense. Just like Mariota would be asked to do more in order to succeed at the next level, Vrabel will need to extend quotes like that to an overall philosophy that reaches both sides of the ball. After reviewing more of his own words that reflect his philosophy, I believe that he is well on his way to being that fresh, young, flexible guy that is able to maximize his players, which we are all looking for:
Player Development: When we reflect upon the Mularkey era, player development was a big negative. Outside of Kevin Byard, I have trouble naming a player that significantly developed over time. As Jon Robinson said, being able to “maximize” the talent will be important, and I believe that is directly related to player development. In terms of Vrabel, this appears to be one of his biggest strengths. The word on him out of Houston is that he was absolutely key to the development of the Texans’ linebackers, especially guys like Jadaveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Bernardrick McKinney. McKinney himself has credited Vrabel for his development, stating that “Coach Vrabel and all the coaches put the players in the right position to make plays. All I had to do was make tackles when they put me in a spot to make a play,” which essentially matches what Vrabel stated in terms of his coaching philosophy. Again, if Vrabel believes that this is the key to success and player development on the defensive side of the ball, it is a trait that should extend to all facets.
Locker Room Culture/Leader: Jon Robinson’s first words when asked about what he is looking for in the next coach were, “Leader of Men.” No matter who else is considered for this job, I believe that Vrabel will top the list in this regard. He was one of the biggest leaders in New England’s locker room for years, and will be able to make connections with all of the players. By all accounts, he is someone with a big presence who commands the room. I do not want to talk too much about other candidates, but when Josh McDaniels’ name was floated out there and when Mike Mularkey was ultimately fired, my biggest concern was about the locker room culture. After these past 2 years, we finally have a group that’s bought in, is team first, and has an established culture. I pictured veterans like Orakpo and Woodyard who were in Mularkey’s corner and have a big presence having to deal with McDaniels—who was described as a “little punk” by a former player—coming in with the same shtick that he came into Denver with. It painted an ugly picture. However, Vrabel will earn instant respect from these veterans and all of the players, given his pedigree and personality. I believe that Vrabel will be able to maintain the culture that was established by Mularkey, while being an upgrade as a coach in the ways that Jon Robinson wants.
Own Personality: Although previously mentioned, I want to touch on this again: Mike Vrabel does not seem like another coach that will try to be the next Bill Belichick. When Josh McDaniels was hired in Denver, his main issue was that he tried too hard to replicate Belichick. Reportedly, he even wore than same hoodie with cut-off sleeves to practices. On the other hand, Vrabel has a number of different coaching influences. He coached with Urban Meyer, played for Bill Cowher, and coached with Romeo Crennel. His father has also been a big coaching influence, according to those around him. Those around him and are familiar with his approach firmly believe that he will be his own coach. Ted Johnson who played with Vrabel and knows him well has stated as much in an interview on 104.5 The Zone. As a matter of fact, Vrabel himself stated in this video that how important it is to draw on your past experiences with great coaches, while still being yourself:
Potential Staff: This could be one of the biggest questions in terms of Vrabel. Who will be the offensive cooridnator? While on the surface, it seems as if he doesn’t have much of a network to develop a staff, I believe that he could make some good hires on both sides of the ball. Not only did he play with several guys that may have connections to potential coaches, he has coached on different levels to develop a network, as well. For example, he coached at Ohio State with Urban Meyer. While we may not know of any direct, one-on-one Buckeye connections, you better believe that Meyer could make a recommendation or 2 about innovative coaches on the offensive side of the football that can fit Mariota and the rest of the offense’s needs. I’m paraphrasing, but Jon Robinson said as much regarding the coaching search, saying that though he may not know some people in terms of a one-one relationship, he may know people who recommend a guy, which helps. Between Meyer, Belichick, O’Brien, and others that he’s crossed paths with, I believe that Vrabel will be able to explore several different avenues when it comes to creating his coaching staff. Albert Breer, who knows Vrabel well from his time in New England, stated this in an interview with 104.5 The Zone's 3HL:
The Robinson Match: I believe that Vrabel’s philosophy will match Jon Robinson’s. This was mentioned in Albert Breer’s article about the fit, but I believe it goes beyond personalities. We all know what Jon Robinson’s message is—passion, team first, love for the game. He’s said as much when talking about potential draft picks, and even when disucssing the next coaching hire. Now, consider what Vrabel is looking for in a player:
I understand that there are concerns, but like Jon Robinson said, everything is a risk. Some may bring up the Texans’ defense last year, but he was put in a rough situation with several injuries to key players like Watt and Mercilus. The team also lost their best corneback in A.J. Bouye. That being said, we are looking for the team to hire the best head coach, not the best defensive coordinator. When Mike McCarthy was hired by the Green Bay Packers, it was right after McCarthy's 49ers offense finish 32nd in the league in total offense. Sometimes, it goes beyond the unit you coached that year, because the prospect displays the key characteristics that you are looking for as a head coach. In terms of being too young in the coaching world, we saw the same thing when the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin. Again, I'm paraphrasing, but when asked if it was too soon to hire Tomlin, Dan Rooney stated that it was not, because they are looking for the right guy for the job now, and Tomlin would not be available next time they needed a coach. The bottom line is, sometimes you just know. In this case, I have a very good feeling about Vrabel.