Grading Mike Vrabel’s first three years as head coach

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Head Coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans on the field before a game against the Houston Texans at Nissan Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Texans defeated the Titans 24-21. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Head Coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans on the field before a game against the Houston Texans at Nissan Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Texans defeated the Titans 24-21. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /
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Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

Titans HC Mike Vrabel has flaws but is the man for the job.

Mike Vrabel was announced as the Tennessee Titans head coach on January 20, 2018, inheriting a team that was fresh off their first postseason win in over a decade. While it became a bit of a cliche, Vrabel’s objective upon hiring was simple: take this team from good to great.

The “good to great” evolution has yet to occur, but Vrabel has certainly teased his ability to build this team into a consistent contender. Now that we are officially three years, two playoff appearances, and one quarterback change into his tenure as Titans head coach, let’s complete a deeper evaluation on the job Vrabel has done since his arrival.

There are several factors that go into evaluating a head coach but, for the purpose of this article, we will focus on player and staff development under Vrabel, his game preparation, and his in-game management.

Player and staff development

While Vrabel did inherit a playoff team and, therefore, a playoff roster, the Titans young talent did need to improve in their overall production and playmaking. After his hiring, Vrabel wisely brought on Matt LeFleur to the Offensive Coordinator role, while naming veteran play-caller Dean Pees to oversee the defense.

LeFleur proved to be an intelligent hire, as he was named Head Coach by the Green Bay Packers after just one season in Tennessee. LeFleur spent 15 games of 2018 without Delanie Walker, the Titans best passing target, and managing an injured Marcus Mariota. His legacy may best be viewed through the lenses of Derrick Henry and Art Smith.

Henry’s game was significantly elevated during his final weeks with LeFleur, and then taken to even higher peaks following Art Smith’s promotion from Tight Ends coach to Offensive Coordinator. Smith continued to implement the offense that LeFleur installed and guided the Titans to averaging nearly 30 points per game in 2020.

I would be remiss to discuss offensive player and staff development without mentioning Ryan Tannehill. Vrabel made the gutsy, and correct, decision to replace a struggling Mariota nearly halfway through the 2019 season with Tannehill, and the Titans have been a completely different team since.

Tannehill has had a career resurgence since the QB change, going 18-8 as a starter and leading one of the most balanced offenses in football. While Vrabel had allowed Art Smith to run the offense, his decision to move on from Mariota changed the direction of this franchise.

With a background in defense and a career spent playing linebacker, one would assume that Vrabel would have a strong and positive impact on that side of the ball. Unfortunately, this past season raised more questions about Vrabel’s ability to produce a great defense than answers.

Dean Pees was the Defensive Coordinator for the 2018-2019 seasons, and led a “bend but don’t break” group that was the strength of a team that struggled to score points before Tannehill’s arrival.

While the defense may not have stuffed the stat sheet with gaudy sack or turnover numbers, Pees and the defensive staff built a confident, physical and disciplined unit that rarely looked overwhelmed by the challenges in front of them.

Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro formed one of the best safety duos in football. Jayon Brown continued his growth at ILB, and Rashaan Evans often flashed why the Titans invested a first round pick in his talents. Jurrell Casey continued to be the heart and soul of the defense, putting in a dominant 2018 season and coming on strong to close out 2019.

Pees’ defense provided memorable performances in the 2019 playoffs, holding the Patriots and Ravens to a combined 25 points in two January victories.

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The wheels came off in 2020, as Pees departed from his DC position, as well as secondary coach Kerry Coombs and inside linebacker coach Tyrone McKenzie. In what has been certainly his most questionable decision since becoming head coach, Vrabel chose against formally naming a defensive coordinator to replace Pees, inexplicably handing over those duties to struggling outside linebacker coach Shane Bowen. Coombs and McKenzie were replaced by two of Vrabel’s cronies, Anthony Midget and Jim Haslett, respectively.

This proved to be a disaster, as the Titans defense was its Achilles heel for the duration of the season. Very few players, if any, showed any sort of growth in 2020 while the majority regressed. A group that once rallied to the ball carrier and played through the echo of the whistle was pointing fingers, slow, and rarely on the same page. It resulted in a historically bad third-down defense and hamstrung the team’s Super Bowl aspirations.

Vrabel has seemingly learned from this mistake, as he’s already begun interviewing potential defensive coordinator candidates like Teryl Austin. His blatant misstep from last offseason, though, certainly does make it fair to wonder if he is capable of putting his ego aside and not be overly involved in the defensive day-to-day.

This evaluation is on his first three years, though, and not what the future may or may not hold. Considering the offense’s growth and the defense’s regression over the past season, I will give Vrabel a C+ grade in this aspect of coaching.