Mike Vrabel's fast track to top job stirs questions on NFL hiring, but Titans coach embraces challenge
A little more than seven years since retiring from a distinguished career as an NFL linebacker and, well, essentially launching a new career in the coaching ranks on the same day, Mike Vrabel has the opportunity that some people spend a professional lifetime seeking.
Vrabel is the rookie head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Seems like yesterday he was demonstrating some sweet versatility by catching touchdown passes from Tom Brady in goal-line packages for the New England Patriots.
Now he’s poised to open the Titans’ offseason program oMonday as the man in charge, with just three years of college coaching experience and four years as an NFL assistant.
No wonder there was some grumbling in coaching circles when Vrabel, 42, replaced Mike Mularkey, awkwardly dumped after taking the Titans to the second round of the playoffs.
“I’ve heard that,” Vrabel said during the recent NFL meetings. “I’m curious. I don’t know.”
Fair or not, Vrabel’s high-profile gig with the Titans begins against a backdrop painted in privilege and potential.
Sure, his training as a player for 14 seasons in the NFL, bolstered by prime years under Bill Belichick, matters immensely. Belichick considers Vrabel one of the toughest players he’s ever coached, and there was no disputing his presence as a respected team captain. One of his former Patriots teammates, Richard Seymour, text-messaged Friday from Spain: “Vrabel is my guy!”
And there’s this from former all-pro cornerback Ty Law: “You can tell there are some guys who are just cut out to become coaches, and that was Mike. He was always a great student. He wasn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest, but he got it done with great preparation and was even able to play multiple positions. So it doesn’t surprise me at all to see where he’s at now.”
Still, it’s also fair to question whether Vrabel would have ascended to a top job so soon if not for Titans general manager Jon Robinson, another ex-Patriot, who worked in Belichick’s front office.
Connections matter in a league where there are varying ways of becoming a head coach – and such a traditional debate about fair opportunity that there’s a Rooney Rule.
Consider the path that Steve Wilks took in landing this year as the first-year Arizona Cardinals coach. No, Wilks didn’t play 14 seasons in the league. Like Vrabel, he served just one year as a coordinator. He also coached at eight colleges and had three stops on the NFL level.
Vrabel coordinated the injury-depleted Texans defense last season after three seasons as linebackers coach. Before that, he was a position coach at his alma mater, Ohio State … first hired by his former teammate and roommate, Luke Fickell, before being re-hired the next year by Urban Meyer.
“I’ve had a lot of great mentors,” Vrabel said. “One thing they told me is that, ‘You’re a lot better coach coming in than you are leaving.’ “
The Titans, who signed Vrabel to a five-year contract, clearly hope they have caught a rising star.
Look at how the Los Angeles Rams cashed in on potential after last year making Sean McVay the youngest coach in modern NFL history. McVay, 32, led the Rams to a division title and was named coach of the year. A little more than a decade ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers gambled similarly on untested Mike Tomlin, who, like Vrabel, had been an NFL coordinator for just one year.
In his second season, Tomlin (seven jobs, six stops before Pittsburgh) became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.
“Vrabel’s going to be fine,” Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “His pedigree is good. His upbringing with Belichick, Romeo (Crennel) and coach (Bill) O’Brien is going to fast-track him. He’s a difference-maker.”
Gruden was just 35 when hired as Raiders coach the first time, but by then had eight stops on his resume, including three seasons as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. He contends that Vrabel will easily grasp “all the peripheral things” involved in his transition.
“He’ll be a quick study,” Gruden insisted.
Vrabel knew during his playing career that he would someday pursue a coaching career, although he wasn’t sure if that would happen at the NFL level. He considers himself lucky to have had coaches impact his life as a player and a person, and was drawn to the possibility of having similar influence.
“Besides,” he wisecracked, “I wasn’t cut out to do anything else.”
It should help that Vrabel can relate as an ex-player and as a coach with recent time on the college level. For all of his insight into X’s and O’s, he also has a sense of how to connect with Millennials.
“They’re always on their phones,” he said. “But if you want to get a hold of them, you’d better text them. Calling is not the thing.”
It’s striking that John Wooten is also bullish on Vrabel’s potential. The chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance that monitors minority hiring in the NFL was disappointed that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Co. didn’t agree with his group’s conclusion that the Raiders violated the Rooney Rule during the process of hiring Gruden. Yet Wooten has no beef with the Titans for their process – or their ultimate selection of Vrabel.
“I think he’s going to be a heck of a coach,” Wooten said.
Wooten said he’s convinced of such, knowing Belichick’s imprint, which he likens to the manner in which legendary coaches Paul Brown and Bill Walsh passed on their philosophies.
“Everybody who has worked with Vrabel,” Wooten added, “swear that he’s ready.”
Vrabel chuckled when told of the positive expectations that contrast the early skepticism.
“As long as the players are excited,” he said, “then I’m excited.”
Especially while on such a fast track.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell