Mike Vrabel’s firing met with shock, followed by opportunity for every NFL team looking for a coach

When the news dropped, it was a wave of disbelief. Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel — the bone marrow identity of his NFL franchise — had been shown to the door by team owner Amy Adams Strunk. Across the league, text messages exploded with utter incredulity.

First from a league source who worked with Vrabel for years and was just hearing the news: “You’re s***ting me.”

Next, a steady flow of reactions from high-ranking league executives into Tuesday evening:

“Unbelievable. … Guy is a phenomenal coach. … What a crazy business. … Hard to believe he’s free. … He will have a job in five seconds. … Big mistake on their part.”

Finally, an NFC general manager put a spin on it: “The Titans just got a lot worse, and a few of these coaching searches just got a lot easier.”

This is what happens when a team fires a head coach who is nearly universally respected across the league. A coach who led that team to an AFC championship game and two division titles in six years, despite never having a high-caliber quarterback in a league defined by high-caliber quarterbacks. A defensive wizard who won NFL Coach of the Year after an injury-ridden 2021 campaign that saw the Titans roster an NFL record 91 players. And lest we forget, a coach who was ultimately undercut by former general manager Jon Robinson’s personnel mistakes, which gradually edged swaths of the Tennessee depth chart off a cliff.

You fire that guy, you invite the thunderheads of criticism to your doorstep, particularly when you don’t show up to the news conference explaining the decision. Strunk did exactly that, meeting with Vrabel one-on-one to deliver his pink slip Tuesday, then marching out her hand-chosen general manager, Ran Carthon, to face all the hard questions. It was a move that suggested two things about what happened Tuesday: First, Strunk knew she would be under significant pressure to explain exactly what went wrong between her and Vrabel; and second, it was an opportunity to shift the franchise’s spotlight to the general manager who will be leading it into the future.

FILE - Tennessee Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk talks with head coach Mike Vrabel before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. Strunk wants a fresh approach to compete in the NFL, so she fired coach Vrabel on Tuesday morning, Jan. 9, 2024, after six seasons and losing 18 of the past 24 games. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)
Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk (left) apparently didn't think Mike Vrabel fit her vision of the team, but that won't stop other NFL franchises from going after him. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

There will be an array of nuanced viewpoints on what exactly changed for Vrabel in the franchise, but what’s clear is that Strunk no longer believed he could be a collaborative team player with Carthon. She telegraphed precisely that in a portion of her statement following the firing:

“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. 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.”

This line should hit like a sledgehammer: those who empower an aligned and collaborative team

On Tuesday, Carthon remained and Vrabel was bounced. That tells you exactly what Strunk thought of Vrabel’s ability to fulfill her “collaborative” vision for the team.

She might be right, too. Perhaps Vrabel was always going to gravitate toward what he learned as a New England Patriots player under Bill Belichick, a college assistant under Urban Meyer and an NFL assistant under Bill O’Brien. When it comes to how the power structure of a team works, Belichick, Meyer and O’Brien all believed in a “coach outward” system, where the power center of decisions lies in the hands of the head coach. Vrabel appeared to have gained that position when Strunk fired Robinson late in 2022. Then Strunk hired Carthon as Robinson’s replacement, using a search process that included little influence from Vrabel. From there, the path to Tuesday was set. Strunk wanted her team’s power to be split between herself, her head coach and her general manager. When Strunk believed Vrabel couldn’t be part of that, she pulled the plug.

In the process, Strunk created a sizable opportunity for another NFL franchise. While Vrabel may not have been the right fit for Strunk’s vision, it doesn’t make him the wrong fit for everyone else. He remains the same coach who was saddled with an imperfect roster and a mess at quarterback. Not to mention the same coach who was respected enough by his team to show up the last week of the season and knock the Jacksonville Jaguars out of the playoff race despite having nothing else to play for.

He's the kind of coach who drew this praise from the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes in Netflix’s “Quarterback” documentary:

“The Tennessee Titans defense, man, they’re one of the toughest opponents in the league,” Mahomes said. “Coach Vrabel is a great coach and they have a great game plan every single week. I know people joke around about it, but it’s kind of like when you were facing the Patriots in the early 2000s.

“Vrabel has obviously learned from coach [Bill] Belichick, they have more wrinkles and stuff that you don’t really expect, and you have to be physical and battle to the very end every single time."

Even in a league that prioritizes pairing offensive coaches with franchise quarterbacks, that kind of endorsement from the best quarterback in the NFL should mean something. Especially in a season when the Houston Texans turned on a dime with a perfect defensive head coaching hire in DeMeco Ryans, paired with a perfect quarterback draft pick in C.J. Stroud. The right head coach and quarterback combination can move mountains — even when that head coach is a defensive-minded guy.

That should be some food for thought for the Washington Commanders and New England Patriots (should they fire Belichick). As holders of the second and third picks, respectively, in the 2024 Draft, both are positioned to stand pat and select a franchise quarterback, or potentially even move up to the No. 1 overall pick for USC’s Caleb Williams. For both franchises, Vrabel now represents an avenue that wasn’t on the table a few days ago.

It's a proven, game-changing option, borne out of an inexplicable firing that will be questioned deep into this offseason, if not years to come.