“The AFC South—brought to you by Bill Belichick” could be the official slogan for a division the Patriots coach built with his bare hands. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien was an offensive coordinator reared under Belichick in New England, and current Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels is expected to become the Colts coach after this season. One reason that the Patriots will face the Jags for a Super Bowl trip on Sunday is because Belichick gave Doug Marrone a “glowing recommendation” when Marrone was up for the Jags gig.
The Titans joined the party on Saturday, announcing they will be hiring Houston defensive coordinator and former Patriots standout linebacker Mike Vrabel to be their next head coach. Speaking to the Titans official website, Vrabel already sounds a bit Belichickian.
“We want to build a culture around winning, competitiveness, and toughness,” Vrabel said. “Everything we do is going to be geared towards winning and being physical. We want to prepare our players so they know what to do, which will allow them to play fast and aggressive.”
Vrabel played 14 years as a linebacker in the NFL between 1997 and 2010, eight of which came in New England, where he won three Super Bowls. In 2007, Vrabel made the Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro at linebacker, but he may be more well known for his part-time job as the best tight end of all time: Vrabel caught 12 passes in his career, all 12 of which went for touchdowns, two of which were in Super Bowl victories over the Panthers and the Eagles.
Like many great New England players who helped deliver the team Super Bowl success, Vrabel was traded by Belichick for a mid-round draft pick shortly after he peaked. Dealt to the Chiefs along with Matt Cassel for a second-round pick in 2009 (classic Pats trade), Vrabel finished his career in Kansas City, retiring in 2011 to coach linebackers and the defensive line at his alma mater, Ohio State. He spent three seasons in Columbus before O’Brien hired him to be the Texans’ linebacker coach in 2014.
Vrabel was promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2017 season, and the Texans defense promptly became trash. A year after finishing 11th in weighted DVOA, Houston finished as the 31st defense in 2017. That wasn’t entirely Vrabel’s fault: Linebacker Whitney Mercilus and defensive end J.J. Watt suffered season-ending injuries that severely hampered the unit, and the Texans offense didn’t make anything easier by turning the ball over on nearly 15 percent of their drives (sixth highest in the league).
Houston’s 2017 defensive showing is not the type of campaign that normally gets parlayed into a head-coaching job, especially when a coach has just one season under his belt (to put Vrabel’s rise in perspective, the man replacing him in Houston is Romeo Crennel, Vrabel’s coordinator in New England). But the Patriots connection is strong in Tennessee: General manager Jon Robinson spent 12 years in New England and was the director of college scouting when the Pats drafted Rob Gronkowski, 2017 league sack leader Chandler Jones, Julian Edelman, and Devin McCourty. Robinson, who overlapped with Vrabel, McDaniels, and Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in New England, reportedly was interested in hiring McDaniels, but ultimately lost him to the division-rival Colts. By adding Vrabel, Robinson is betting that the former linebacker’s #winning experience outweighs a bad but injury-riddled campaign in his year as a coordinator.
“I saw him up close as a player for the Patriots and saw how he prepared himself to be successful on a daily basis,” Robinson told the Titans site. “He was the ultimate team-first player and he embodies that same mind-set as a coach. He is intelligent, energetic, detailed, and a leader whose deep passion for this game will resonate with our players.”
Robinson fired Vrabel’s predecessor Mike Mularkey (after the Titans went back and forth on the decision approximately 700 times and nearly gave him a contract extension) in large part because he failed to properly use quarterback Marcus Mariota. Whether Vrabel will be able to translate the Patriots’ culture to Tennessee is a mystery (nobody’s been able to do it so far, and it’s not for a lack of trying), but developing Mariota needs to be at the top of his to-do list. Considering his relative inexperience as a coach, his lack of experience with QBs, and the construction project that is Tennessee’s offense, Vrabel will need a strong staff. Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie will almost certainly not return, so Vrabel will need to find someone who can maximize Mariota’s skill set.
By bringing in Vrabel, the Titans hope to import New England’s culture. A glance at the rest of the AFC South shows that the Patriot Way begins with a capable coaching staff.