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Mike Vrabel Lost a Power Struggle in Tennessee. Another Team Can Win by Hiring Him.

The 2024 NFL coaching carousel got a surprise addition when the Titans fired their coach two days into their offseason. Vrabel now becomes the league’s hottest coaching candidate, while the Titans start rebuilding.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the night of the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, the Tennessee Titans made a choice about who they wanted to be. Then-GM Jon Robinson traded away star receiver A.J. Brown, whom the team had lowballed in contract talks and failed to reach an agreement with, to the Eagles in exchange for the 18th pick. The Titans then used that pick to draft Brown’s replacement, Treylon Burks. The move was a high-profile microcosm of that offseason’s philosophy in Tennessee. The Titans, who also received a third-rounder in the Brown deal, were coming off a campaign in which they had been the no. 1 seed in the AFC, but instead of trying to hang on to the nucleus of that team and remain competitive for as long as possible, the Titans decided they wanted to get younger and cheaper at key positions.

This was, in most ways, an act of responsible team building. The 2021 Titans had not been as good as their 12-5 record indicated, and cornerstone players like quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry were only getting older. Good GMing often means tolerating a little short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s called rebuilding.

There was just one problem: Head coach Mike Vrabel never appeared to be sold on the plan. And now, he’s gone.

On Tuesday, Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk fired Vrabel, the first major surprise turn on the 2024 NFL coaching carousel. Based on Vrabel’s job performance, the move is hard to explain—he had a 56-48 record in six seasons in Tennessee and had made three playoff appearances. His teams had a reputation for being tough and physical and outperforming expectations. He’d helped resurrect Tannehill’s career. His only two losing seasons—granted, they were the last two—coincided with awful injury luck. His teams were good enough to justify moves like signing receiver DeAndre Hopkins before this season.

He staved off the rebuild as long as possible. But at some point, it seems, based on the Titans’ recent decision-making and messaging on Tuesday, it became Vrabel or the rebuild. And the rebuild won.

In her statement announcing the firing, beyond generally thanking Vrabel for his work and wishing him well, Strunk spent a lot of time talking about the Titans’ organizational chart.

“As the NFL continues to innovate and evolve, I believe the teams best positioned for sustained success will be those who empower an aligned and collaborative team across all football functions,” the statement read. “Last year, we began a shift in our approach to football leadership and made several changes to our personnel to advance that plan. As I continued to assess the state of our team, I arrived at the conclusion that the team would also benefit from the fresh approach and perspective of a new coaching staff.”

Reading between the lines, the “shift in our approach to football leadership” Strunk is referring to is the firing of Robinson and the subsequent hiring of Ran Carthon, who was previously the director of player personnel for the 49ers. Robinson’s firing was also a surprise; it came in December 2022, when the Titans were leading their division. It seemed, at least in part, like a referendum on the Brown trade. Two days earlier, the Titans had lost 35-10 in Philadelphia in a game in which Brown scored two touchdowns against his old team. Firing Robinson also elevated Vrabel, who had been visibly upset on draft night when the Brown trade was announced and who reportedly had sparred with Robinson over other roster decisions. If Vrabel’s belief was that the Titans should be focused on competing, not rebuilding, both Brown’s success in Philadelphia and the Titans’ winning record at the time supported that.

But after firing Robinson, the Titans lost every remaining game that season. The messaging of last offseason was somewhat mixed—the Titans stopped short of trading players like Tannehill, Henry, and defensive end Denico Autry, and they added Hopkins—but by late October, they were in sell mode, shipping safety Kevin Byard to the Eagles ahead of the trade deadline. Tennessee finished 6-11; Vrabel is 6-18 dating back through the losing streak that ended the 2022 season.

Carthon is now the most senior football person in the Titans organization, as the team enters an offseason in which it has the fourth-most salary cap room to spend of any NFL team. It’s also the offseason in which they’ll likely move on from Henry, the player who has been the face of the franchise for the past eight years, and have to start deciding whether 2023 second-round pick quarterback Will Levis can be a long-term starter. It’s a massive organizational reset that Carthon, now in his second year as top decision-maker, will manage. Not to mention the head-coaching search he’s now helping conduct.

As a free agent coach, Vrabel immediately becomes one of the hottest names in a cycle that is already presumed to include Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh. Do the Chargers want the Harbaugh-style program building and discipline with a slightly gentler price tag? Vrabel. Do the Patriots want a tough coach who can be an extension of the Belichick era but still has new ideas, connects well with players, and has more experience than Jerod Mayo? Vrabel. Do the Titans want a leader with a proven track record of getting more with less? Vra—oh, right.

And that’s the rub. Vrabel is inarguably a good coach, but if you want an argument, look at how much damage control the Titans are doing after they were widely criticized for firing Vrabel rather than trading him, the assumption being that there would be enough interest in Vrabel from other teams that they could have gotten something in return. The Titans’ explanation was that it was too “complicated” to work out the contract details and get the buy-in necessary from Vrabel to facilitate a trade, and therefore the delay would have prevented them from moving quickly in a coaching search. The Titans do need to rebuild this offseason, and I suppose if Strunk and Carthon felt sure that they couldn’t go through that process with Vrabel, then the decision makes some sense. It’s a shame, though, because a group of young players searching for development and a team identity could do a lot worse than Mike Vrabel as their coach. But in the end it was him or the rebuild, and the rebuild won.