On the Monday that followed the Titans’ season-ending loss to the Colts in Week 17, head coach Mike Vrabel was asked to evaluate the job that he did in his first year with the team.
“I would say slightly above 500.”
That matter-of-factness is indicative of the kind of coach Vrabel proved to be in 2018. He cares about results, and he doesn’t put up with very much nonsense.
Despite the Titans falling short of a playoff berth in 2018, something the team did earn last year, the season can be considered a success from Vrabel’s point of view.
Vrabel on the biggest things he’s learned as a first-year head coach. pic.twitter.com/xBya9PcIde
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Steadying the Ship
Vrabel’s main success, perhaps, was the fact that the season wasn’t a complete disaster.
A lot of first-year head coaches look lost and overwhelmed. As a result, the team will waffle and be completely unpredictable from week to week.
The Titans completely avoided that situation in 2018, despite the football gods consistently trying to put them into it. No matter how much adversity the team faced, they remained tight-knit and legitimately competed in almost all of their games.
That response to adversity, something that Vrabel said during Training Camp would define the character of the team, starts at the very top with the head coach.
“I love Vrabes,” said quarterback Blaine Gabbert. “Just the energy that he brings day in and day out, the passion that he has for the game. He’s caring. He’s diligent in his work ethic. He cares about the guys on and off the football field. I really appreciate that. It’s been a lot of fun playing for him.”
The mantra of “players coach” is often thrown around without substance. It’s often used to simply refer to a coach who is liked by his players, which is pretty much any coach that isn’t a complete disaster.
That title is appropriate, however, for Vrabel. His ability to relate with players was a key element of his mostly-seamless transition last season.
Vrabel’s playing days came so recently—he retired less than a decade ago, in 2010—that one of his players last season, safety Kendrick Lewis, was a former teammate of his. Vrabel and Lewis were locker neighbors with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Instead of carrying the DB pads,” Lewis said, “I was always carrying Coach Vrabel’s pads.”
Beyond that relationship, Vrabel was able to create a closeness with his players thanks to a very hands-on approach.
In Training Camp, he could often be seen playing the role of an offensive lineman or perhaps serving as a tackling dummy. Before every game, Vrabel assisted defensive lineman DaQuan Jones in his warmup efforts by allowing Jones to rough him up a bit.
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“He’s very hands-on,” said running back Derrick Henry. “He’s relentless in his coaching. He wants to make sure you know what you’re doing. You know, he cares about his players.
“He’s resilient, and he’s very important to what we do because, though we go out there and make the plays, he made sure that we stuck together when things weren’t going our way. Us winning four straight and beating four playoff teams, that speaks volumes to the type of coach that he is.”
Another aspect of Vrabel’s ability to relate with players is the fact that he played pretty much every possible role when he was in the NFL. He was, at one time or another, a special teamer trying to make the roster, a firmly entrenched starter, a veteran leader, and an aging player being asked to change up his approach.
Vrabel spoke about that in his very first press conference after being hired, and it’s something that his players certainly took notice of.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for that man,” said tackle Taylor Lewan. “He’s been in every position, every seat in the league. I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a head coach. I think, as a player, it was unique and interesting to see him grow as a coach throughout the year.”
In earning the respect of veteran players like Lewan, Vrabel was able to earn the trust of the entire locker room. His ability to get players to buy into the message he was trying to sell, very early on, is a great accomplishment.
“I thought he did a really good job,” said tackle Dennis Kelly. “I think he was very confident in what he was doing, and that’s really what you need in a leader. The players bought in, and he definitely made everyone feel welcome. The team felt together.”
The best is yet to come.
The exciting thing about Vrabel for Titans fans is that his best is likely yet to come. He showed immense professionalism in a number of ways during his first season, and it seems likely that the mistakes he made, and there were plenty of them, will be corrected to some extent moving forward.
What was the biggest lesson Vrabel learned as a rookie head coach? “Don’t try to anticipate too much,” he said. “I think that things are always going to come up. Things are always going to happen that you maybe thought about, maybe tried to plan for, but didn’t. Be flexible. Be adjustable. Be able to adapt and be able to move on and continue to lead each and every day.”
Vrabel may not be one of the innovative offensive coaches that have become popular across the league, but he still has a great chance at having a successful career with the Titans nonetheless.