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Reviewing Mike Vrabel’s first season as Titans head coach

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How did the rookie coach perform compared to his predecessor and other colleagues? What does that mean for the Titans moving forward?

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Mike Vrabel arrived in Nashville with the rare opportunity to take over a team that had not only appeared in the playoffs the previous season, but won a playoff game. The message from Amy Adams-Strunk and Jon Robinson was clear, going 9-7, sneaking into the playoffs, and relying on an antiquated offense wasn’t going to cut it for this franchise.

However, that’s exactly what the Titans got in year one under Vrabel, minus the playoff berth of course. On the surface it would seem that the former All-Pro linebacker’s head coaching debut was a relative disappointment, but judging performance solely based on record ignores important context.

So let’s dive into that context and see if we can come to a conclusion on how we should view Mike Vrabel’s debut season.

Comparing the 2017 Titans to the 2018 Titans

The 2017 Titans finished 9-7 and snuck into the playoffs on the strength of their tiebreakers over the Chargers and Ravens, then completed one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history to beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead before wilting against the Patriots in the Divisional Round.

The 2018 Titans finished 9-7 and failed to reach the playoffs, losing the final game and finishing behind the Colts (10-6), the Chargers (12-4), and the Texans (11-5).

However, I’m here to tell you that the 2018 Titans had a much better season than the 2017 Titans. First, both teams went 9-7. The fact that the Colts and Chargers had better seasons than the wildcard contenders did in 2017 has absolutely nothing to do with the Titans performance as a team.

So taking the fact that the 2017 team made the playoffs off the board, let’s look at the facts surrounding the two seasons and how they compare.

Comparison of 2017 Titans and 2018 Titans

Category 2017 Titans 2018 Titans
Category 2017 Titans 2018 Titans
W-L Record 9-7 9-7
SOS 0.43 (T-31st) 0.53 (4th)
AGL 27.6 (3rd) 68.7 (11th)
Points Scored 334 (19th) 310 (27th)
Total Offense 5,024 (23rd) 5,002 (25th)
Turnovers 25 (23rd) 18 (7th)
Offensive DVOA -2.2% (18th) -5.1% (22nd)
Points Allowed 356 (17th) 303 (3rd)
Total Defense 5,248 (13th) 5,334 (8th)
Takeaways 21 (16th) 17 (22nd)
Defensive DVOA +5.0% (21st) +0.6% (19th)
Team DVOA -5.7% (18th) -4.9% (20th)
Point Differential -22 (16th) +7 (15th)
SOS = Stength of Schedule as calculated by opponent winning percentage. AGL = Adjusted Games Lost — a metric for counting injuries provided by Football Outsiders. Pro-Football-Reference.com and FootballOutsiders.com

The narrative the numbers layout is pretty clear. The 2017 Titans finished 9-7 against a schedule that tied with the Jaguars for the easiest in the entire NFL while benefiting from the third fewest games lost due to injury in the league. The 2018 Titans finished 9-7 against the NFL’s fourth hardest schedule while also facing significantly more injuries than they did the year before and improving their point differential by 29 points.

The difference in strength of schedule is reflective of the slate of quarterbacks the team faced in those seasons. In 2017, the team was fortunate enough to face five backup quarterbacks. The 2018 team saw just one backup passer.

So just how important is strength of schedule in the NFL? Consider this... only one team made the playoffs among the nine toughest schedules in the league — the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, who just barely slipped in as the last team in the NFC at 9-7. Out of the twelve teams that participated in the postseason, nine of them faced schedules in the bottom half of the league.

Unfortunately for Titans fans, things don’t look to be getting any easier on the schedule front in 2019. Tennessee is set to face the league’s 7th toughest slate based on 2019 Vegas win totals (a more accurate predictor of schedule difficulty than looking backwards at 2018 results).

Facing opposing quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, and Deshaun Watson in 8 of the 16 games will really put the Titans improved defense to the test. Even in the other 8 games there are few real breaks to be found, as one former MVP (Cam Newton), two former Super Bowl MVPs (Joe Flacco and Nick Foles), and two mercurial but talented former number one overall picks (Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston) await matchups with the Titans as well.

Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) is a metric that Football Outsiders publishes every year in an attempt to quantify injuries by team across the league. Not only were the number of injuries higher in 2018, but the impact of some of the injuries was much higher. Marcus Mariota’s well-publicized laundry list of physical ailments hampered him to varying degrees throughout the year, starting from the second quarter of the very first regular season game and ending with him missing the finale. In addition to Mariota’s season long battle with injuries, the Titans were without star tight end Delanie Walker all season and had several other top players miss games during the season, including Taylor Lewan, Jurrell Casey, Logan Ryan, Kenny Vaccaro, Jack Conklin, Dennis Kelly, and Jonnu Smith. Not counted among the injuries was the impact of losing the team’s top returning receiver when Rishard Matthews suddenly asked for his release just three weeks into the season.

I think it’s pretty hard to argue that the 2018 Titans weren’t better than the 2017 Titans when you consider the strength of schedule and injuries that the two teams faced.

Comparing Vrabel to other first year head coaches

Vrabel was one of seven head coaches hired last offseason along with Matt Nagy in Chicago, Frank Reich in Indianapolis, Steve Wilks in Arizona, Jon Gruden in Oakland, Pat Shurmur in New York, and Matt Patricia in Detroit. Here is how they stacked up in their first seasons on the job:

Nagy 12-4

Reich 11-5

Vrabel 9-7

Patricia 6-10

Shurmur 5-11

Gruden 4-12

Wilks 3-13

The Bears, Colts, and Giants improves their records compared to the 2017 season while the Raiders, Cardinals, and Lions finished with fewer wins than they had the year before.

I think it’s pretty fair to slot Vrabel comfortably in third out of this group behind Nagy and Reich based on the early returns, but it’s fair to point out that both Nagy and Reich got the benefit of superstar additions to their rosters. Nagy’s Bears added Khalil Mack — arguably the best defender on the planet not named Aaron Donald — while Reich’s Colts saw the return of a healthy Andrew Luck while also adding a First-Team All-Pro rookie guard in Quenton Nelson. The Colts and Bears also faced the 29th and 32nd toughest schedules in the league, respectively. I’m not saying that Nagy and Reich don’t deserve credit for the job they did — they absolutely do — but it’s important to consider the context around those teams as well.

Looking back further, Ryan Dunleavy of NJ.com put together some stats on the performances of first year head coaches from 2013 to 2017 and found the following information:

These 35 coaches went a combined 259-301 in their first season.

Ten of those 35 coaches had at least 10 wins in their first season. Seven had four wins or fewer.

The extremes were a 12-4 record on the high end and a 1-15 season on the low end.

Nine coaches earned playoff berths in their first full season, including three of the 2017 hires.

So Vrabel had the 13th best debut season out of the last 42 head coaches hired in the NFL. The 12 that finished with 10 wins or more is a total mixed bag that features a few good coaches like Andy Reid, Gary Kubiak, Bruce Arians, and Sean McVay, and a lot of bad to mediocre coaches like Jim Caldwell, Adam Gase, Todd Bowles, Doug Marrone, Ben McAdoo, and Chip Kelly, and two too-early-to-tell coaches in Nagy and Reich.

What about the best coaches of the modern era? How did they fare in their first seasons in charge?

Bill Belichick took the 1991 Browns to a 6-10 record in his first season as a head coach and then went 5-11 in his first season with the Patriots in 2000 (the Pats had gone 8-8 under Pete Carroll in 1999).

Carroll himself has had three different coaching debuts, going 6-10 with the 1994 Jets, 10-6 with the 1997 Patriots, and then 7-9 with the 2010 Seahawks.

Andy Reid has had multiple debuts as well, checking in at 5-11 with the Eagles in 1999 and then 11-5 with the Chiefs in 2013.

Most of the other top coaches came out strong right away in their first seasons. Sean Payton went 10-6 with the Saints in 2006, Mike Tomlin went 10-6 with the Steelers in 2007, John Harbaugh went 11-5 with the Ravens in 2008, Bruce Arians went 10-6 with the Cardinals in 2013, Sean McVay went 11-5 with the Rams in 2017.

Immediate success is certainly common among the top modern NFL coaches, but it’s not necessarily a requirement to reach those ranks.

Analytics analysis

I asked my friends over at EdjSportsone of football’s leading independent analytics firms — for their take on Vrabel’s first year from an analytics standpoint. Edj uses a Monte Carlo simulation model to analyze a team’s Game Winning Chance (GWC) at any point during a game based on the situation. Using that model they can measure how individual plays and coaching decisions — going for it on fourth down, going for two, or attempting a long field goal — impact their likelihood of winning the game.

The results weren’t very kind to Vrabel. Edj’s model calculated that the Titans first year coach gave up the fifth most GWC on critical decision making during the 2018 season. He fared only slightly better — 24th out of 32 — in their Coaching Composite rankings, being dragged down, in part, by Matt LaFleur’s 29th ranking in Offensive Play Calling Ranking.

