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Mike Vrabel’s first season as Titans head coach was a success despite falling short of the playoffs

Tennessee’s rookie coach overcame a lot of adversity to get his team to the doorstep of the playoffs.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans were hoping for a step forward in 2018 after parting ways with Mike Mularkey and his coaching staff following a playoff win and back-to-back 9-7 seasons. Mike Vrabel’s initial season as head coach didn’t provide that step forward in the win-loss column. His Titans finished 9-7, missing the playoffs by just one game.

However, not all 9-7’s are created equally.

Mularkey’s 2017 Titans played the second easiest schedule in the NFL with an opponent winning percentage of 0.465. Vrabel’s 2018 team played the fourth hardest schedule in the league with an opponent winning percentage of 0.530.

A big part of the change in schedule is due to the return of Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck in the AFC South. Where Mularkey got Watson once, Tom Savage once, and Jacoby Brissett twice, Vrabel got two games each against Watson and Luck.

Mularkey’s Titans were also one of the healthiest teams in the NFL. Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric ranked them as the third healthiest roster in the league behind the Rams and Falcons. While AGL hasn’t been released for 2018 yet, I would venture to guess that the Titans won’t end up as one of the top three healthiest teams this season.

Tennessee lost Johnathan Cyprien, Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith, Jack Conklin, Logan Ryan, and Jurrell Casey to season-ending injuries at various points of the season. They also were without Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Dennis Kelly, Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Wesley Woodyard, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, and Kenny Vaccaro for at least one game each at different points in the year. On top of all that, Marcus Mariota struggled with nerve issues throughout the season, missing two full games and parts of four others. When he did play all the way through, he was often limited.

In addition to injuries, Vrabel and his staff also had to deal with some pretty significant off the field challenges during his first year. Thanks to lightning strikes near the stadium, the Titans played in the longest game in NFL history in Week 1 in Miami. They also navigated the franchise’s first trip to play in London, had a key starter quit midseason, and dealt with their defensive coordinator having to be rushed to a hospital with a medical emergency during a game. That’s a lot to deal with for any coach.

Vrabel and his staff also stole some wins along the way. The Titans probably shouldn’t have beaten the Texans and Jaguars early in the season with Blaine Gabbert starting behind a patchwork offensive line, but smart, well-executed gameplans helped secure two crucial AFC South wins. Going for it on 4th down against the Eagles in field goal range allowed them to get the win instead of a tie against the defending Super Bowl champs. Vrabel would outcoach his former coach, Bill Belichick, later in the season.

It wasn’t all perfect. The call to pass the ball on the two-point conversion try against the Chargers was questionable at best. The staff seemed to take a long time to figure out that Derrick Henry was their best back. There were moments when the offensive playcalling was baffling (that’s not necessarily on Vrabel directly, but Matt LaFleur ultimately works for the head coach).

The positives outweigh the negatives for me though, especially when you consider the context. I largely agreed with most of Vrabel’s decision making in game situations — with a few exceptions, but not many — and the team seemed to really take to him quickly after a transition from a well-liked coach in Mularkey. The “Leader of Men” description rang true throughout his first season.

The Titans were disciplined under Vrabel. They finished the season as the least penalized team in the NFL, getting flagged just 82 times for 727 yards. The next closest team was called for 92 penalties. The most penalized team — the Chiefs — were whistled 137 times.

The biggest positive for me, however, was the fact that the team got better as the season went on. That’s often a mark of a well-coached football team. Before their Week 8 bye, the Titans averaged 15.1 points per game and 281.9 yards per game on offense. After the bye, they averaged 22.7 points per game and 336.9 yards per game. The defense allowed 18.1 points per game and 338.7 yards per game before the bye and then 19.6 points per game and 329.2 yards per game after the bye. The Titans would finish 6-3 down the stretch despite playing five of their last nine against playoff teams.

Vrabel got just about everything I think he could out of this team in 2018. Now he faces the challenge of breaking through that 9-7 glass ceiling the Titans have bumped up against the past three seasons. Based on the results of his first season, the Titans should feel good Vrabel’s chances of doing that and more.