Maybe the first apple can shine brighter than the branches on the Bill Belichick coaching tree.
After years of unremarkable and even poor performances by former New England Patriots assistants in new football cities, now we have a former Patriots player wearing the headset.
That would be the Tennessee Titans’ Mike Vrabel, who faces Belichick and New England in Nashville on Sunday. Vrabel won three Super Bowls as a linebacker with the Pats between 2001 and 2008 — and caught some touchdowns from Tom Brady along the way.
Post-retirement, Vrabel had only one season as a defensive coordinator (in Houston) and the results weren’t sterling.
But NFL teams keep coming back to that Belichick tree.
The Lions hired Matt Patricia last offseason, and he has to finish 6-2 just to match the 9-7 record of predecessor Jim Caldwell. Bill O’Brien is still looking for his first 10-win season with the Houston Texans, although he is 6-3 in Year 5 to square his NFL record at 38-38. Josh McDaniels, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini were all duds as head coaches, although McDaniels has returned to the Pats’ staff and done well. Zero former Belichick assistants have winning records as of this writing, unless you include Nick Saban — who has a losing record in the NFL.
And Vrabel was a curious hire, even with his Pats background. The Titans need to develop their franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota, into an elite passer. The conventional thinking was that the team might hire an offensive guru, along the lines of a Sean McVay, Adam Gase or Matt Nagy. Instead they went with the defensive coach.
But Vrabel is 4-4 so far, coming off a prime-time win over Dallas. So he could pass the other Belichick disciples on Sunday with an above-.500 record — at least temporarily.
Will he be any different? Well, maybe.
Vrabel seems to have a charm that sets him apart from most of the former assistants. “He’s smart, hard-working; he’s so charismatic, just a great leader of men,” Brady told WEEI in Boston this week. Belichick was not as ebullient (is he ever?) but he too touched on a distinct persona: “Mike has a lot of great qualities as a person, and that translates into being a good coach.”
But Vrabel, despite looking as if he could still play, doesn’t show overwrought intensity. There is not much of a theatrical display of anger. He doesn’t really need to demonstrate that he’s in charge.
Consider his answer on Wednesday to a question about how long it might take to gather the personnel to create flexible gameplans from week to week:
“Seeing as I just finished my eighth game, I don’t know,” Vrabel said. “I think that would be a better question for a veteran coach, that maybe has kind of gone through that, and tried to get to that point. I hope that anything that we have that we want to implement or try to do wouldn’t take too long. I just think that there’s a fine line between doing too much, not doing enough, what the players can handle, what you see them being able to excel at on the field, and allowing them to play fast, and giving them enough details to be able to do their jobs.”
It’s clear Vrabel doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s somewhat refreshing. He is not a Belichick-bot, shutting down reporters’ questions for no apparent reason. And it’s clear he hasn’t been afraid to be his own man. As a player, he was known to clap back at Belichick in clever ways, perhaps with a quip and a grin. He was happy to trash-talk Brady from time to time. Not many teammates, or coaches, dared to do that.
This Wednesday, Vrabel told reporters that when he was dealt to Kansas City, he and Belichick didn’t talk for “maybe a year.” He has drawn on his experiences, including as an assistant with Ohio State under Urban Meyer. So it’s not like he’s trying to mimic the legend. At the very least, he doesn’t have a problem starting Malcolm Butler.
“As far as how much of [Belichick’s] philosophy is in me, I think that spending time there, I think there’s some similarities that I believe in and that you grow up as a player believing in,” Vrabel told reporters this week. “But, then I think that we have a different personality. I respect his friendship, I respect his guidance and leadership when I played there. But, now we’re competitors.”
Perhaps the tool Vrabel possesses that could set him above the other Belichick assistants is knowing what it’s like to play for the man. Much of the respect for Belichick comes from what he has done, and an assistant in his first top job doesn’t have that instant respect. Not many NFL players are going to accept a Patricia or an O’Brien instantly simply because he earned some rings somewhere else. One way to earn that respect is to understand the players’ perspective — and the players’ input. It doesn’t mean being a pushover — Vrabel was quite clear about his disappointment in Kevin Byard’s celebration on the Dallas star — but it does mean empowerment on the field. As a player, Vrabel was known to not only line up at multiple positions (including tight end) but he also joined the scout team in some practices. He knows what it is like to be the star, and he knows what it is like to be a grunt.
“I can’t cover [Julian] Edelman, I can’t sack Tom [Brady]. [Titans DC ] Dean [Pees], bless his heart, he’s not going to be able to cover [Rob] Gronkowski,” Vrabel told reporters Wednesday. “… We have to just get our players as ready as we can for the game, to get them prepared for what they may see, what they can expect to see. Give them opportunities, and give them a chance to adjust if things aren’t necessarily what we thought they were. Giving them answers and the ability to change, and fix things that are happening, and issues that happen along the way.”
It’s not the vibe of a control freak, that’s for sure. It suggests maybe the Patriot Way isn’t the only way.
Around the time of his retirement, Vrabel reminisced to some local reporters about practices against Brady. Vrabel would be tasked with playing the role of an opposing player, but he often decided to freelance without informing anyone. The irreverence wasn’t always embraced back then.
“Tom would get mad,” Vrabel recalled. “He’d know what the card said and he would tell me where I was supposed to be and I told him I was gonna be wherever I wanted to be no matter what the card said.”
In other words, Vrabel didn’t always do what Belichick expected and didn’t always do what Brady expected.
That might be as important to his short- and long-term future as anything he learned in New England.
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