Report: Mike Vrabel wanted full control of Titans, had soured relationship with owner

It has been two days since the Tennessee Titans decided to fire former head coach Mike Vrabel and more details continue to emerge about what went on behind the scenes that got us to that point.

According to The Athletic’s Dianna Russini and Joe Rexrode, owner Amy Adams Strunk considered firing Vrabel prior to the 2023 season but held on to him because she felt Vrabel was still a “great coach and worth keeping.”

As we’ve read in a different report, Vrabel’s preferred choice for general manager was former Titans vice president of player personnel, Ryan Cowden.

The Titans considered moving on from Vrabel after last season for a fresh start, according to a team source, but Strunk still believed Vrabel was a great coach and worth keeping. The hope was that an arranged marriage between Carthon and Vrabel would work because both men had shown a willingness to adapt. Vrabel was hoping Ryan Cowden — then the Titans’ VP of player personnel and now the New York Giants executive advisor to the GM — would replace Robinson. But Vrabel was never told it would be Cowden.

Vrabel desired full control over the roster because he felt he earned it, but Adams Strunk disagreed with that.

In addition, he suggested the team hire now-general manager Ran Carthon as assistant GM, with the belief that Carthon wasn’t ready to take on a general manager role. That did not sit well with AAS.

During the hiring process to replace GM Jon Robinson, who was fired by Strunk late last season, Vrabel made two comments to Strunk that created friction between them, three team or league sources said. Vrabel wanted full control over the roster, saying that he’d earned it, and Strunk pointedly disagreed. Strunk has carried a belief over the years that head coaches shouldn’t have full control, pointing to the way things went for the Titans in the later years of Jeff Fisher’s tenure, and watching from afar the issues that transpired for the Patriots with Bill Belichick and Bill O’Brien with the Texans.

When Carthon was close to getting the job, Vrabel told Strunk he liked Carthon but didn’t feel he was ready to become an NFL general manager. Vrabel’s suggestion: The Titans hire Carthon as the assistant GM, a promotion from his position as No. 3 in the 49ers’ pecking order. Strunk did not take kindly to this suggestion, and team sources believe her and Vrabel’s relationship took a hit as a result of that conversation.

Another point of contention was the approach with analytics.

The report says Vrabel wasn’t against using them for in-game decisions, but the issue was the coaching staff not feeling informed about how the personnel department was using analytics to evaluate players.

The Titans wanted to make this season about evolving and modernizing their process behind the scenes. Building a roster with an increased reliance on analytics has been a big part of that. Vrabel wasn’t resistant to using analytics on the field — he and his coaching staff believed they used data-based decision-making as much as anyone and often get credit around the league for being one of the top situational football teams in the NFL. However, the coaches never felt informed on how the new personnel department was using analytics in its process, a team source said.

Titans ownership embraced Carthon’s vision — informed by his time with the San Francisco 49ers, one of the best-run organizations in the NFL — and organizational framework, with assistant GMs Chad Brinker and Anthony Robinson in support. The question was whether Vrabel would be OK with the change in approach.

Back in November, a source told The Athletic that the Titans’ plan was to keep Vrabel because AAS “strongly believed” in him at the time and wanted him to remain the coach “for years to come.”

But AAS didn’t think that Vrabel felt the same way, which further soured their relationship.

High-level Titans sources told The Athletic in November that the team’s long-term plan was to retain Vrabel as coach. After Vrabel’s firing, a team source said that was true then because Strunk strongly believed in Vrabel at the time — and because she wanted Vrabel to have a clear understanding of how she felt about him and how badly she wanted him to be the coach for years to come. Strunk did not get the sense that Vrabel felt the same way, and the communication between them got worse from there.

Yet another issue between the two came from Vrabel’s New England Patriots Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where Vrabel said this during his speech:

“I don’t want you to take this organization for granted. I’ve been a lot of places, this is a special place with great leadership, great fans, great direction, and great coaching. Enjoy it. It’s not like this everywhere.”

The speech “raised some eyebrows in Tennessee” because it was thought that might have been a veiled shot at the Titans. The media asked Vrabel about it in the aftermath and he shot down that notion.

However, the issue was never addressed in the building and, again, that made things worse. Despite that, Vrabel and Carthon’s relationship remained “amicable.”

In the aftermath of that visit, various reports emerged about the relationship between Vrabel and Carthon. Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal, who has covered the Patriots for several years, wrote a story citing that relationship as a reason Vrabel “could be looking for a way to force his way out of Tennessee.” The Boston Globe reported that Patriots owner Robert Kraft considered Vrabel his “home run choice” to succeed Belichick.

Vrabel did not address any of this with Carthon or Strunk. That lack of communication increased the tension between them, though the relationship between Vrabel and Carthon remained amicable. Those close to Vrabel said the head coach’s approach to it all was, “Why do I need to address inaccurate information and false reports?” Carthon also told people he “wasn’t listening to the noise, that it was all a waste of time.”

The final straw in Vrabel’s tenure, according to Titans staff, may have come in Week 17, when the Titans lost to the Houston Texans one week after upsetting the Miami Dolphins.

Prior to making her decision to fire Vrabel, AAS “consulted with some others in NFL circles about the decision, but ultimately the decision was all hers” without any input from the general manager.

Strunk was thrilled the Titans pulled it off, but one week later the Titans lost to the Texans in overtime, and the owner was visibly angry about that loss. That’s when several members of the Titans staff believed she had made up her mind: She wanted to move on from Vrabel. She consulted with some others in NFL circles about the decision, but ultimately the decision was all hers — with no input from Carthon.

Finally, we have details of the final meeting between AAS and Vrabel, which also included team president Burke Nihill.

The meeting lasted two minutes and Vrabel was told the team was moving in a different direction. Also, there was never any discussion about trading the head coach.

At 11 a.m. CT Tuesday, Vrabel joined Strunk and team president Burke Nihill for a meeting that lasted two minutes. They told Vrabel that they appreciated his time with the Titans but that they were moving in a new direction. He was fired. There was never any discussion between the organization and Vrabel about trading him to coach another team or of a restructuring of power for him to remain with the Titans. Vrabel is expected to be a hot commodity for other NFL job openings — including in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Washington and New England.

It’s very clear that AAS should have done a better job communicating her issues with Vrabel, but he could have done a better job, also.

However, I think Vrabel’s desire for full control — something AAS rightly didn’t want to give him — was always going to end this relationship, no matter how good the communication was.

Story originally appeared on Titans Wire