Vrabel had some good moments with fourth down decision making. His three best decisions according to GWC were:

  1. Going for it on 4th and 1 at the Giants 1-yard line in Week 15. The call increased the Titans GWC by 4.7%. Derrick Henry punched it in for an early 7-0 lead.
  2. Going for it on 4th and 1 at the Texans 3-yard line in Week 12. The call increased the Titans GWC by 3.4%. Luke Stocker was stuffed for a turnover on downs.
  3. Going for it on 4th and 1 at the Eagles 26-yard line in Week 4. The call increased the Titans GWC by 1.5%. Marcus Mariota completed a short pass to Dion Lewis for an 11-yard gain, extending the drive.

Some might be surprised to find number two on the list of best calls — and I would certainly agree that giving Stocker the first and only carry of his football career in a critical spot was a head scratcher to say the least — but the thought to go for it in that situation is one that I stand behind despite the result.

Vrabel’s worst three calls based on Edj’s metrics were:

  1. Deciding to punt on 4th and 5 on their own 25-yard line with 3:21 left in the 4th quarter against the Jets. The call decreased the Titans GWC by 9.8%.
  2. Deciding to go for it on 4th and 2 at the Eagles 32-yard line with 1:17 left in overtime. The call decreased the Titans GWC by 9.1%.
  3. Kicking a field goal on 4th and 2 at the Redskins 15-yard line with 15:00 left in the 4th quarter. The call decreased the Titans GWC by 8.5%.

Ironically, the Titans ended up winning all three of these games despite calls that defied metrics. Edj added that they agreed with Vrabel’s controversial call to go for two at the end of the Chargers game, though they would have preferred a running play instead of a pass attempt.

We know that the Titans are at least using some level of analytics to assist with their decision making on game days. Vrabel mentioned to Peter King after the Eagles game that John Streicher — officially listed as Assistant to the Head Coach and also known as “Coach Stretch” — helps advise him on in-game decision making from the booth.

“Stretch has been valuable for me and our staff,” Vrabel said. “He advises me on replay, timeouts, the clock. In this case, even when the field-goal team was on the field for us, I thought we should go for the win. The odds of making a 50-yard field goal are probably slightly better than making a fourth-and-two at that point in the game against that defense. But I just thought of our players—they love going for it. I thought how tough Marcus was, and how much confidence I had in him. Plus, I guess ties help you, but I don’t know. We didn’t want a tie, even against a great team like this one.”

We also know that the Titans are using some sports science technology to do things like monitor work rate, speed, power, and exertion during practice. During last year’s training camp wide receiver Corey Davis was given multiple maintenance days with Vrabel explaining that Davis’ extraordinarily high exertion and work rate were pushing him past thresholds that made him susceptible to injury.

The Titans aren’t on the bleeding edge of the analytics and football technology movement, but they are making strides under Vrabel and Robinson’s leadership that we haven’t seen in previous regimes.

Conclusion

All things considered, it’s hard to look at Vrabel’s debut season as anything less than a success, even if there is some clear room for improvement. Who knows what might have been if Marcus Mariota was able to play in Week 17? The Titans had been playing their best football late in the season and had the ball near midfield down 24-17 in the 4th quarter of the Colts game despite Blaine Gabbert getting the start and playing like — well — Blaine Gabbert. It’s not hard to fathom a world where a healthy Mariota makes the difference in propelling the Titans into the playoffs.

There is a lot that goes into being a good coach in the NFL. In addition to making calls on gameday, head coaches are tasked with finding, selecting, and recruiting a coaching staff, managing the egos of athletes that often make more money than the coaches that are charged with leading them, interfacing and participating with both the college and pro scouting departments, inspiring effort from the team, and most importantly, helping develop those players and coaches into better versions of themselves. Vrabel and his staff have particularly excelled in that last phase in my opinion. We saw lots of major development over the course of the 2018 season from players like Derrick Henry, Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans, and Malcolm Butler. That’s probably the most encouraging aspect of Vrabel’s debut season to me.

The Titans head into year two of the Vrabel era with some reinforcements coming on offense, adding Rodger Saffold, Adam Humphries, A.J. Brown, and Nate Davis in the offseason while also welcoming back Delanie Walker. Those additions combined with a healthy quarterback, better play calling, and continued development from young players would go a long way towards helping Vrabel’s charges go from good to great in 2019.