The Tennessee Titans coaching search ended almost as suddenly as it began Saturday night as news of Mike Vrabel’s hire broke on Twitter.
Most of us were expecting the Titans to at least wait until next week to — hopefully — get a chance to interview Eagles assistants Jim Schwartz, Frank Reich, and my personal favorite John DeFilippo. However, Jon Robinson’s quick decision tells me that he is all in on Vrabel as his guy. That’s a good thing.
Trevor put together a really good post a few days ago giving his reasons for backing Vrabel as the man for the job, and you can also check out good articles from Albert Breer and Peter King about the Titans new coach. While I have been a proponent of DeFilippo from the start, I think this choice feels like a win for the Titans. Vrabel is extraordinarily well respected around the NFL and seems to absolutely fit the “leader of men“ criteria Robinson set out in his initial press conference. However, ultimately the decision of whether Vrabel was a good hire will come down to wins and losses on the field.
The next big question will be who will make up Vrabel’s first coaching staff in Tennessee? Particularly the offensive coordinator who will be charged with designing and calling an offense to fit Marcus Mariota. You have to imagine that Vrabel had a very specific plan in place for this hire when he interviewed on Thursday. It no doubt would have been among Jon Robinson’s most critical questions and he must have felt like his coach knocked it out of the park.
Care to join me in some wild speculation about who that hire and other potential staffers might be? I would expect his staff to have heavy influence from both the Bill Belichick coaching tree and the Urban Meyer coaching tree given his past experience.
Matt LaFleur - This is both the most likely and best case scenario to me. While I was lukewarm on LaFleur as a head coaching prospect, its hard to imagine a better fit than him as an offensive coordinator. His quiet, calm personality would seemingly mesh extremely well with Marcus Mariota’s similar dimeanor.
As a former quarterback himself, LaFleur has spent much of his NFL coaching career working with signal callers with great success. He was Robert Griffin’s quarterback coach during his incredible rookie season — and has been credited with helping Kirk Cousins’ career get on the right track from the start. He helped take Matt Ryan’s game to another level in Atlanta, peaking with his MVP season in 2016. And of course this year he helped completely transform Jared Goff from a punchline in to a fringe MVP candidate.
Part of LaFleur’s success gets lost in the brilliance of his mentors — Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan — but then again it says something that Shanahan has repeatedly trusted LaFleur to work with the most important position group in his offense and seen great success.
The Titans interviewed LaFleur on Friday so they must have had some interest in the Rams young offensive coordinator. Since LaFleur doesn’t call plays in LA — McVay handles that responsibility himself — and is not reported to be in the running for the Cardinals vacant head coaching position, it is quite possible that he could be convinced to join Vrabel in Nashville for the opportunity to get experience as a playcaller added to his growing resume. Media in LA seem to think McVay would allow LaFleur the chance to leave if he could call plays elsewhere so this is a real possibility.
The biggest reason for my belief that LaFleur is the guy is simply the timing. For Robinson to pull the trigger this quickly I have to believe that Vrabel not only had a specific and actionable plan for who his most important hire, but that they felt like they needed to move quickly to get him. This would be a slam dunk hire if he’s the guy.
John DeFilippo - Coach Flip is one of just two potential head coaches — along with Steve Wilks — that has scheduled a second interview with the Cardinals so far so it seems like he is very much in play to land in the last available musical chair in Arizona. I like what this guy brings to the table and would love him working here in Tennessee with Marcus Mariota after seeing what he did for Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. If he doesn’t land the Cardinals head coaching job — or end up there as part of a package deal with Wilks — he would immediately become an enticing possibility. The Eagles can’t block a move since his contract is up at the end of this season.
Again, there is no obvious link to Vrabel with Coach Flip, but there doesn’t have to be for him to end up getting the gig. This would be the ideal landing spot for a young offensive coach looking to put himself in a spot to get a head coaching job in the near future. You are inheriting an offense with a boat load of potential and it seems nearly impossible to imagine Marcus Mariota not having a statistical rebound from his tough 2017 and the new OC is going to have a chance to take a big part of the credit for that.
Todd Haley - Haley is an incredibly polarizing figure. He’s a very good offensive coordinator, but he also has a... umm... let’s say... difficult personality which is ultimately what cost him his job in Pittsburgh. While working for the Steelers he had multiple offensive coaches who reportedly decided to leave the Steel City for lateral jobs just because they didn’t want to deal with Haley any more. Throw in his well-publicized spats with stars Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and whatever allegedly happened with him on New Years Eve less than a month ago and you can start to see why he was not retained.
Haley is, on the other hand, the most experienced and successful offensive coordinator on the market. You may not like him, but I don’t think its much of a coincidence that Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown both saw their careers take off under this guy.
Vrabel has a direct tie with Haley as well, finishing his playing career as a linebacker for the Todd Haley-led Chiefs in 2009 and 2010. That would make for an interesting fit as Vrabel would essentially be able to turn the offense over to the veteran Haley while also getting the added benefit of getting a former head coach on the staff for him to lean on as he confronts the inevitable bumps in the road as a rookie head coach. The other side of my brain still worries about Haley’s abrasiveness and how that could tear down some of the positive vibes and culture the team has built over the past two years.
Sean Ryan - Ryan is currently the Texans quarterbacks coach. He just wrapped up his second year with the team after coaching wide receivers there in 2016. Obviously the big feather in Ryan’s cap is his work with Deshaun Watson this year, however he also served as Odell Beckham Jr.’s position coach during his incredible rookie season in New York.
Ryan has interviewed for the Browns open offensive coordinator position already this offseason and seems likely to be moving on from the Texans soon to get a chance to run his own offense outside of Bill O’Brien’s shadow. However, he’s never called plays before or even been an offensive coordinator at any level so this would be a pretty big leap of faith for Mike Vrabel to make with his most important hire.
George Godsey - Godsey worked for the Lions in 2017 with the job title: defensive assistant/special projects. So what’s he doing under potential offensive coordinator candidates?
Godsey broke in to the NFL in 2011 with the Patriots as an offensive assistant and then was promoted to tight ends coach in 2012 and 2013, working with a young Rob Gronkowski. He joined Bill O’Brien in Houston as quarterbacks coach in 2014 before being promoted to offensive coordinator for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He was let go following the 2016 season due to a bad offense holding back a dominant Texans defense. However, it also has to be noted that Brock Osweiler will make any coordinator look bad.
Vrabel is very familiar with Godsey from their time together in Houston and will have had an up close and personal view of his work there. He was also considered to he a top candidate for Alabama’s offensive coordinator position last offseason which shows he has the respect of the Belichick/Saban alliance. (If you haven’t read Jenny Vrentas’ piece on Belichick and Saban’s relationship, stop everything you’re doing, click here, and enjoy.)
Godsey has coordinator experience so I put him up here, but I think it is more likely that he could catch on as an assistant under Vrabel’s OC choice.
Ryan Day - Day is currently Ohio State’s co-offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. He is a former quarterback who played under Chip Kelly at New Hampshire. Before joining Meyer’s staff at Ohio State this season, he served as Kelly’s quarterbacks coach in his last season with the Eagles and his one year with the 49ers. His work with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco was pretty impressive, but the Meyer connection is what lands him on this list. He is probably not ready to be an NFL offensive coordinator right now — although his work with Ohio State’s offense in 2017 was very good — so the question is whether he wants to take a lesser role as a quarterbacks coach again to get back in the NFL or if he would rather continue moving up the college ranks.
Darrell Bevell - The recently fired Seahawks offensive coordinator came from a background as a quarterbacks coach prior to getting his first OC gig with the Vikings in 2006. His outstanding work with Russell Wilson in Seattle — when Wilson was drafted Pete Carroll called him “Bevell’s project” — had him on the short list for a head coaching job as recently as last offseason. However the tables turn fast in the NFL and one missed playoff appearance later, Bevell suddenly found himself out of a job. He doesn’t seem to be generating much interest for another OC position so Bevell is now reportedly in consideration to go to Atlanta as their quarterbacks coach and he might be open to the same position here, although he and Vrabel have no known ties.
Luke Fickell - Fickell is currently the head coach at the University of Cincinnati, a position he took over last offseason after five strong years as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Vrabel and Fickell’s ties run deep as they first met over 20 years ago when Fickell hosted Vrabel on his recruiting visit to Ohio State. The two played alongside each other on the Buckeye defensive line for four years in the early 90’s and then re-united when Fickell — then acting as head coach after Jim Tressell’s resignation — hired Vrabel in 2011. There is a pretty good article here with some quotes about Vrabel and his lifetime desire to be a coach.
Fickell went 4-8 in his first year as head coach at Cincinnati. If he has any interest in coaching in the NFL this could be the opportunity for him to make a jump. While his lack of NFL experience makes him a somewhat risky pick, Vrabel is going to want someone he can trust running his defense and I would imagine there are few coaches that he trusts more than Fickell. This is an interesting name to watch.
James Bettcher - Bettcher has served as the Cardinals defensive coordinator under Bruce Arians for the past three years and quietly put together defenses that ranked 3rd, 3rd, and 4th in the NFL according to DVOA. He is still considered to be in the running for the Cardinals open head coaching position — and carries Arians endorsement for the gig — but if the Cardinals decide to go elsewhere for their hire, the 39 year old Bettcher would suddenly be available. He has no direct ties to Vrabel, but does run a similar style defense.
