At his introductory press conference, new Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel made sure we knew about how much he loved football.
How deep is his love?
So deep that he was late for the birth of his own child.
Not only is Vrabel brand new to the head coaching fraternity, he’s fairly new to coaching altogether. At 42 years of age, the former NFL linebacker who played for the Steelers, Patriots, and Chiefs has barely dipped his toes into the coaching waters. He previously spent three years at Ohio State as a linebackers coach in 2011 and defensive line coach from 2012-2013 before spending three years as the Houston Texans’ linebackers coach.
Last season, Vrabel ascended to the role of defensive coordinator, and the Texan defense descended. Houston went from the 9th-ranked defense in 2016 to the 23rd-ranked defense, according to Football Outsiders. They went from allowing the 11th fewest points to allowing the most points.
Granted, Houston lost several key players to injury and free agency, but the fact remains that Vrabel’s lone season as a coordinator wasn’t a successful one.
Regardless of what happened last season, Vrabel enters the 2018 offseason in a foreign role. For the first time, it’s his responsibility to manage both a staff and roster. It’s a complicated job that requires countless hours of grueling preparation.
There are certainly more options, but here are three ways Vrabel can turn the Tennessee Titans into Super Bowl contenders.
Build Around Your Quarterback
Vrabel was having dinner with his family when his phone rang.
The person on the other line? Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Vrabel’s next move? Leave the dinner table. After all, Mariota is now more important than each individual member of Vrabel’s family combined. Times infinity.
The relationship between a quarterback and a head coach is essential. Every franchise yearns for a franchise quarterback because it’s the easiest path to long-term success. However, finding the right quarterback and pairing him with the right head coach is borderline an impossible task.
The level of chemistry between Vrabel and Mariota remains to be seen, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s a perfect match. Once that’s evident, Jon Robinson and the entire organization needs to go all in on building around Mariota.
As I mentioned before, sustained success in the NFL is largely dependent on who’s taking the snaps. The most successful teams of the past decade — the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and Atlanta Falcons — enjoy consistent success because they’re made the conscious effort to build around the most important position in sports.
Teams without franchise quarterbacks can still compete for Super Bowls in the modern era. The Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC Championship by 31 points behind the arm of Nick Foles, who out-dueled Minnesota’s Case Keenum. Jacksonville trotted out Blake freakin Bortles out every Sunday and still managed to make the AFC Championship.
In the absence of an elite signal caller, fluky championships are a possibility, but franchises that fail to invest in or around a franchise quarterback feature a brief Super Bowl contending shelf life.
Take a gander at Denver and Seattle. The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015 thanks to a historic defense. They then lost Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to free agency, leaving them with Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian. In a shocking turn of events, the Broncos are 14-18 over the past two seasons. From 2012-2015, they lost only 14 games.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks drafted a franchise quarterback in 2012 in Russell Wilson. At the same time, they also realized they had won the draft lottery by drafting a host of elite defensive players in the later rounds. Seattle then won a Super Bowl in 2013 by featuring a ton of upper-echelon players on cheap rookie contracts.
But when it came time to pay those players, what happened? Seattle decided to keep the band together on defense, and as a result, couldn’t afford to provide Wilson with enough help along the offensive line. From 2012-2014, the Seahawks went 36-12 and appeared in a pair of Super Bowls. Since 2015, they’re 29-18-1, a solid record, but have declined each season.
Whether Marcus Mariota is a franchise quarterback in the eyes of Mike Vrabel remains to be seen, but if he is, the Titans must play to Mariota’s strengths and invest heavily on the offensive side of the ball.
Adopt New England Principles
It’s easier said than done, but at some point, you have to wonder — why don’t teams make a concentrated effort to adopt significant components of New England’s model?
Vrabel played during under Bill Belichick during the first installment of the Patriots’ dynasty, winning three Super Bowls and coming one David Tyree miracle catch away from winning a fourth. During his time in Foxborough, he had to pick up on some of Belichick’s methods, right?
We’ll see. If he refuses to overpay players, that’s a step in the right direction. If he believes in releasing or trading a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late, that’s a step in the right direction. If he adopts the Belichickian attitude of never favoring one player over another, that’s a step in the right direction.
It seems logical to suggest that the other 31 NFL franchises jot down a few notes when evaluating the NFL’s all-time greatest dynasty. It’s likely every team does, but not at the appropriate level.
Since 2001, the Patriots have appeared in eight Super Bowls, 12 conference championships, won 27 playoff games, and recorded zero losing seasons. Next Sunday, they’re playing for their sixth Lombardi Trophy during the Brady-Belichick era.
Vrabel doesn’t have Tom Brady. However, he does have a quarterback who’s as humble and selfless as they come. One with unique athleticism and a lightning-quick delivery. Does Mariota have a rocket arm? Is he the most accurate thrower outsider the numbers? No and no. But he’s smart, poised, and accurate enough to make the necessary throws to win games.
Ditch the Get Off My Lawn Mentality
There’s no more overrated victory in sports than “winning the press conference.”
Vrabel literally could’ve walked up to the podium, revealed his diabolical plan to send the Earth into a nuclear winter and fans would clamor, “that’s my coach!”
However, what we can learn from press conference and interviews are his philosophies — and if Vrabel is going abide by some of things he has said, well, that could be a problem.
Here’s a notable thing Vrabel said about analytics recently:
Vrabel on @Midday180: Football has always used numbers to calculate the tendencies. Now analytics take us to next step, understand situations when are odds in your favor. Has to line up with my instincts. When in alignment, that’s when you use the numbers. #Titans
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) January 26, 2018
This quote sent me into hysteria.
As many would later point out, this is a perfect example of confirmation bias, and it’s the kind of close-minded attitude toward advanced metrics that get coaches fired. It’s like analytics are the meteor, and get-off-my-lawn coaches are dinosaurs.
Even more concerning is this quote:
“I believe that players are more important than plays, and it’s always going to be about that. It’s never going to be about the scheme.”
This is patently one of the most absurd comments I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Under no circumstances are players more important than scheme. Great plays can do more for mediocre players than vice versa, which has been proven time and time again.
The perfect example of a broken system leading to broken play is the 2015 Green Bay Packers. Luckily, Green Bay had Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, so they still managed to make the playoffs and win a playoff game. However, the team’s drop-off from its 2014 dominance to its 2015 struggles was staggering.
In 2014, Green Bay featured the top-rated offense, per Football Outsiders, and Rodgers won his second MVP, throwing 38 touchdowns to only five interceptions. The next season, Green Bay’s offense dipped to No. 11 in DVOA, and Rodgers had the worst full season of his career.
What happened? Green Bay’s broken sytsem was too dependent on Rodgers’ transcendent talent as a player as opposed to Rodgers’ transcendent ability to execute plays. This issue bled into the first half 2016 season before it was eventually resolved, but the overall point remains — even the best players, the greatest players this game has ever seen, are only as good as the systems they play in.
If Vrabel truly believes that the old-school philosophy of bronze over brains is the correct path, then the Titans will be searching for a new head coach (and general manager) in a few seasons.
However, if Vrabel adjusts this belief and puts 100-percent emphasis on scheme and players that fit said scheme, then we’re talking business, and potentially, Super Bowls.
Featured image via Titans Online