As Titans keep winning, Mike Vrabel looking more like a brain in jock's clothing | Estes
Urban Meyer was once like all the others when it comes to Mike Vrabel the coach.
The player, people already knew about. Here’s this famous linebacker, fitting in seamlessly in a locker room, one of the guys, outgoing, funny. Kind of a jock, basically.
But was he really suited to be a wonderful coach? Initially, Meyer had to wonder.
Vrabel, in fact, said he “bombed” his first interview with Meyer at Ohio State, a story the Titans’ coach later recounted to Mike Keith. Meyer, though, called Vrabel back and ended up retaining him as an assistant on his first Buckeyes’ staff.
“He said that Mike soon showed him that he's not just some spoiled pro guy. … ‘No, he’s a great football coach,’” said Vrabel’s former high school coach Gerry Rardin, recounting a conversation with Meyer.
Most coaches who are around Vrabel end up with the same impression, Rardin added.
“Bill Belichick told me personally that Mike Vrabel was the smartest football player he's ever coached,” Rardin said. “… His football acumen is just through the roof, I believe. He was like that in high school.”
As the Titans keep winning, starting 5-0 after nearly reaching the Super Bowl last season, much of the credit is understandably going to quarterback Ryan Tannehill or running back Derrick Henry or the emergence of rising stars like receiver A.J. Brown or defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.
Not to say that misses the mark. It doesn’t.
But often overlooked about the Titans’ growing success is Vrabel's role as a strategist and not just some muscle-headed former player who yells a lot and kicks tails.
That’s why I find what happened Sunday afternoon to be so amusing.
Vrabel won’t admit to this, but I personally have no doubt that he deliberately sent Joshua Kalu into the Texans game as a 12th defender to draw a penalty on second-and-1 and conserve time by stopping the game clock with 3:05 to play and the Titans trailing by a point.
After the Texans did score, those 30-40 seconds Vrabel saved — trading time for 5 yards and a first down the Texans were likely to pick up anyway — allowed the Titans a chance to drive and score the game-tying touchdown with four seconds remaining before winning in overtime.
Vrabel’s penalty, in that sense, won the Titans the game.
Yet it was so perfectly orchestrated that it was entirely misunderstood at the time. CBS analyst Rich Gannon criticized Vrabel on the broadcast, calling it “an unforced error, a big mistake.”
Asked about his intent Monday, Vrabel played coy. He didn’t say yes or no, offering only that, “We have to do a better job with penalties” and “Second-and-1, trying to get them to try to make a stop there and substituted in an extra DB.”
Did Vrabel mean to do it? Of course, he did.
Pretty sure he didn’t suddenly feel that crunch time of a divisional game was the time to get Kalu some defensive snaps. Pretty sure, too, that he wouldn’t have ignored veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph looking over at him incredulously, as the broadcast showed, with an expression of "What are you doing?"
And as football analyst Warren Sharp — who deserves credit for ringing the bell loudest on Vrabel’s ploy — pointed out on Twitter, Vrabel did the same thing against the Jets in 2018. That game, the Titans also won, scoring a touchdown in the final minute of regulation.
It’s playing chess, not checkers. On the fly, it’s brilliant, something that very few head coaches at any level would have thought to do.
For that, Vrabel deserves applause. It was a huge factor Sunday in the Titans saving a game that seemed lost.
As a columnist, I don’t always agree with Vrabel. I’ve been critical, for example, of his decision to not hire a defensive coordinator to replace Dean Pees, essentially taking on the role himself. That’s a lot for a head coach — too much, I’d argue — and the Titans’ defense has regressed so far this season. That’ll be on Vrabel to fix for this team to turn its fast start into a big finish.
Vrabel has done some learning on the job these past two seasons. If you think back to when the Titans first hired him, there were concerns about his lack of experience as a head coach.
“But people that knew him,” Rardin said, “they had no doubt at the time that Tennessee was getting a steal.”
Like many, I’ve grown to agree, viewing Vrabel more for what he is: A brain in jock’s clothing.
If others around the NFL haven’t figured that out yet, they will.
Reach Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.