Brian Flores - I actually had a full write up on Flores as a dark horse candidate almost finished when news of Vrabel’s hiring splashed across my screen. The Patriots linebackers coach is considered a rising star in the NFL and is currently reported to be “in the mix” for the Cardinals head coach position as well. He is just 36 years old, but has worked for the Patriots since he was 23, starting as a scouting assistant, getting promoted to a pro scouting position, and then trasitioning in to coaching where he’s served as an offensive assistant, a special teams assistant, and a safeties coach before taking his current position.
He was the coach most credited with helping Devin McCourty transition from a struggling cornerback to a two time 2nd Team All-Pro safety. This year he has held together a patchwork linebackers group to help the team reach the AFC Championship game despite a season ending injury to star linebacker Dont’a Hightower. He also was responsible for coordinating the Patriots outstanding red zone defense — fact that this is a distinct job in New England tells you about the importance Belichick places on the red zone. The Patriots allowed just 3.94 points per red zone trip in 2017, good for 2nd in the NFL, despite being swiss cheese between the 20’s. Here is a good read on the success of their red zone defense this year.
Flores’ time with the Patriots in both the scouting department and coaching staff overlapped with both Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel’s tenures in New England so this would be a natural fit. The complication — in addition to his candidacy for the Cardinals head job — is that Flores is largely considered to be the “defensive coordinator in waiting” for the Pats and would be unlikely to leave for a DC job elsewhere if sticking around gets him a promotion when Matt Patricia leaves for Detroit at the end of the season. He also may get the opportunity to follow Patricia to the Lions as his defensive coordinator there. My guess is that Flores ends up somewhere else.
Romeo Crennell - I don’t think Crennell will be the guy here. All reports seem to indicate that he will slide back in to his former role as Texans defensive coordinator now that Vrabel has departed. While it would be a major win for Vrabel to bring Crennell with him, I can’t imagine Bill O’Brien giving clearance for that to happen.
Dick LeBeau - Vrabel could opt for keeping the Titans current defensive coordinator on board as well. He offers the benefit of giving some continuity in the coaching staff and he is universally respected by the players. He also would give Vrabel a former NFL head coach to help bounce things off of. LeBeau’s defense seemed to show progress in 2017, particularly in the secondary, and his scheme isn’t that much different than what Vrabel called in Houston.
Pepper Johnson - The former Buckeyes and Giants great spent 14 years coaching with Bill Belichick in New England working the defensive line and linebackers, including a few years as Mike Vrabel’s position coach. In 2014, Johnson left the Patriots to join Doug Marrone’s staff in Buffalo. When Marrone opted out of his contract after that season, Johnson caught on with Todd Bowles’ Jets staff and spent two seasons there working with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams during his time there. He struggled to manage the big personalities in that room despite their success on the field and ended up being let go by the Jets before the 2017 season. Johnson sat out last year, but could see this as an opportunity to get back in to NFL coaching with a man he knows well.
Larry Izzo - Vrabel’s former teammate with the Patriots served as the Texans special teams coordinator for the past two seasons, but was dismissed following a poor showing from Houston’s special teams units in 2017. Izzo and Vrabel’s tenure in New England lasted 8 seasons together in the linebacker room for the Patriots so these two know each other well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Izzo pop up on his first staff in Nashville in some capacity, even if its not in his previous role.
Steve Hoffman - Hoffman was the Titans special teams coordinator in 2017 and his path crossed with Vrabel’s during the head coach’s playing career as well. Hoffman was the Chiefs special teams coordinator when Vrabel played two seasons there in 2009 and 2010. The special teams performance was one of the bright spots of the Titans 2017 season so hopefully Hoffman gets a chance to come back.
Charles London - London served as the Texans running backs coach for the past four seasons, but left to go join Matt Nagy’s new coaching staff in Chicago. With Vrabel getting a head job, its possible that he gives London a call to see if he might prefer working with Derrick Henry instead. London actually spent a season in Nashville in 2011 as a quality control assistant on Mike Munchak’s staff.
Wes Welker - Welker joined O’Brien’s staff in Houston in 2017 as an offensive assistant, his first season as a coach. He played with Vrabel during his time as a Patriots receiver and its possible that Vrabel offers him the chance for a bigger role on his staff in Tennessee.
Vince Wilfork - This is a pretty big reach, but the jumbo sized former Patriots and Texans nose guard (and barbecue officianado) was one of Vrabel’s biggest supporters on social media shortly after the hire was announced, saying that the Texans “just lost the best coach they ever had” and offering up his services as defensive line coach via Instagram (where all great coaching hires are made). This is almost certainly just a guy getting excited for his friend and mentor though as Wilfork has explicitly said previously that he “never wants to coach” despite his natural leadership skills. It is fun to think about though.
So what’s your dream Vrabel staff? Did I miss anyone that you think would be a good fit?
I personally guarantee that I got at least one of these coaches right. If not, I’ll give you your MCM bucks back.