If Mike Vrabel is as accurate at coaching decisions as his career reception-to-touchdown ratio, the Titans will have no regrets about this hire. Vrabel, after all, stated in a recent press conference that he wants to take the Titans to the next level.
After a 9-7 season and an early playoff exit despite astonishing talent on the roster, Titans General Manager Jon Robinson and team owner Amy Adams Strunk decided to move in a different direction going forward.
Vrabel has years of defensive experience under his belt. But will his experience translate to the biggest stage in football?
The former Ohio State great is a disciple of the Bill Belichick tree. Well, sort of. Vrabel became a Super Bowl champion under Belichick. Though he never served as an assistant under the famed head coach, he found ample success. He absorbed knowledge right from the hand that fed him for eight seasons.
While the ex-player has no head coaching experience and little assistant coaching experience, the Tennessee Titans decided to gamble on the 42-year-old former New England Patriots linebacker.
Vrabel, in one season as the defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, masterminded a defense virtually glued together last season after injuries to star player and defensive anchor, J.J. Watt.
The Texans defense remained in the middle of the pack for the majority of the 2017-18 season while losing several key players on that side of the ball. Vrabel impressively demonstrated his ability to progress and not regress as the season progressed.
Boasting a less than impressive 3-4 record and having lost its budding franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, the Texans turned to Vrabel to mitigate losses on defense – exactly what he did with the resources provided.
The Texans only won one game after Deshaun Watson went down with an injury in practice following a career-best game against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Texans offense only mustered three games with at least 225 passing yards or more after Watson went out for the season. Out of the final nine games, the Texans ran for 100 or more yards in only one game.
Stagnant and unable to move the ball, the offense disappointed. The defense cannot be blamed for poor performance.
Vrabel leaned heavily on young talent like Zach Cunningham, a rookie linebacker out of Vanderbilt drafted in the second round. Cunningham, a key piece to the defense, was thrown into the fire in the season-opener.
Vrabel found another key piece to the defense with the development of Jadaveon Clowney. Clowney recorded 9.5 sacks while being double-teamed with Watt out of the lineup.
Vrabel’s ability to recognize and develop talent on the defensive side of the ball is promising for the Titans.
Houston finished 17th in scoring defense and 14th in average rushing yards on the season.
The Texans offense only had one rush over 20 yards all season from the running backs, so Vrabel and the defense get a pass for many of the defensive woes, simply because the offense was so lackluster.
While Vrabel has such a small sample size to demonstrate his coaching performance, the utilization of older veteran and younger players is certainly promising for the Titans.
With the defense Vrabel inherits, the offensive side of the ball will need slight tweaks from a nine-win team to be successful going forward. Star safety Kevin Byard will play a vital role in Vrabel’s defense.
Vrabel went on record saying he will vet the current staff carefully. Vrabel relieved Dick LeBeau of his duties as the defensive coordinator, a sign that he wishes to take a more youthful route.
The new head coach will only be as good as the staff he hires.
Vrabel filled the defensive and offensive coordinator positions with the draft nearing. Vrabel assigned Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to the full-time offensive coordinator position.
LaFleur, a 38-year-old offensive guru, built Jared Geoff from the ground up into a “worst-to-first” player from 2016-17. After leaving the previous Super Bowl runners-up Atlanta Falcons and working with Matt Ryan as the quarterbacks coach, LaFleur had no issues with Geoff’s development.
LaFleur coached and developed players like Matt Ryan, vintage Robert Griffin III and keyed a big role in the development of Kirk Cousins, who bloomed into an NFL star. LaFleur’s latest project, Geoff, led the No. 1 offense in 2017-18. LaFleur also made previous stops as quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame and the Washington Redskins.
Vrabel went on record saying he will not hire his buddies. He insisted he doesn’t “have many of them.” The new head coach also knows the spotlight doesn’t last long in the NFL.
“I want to put together a great staff, and I am not rushing that,” Vrabel said. “You only get so many cracks at this thing.”
He also hired Dean Pees as defensive coordinator. Pees, who retired less than a month ago, decided to return to coach alongside one of his favorite ex-players.
Vrabel played for Pees in New England many years ago. Pees’ defense was the only squad to finish in the top 10 in scoring defense during his tenure. Vrabel hopes to keep the defensive scheme the Titans currently have in place, a 3-4 style defense – as this is the defense in which Pees has expertise.
If Vrabel tailors the offense around franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota, what Mike Mularkey failed and refused to do, he could find great success in Nashville.
Edited by Ben McKee
Featured image courtesy of Outside The Lines