NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Being a head coach in the NFL doesn’t exactly lend itself to a great social atmosphere.
“Personal relationships tend to drift when you’re in the head coach position,” Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “That’s just how it goes. You don’t get invited to go out anymore when the assistants get together.”
Yet, relationships do play a major role for NFL head coaches, especially when it comes to hiring decisions. This has been especially true for Vrabel, who has often turned to familiar faces when filling assistant-coach vacancies, particularly the coordinator spots.
The one big exception, though, was Matt LaFleur, the immensely-successful current head coach of the Titans’ upcoming opponent who Vrabel hired to be the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2018 without having a prior relationship.
As Vrabel moves beyond 2020, he needs to look for his next LaFleur and, perhaps, even LaFleur No. 3 and No. 4.
VRABEL’S WELL OF FAMILIARITY
Vrabel on his former OC Matt LaFleur and what he’s done so far in GB:
“I think Matt’s learned a lot from his stops along the way. I respect what he’s done at his stops. When you come into a new place and win and have success I think it make buy-in easier.” pic.twitter.com/hRPifLAIcu
— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisWSMV) December 23, 2020
The Titans’ coaching staff is filled with men who had existing relationships with Vrabel when they came to Tennessee.
Outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen, QB coach Pat O’Hara and secondary coach Anthony Midgett worked with Vrabel when he was the Texans’ defensive coordinator in 2017.
Inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett coached Vrabel with the Steelers in the late 90s. Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees coached Vrabel with the Patriots.
When the Titans’ offensive coordinator spot opened in 2019 following LaFleur’s departure, he made an in-house hire and promoted Arthur Smith, then the team’s tight ends coach. After Pees retired, Vrabel turned to Bowen to call defensive plays.
It makes total sense that Vrabel has frequently gone to the well of familiarity when hiring coaches, especially since he’s still a very young head coach.
The world of an NFL head coach is, after all, filled with uncertainty, and hiring a familiar face allows a coach to latch onto some much-needed peace.
At a certain point, though, that well will run dry, and it’s looking like Vrabel may have reached that point.
Thanks to the prowess of the Titans’ offense, Smith seems likely to be whisked away over the offseason by a team who hires him as head coach.
There’s also probably a real chance that Vrabel takes the defensive-playcalling reigns away from Bowen in 2021, as the Titans’ defense has been a mess in 2020 and players continue to complain about communication deficiencies.
Unless there’s some mysterious untapped talent somewhere on the Titans’ coaching staff, Vrabel has likely run out of capable in-house options to replace either Bowen or Smith in 2021.
And unless he turns to someone incredibly unpopular like disgraced former Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, Vrabel is probably going to have to hire replacements that he doesn’t have prior relationships with.
That’s just fine, though. It’s actually quite a good thing.
Vrabel being forced to expand his horizons further than he already has will surely make the Titans better. Whether he turns to a veteran coach or young blood, adding a different viewpoint or two to the Titans’ staff is going to make him a better coach.
There’s an argument to be made that that’s exactly the impact LaFleur, Vrabel’s first “I don’t know you” hire, had during his one-year stint with the Titans.
LAFLEUR WITH THE TITANS AND BEYOND
LaFleur was one of three coaches the Titans interviewed in their 2018 head-coach search that led to Vrabel’s hire. When Vrabel got the nod as the head honcho, he turned to LaFleur to be his offensive play-caller.
“I didn’t know Mike prior to taking that job,” said LaFleur, who spent 2017 as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator in Los Angeles and had, at the time, never called plays in the NFL.
“I felt like I needed to take the next step in terms of my own growth, so I talked to Mike. I had a lot of respect for him watching him over the years as a player, and he’s a good person, so that made it easy.”
While LaFleur was far from revolutionary as the Titans’ offensive coordinator—the unit finished 27th in points—he made plenty of contributions, most notably a stunningly crafted gameplan that won the Titans an early-season game with Blaine Gabbert at QB.
He also likely would have fared a lot better had QB Marcus Mariota not been rendered ineffective by a bizarre nerve injury he sustained in the season opener.
In Green Bay, LaFleur has had immense success. His record currently stands at 24-6, and he’s helped superstar QB Aaron Rodgers return to vintage form.
Had he not been snatched away after just one season, LaFleur probably would have eventually broken through to reach great heights with the Titans. He also, along with Arthur Smith, laid the foundation for the Titans’ current offensive success.
This all goes to show that Vrabel is more than capable of working well with coaches with whom he doesn’t have a prior relationship.
And Vrabel knows that.
“I have a different relationship with everyone on our staff and on our team, that’s just how it goes,” he said. “There are players that I’ve known before and coaches that I’ve known before, but I’ve got to hold everyone accountable.”
Vrabel, though he’s not flawless, is a good head coach. He’s a good communicator who works well with others.
The next step for him will be to move away from the well of familiarity, something he’s done successfully in the past, a little bit more.
Cover image: Geoff Burke & Brad Rempel / USA Today