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How Mike Vrabel turned the Titans into a contender in the AFC

(AP Photo / Mark Humphrey)

Coaching trees are a common discussion topic in the world of sports, but they may not be more prevalent in any sport than they are in football.

Whether it’s New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, or Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, fans are often fascinated about what would happen if one of their “disciples” landed a head coaching gig with another team.

Sometimes, young stars like Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay make someone like Gruden look good, while others, like former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien or current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, do the opposite someone like Belichick.

But, one of the league’s rising coaches does make Belichick look like a genius, even if he doesn’t technically fall under Belichick’s “coaching tree” when following the idea’s general requirements.

That man is Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel.

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In his third year as the Titans head coach, Vrabel has created a monster in the AFC South, with a 5-0 record through the team’s first five games of the 2020 season to show for it.

He has helped make Ryan Tannehill one of the league’s best quarterbacks, has created a beast in the backfield by establishing a running game centered around Derrick Henry, and has turned a previously-lackluster franchise into one of the most high-powered and high-scoring teams in the NFL.

He can be credited with ending the Tom Brady era in New England (and potentially the Patriots dynasty as a whole) back in January of 2020, beating his former head coach to earn the first playoff win of his own coaching career.

A week after that victory, he spearheaded a game plan that shocked the world, taking down the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round in a 28-12 shellacking.

And, while his Titans fell to Andy Reid’s Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, he wound up creating an entire state of believers, gaining the trust of Tennessee’s residents for years to come.

He did all of that in just two full seasons as the Titans’ head coach.

With an overall record of 21-14 in the regular season and a 2-1 record in the postseason, Vrabel is quickly becoming of the league’s biggest coaching “titans,” and he has shown on multiple occasions that he has the brains to go with the brawn.

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The nuances often go unnoticed in the sport of football, but they’re often the difference between heading back to the locker room as a winner after a close game, and flying back home with the question “What if?” lingering in your brain.

Belichick himself has become the king of nuances throughout his tenure as the Patriots head coach, making pivotal decisions in key games that helped turn the team into a consistent threat in both the AFC and NFL as a whole.

He would intentionally take a safety during a game if it would help his team in the long run, or he could switch up which players are reporting as eligible in the middle of a playoff game to confuse his opponent.

But, throughout the calendar year in 2020, Vrabel has made a case for that crown, with key calls on the sidelines in a variety of close games.

In that aforementioned Wild Card game against the Patriots in January, Vrabel dusted off a move that Belichick himself utilized earlier in the regular season in garbage time against the New York Jets.

In a blowout on Monday Night Football, Belichick had his players repeatedly commit penalties in the fourth quarter to drain the clock, with each call that Jets head coach Adam Gase declined allowing the Patriots the opportunity to kill more time.

As ESPN’s announcers figured out what was going on, cameras showed Belichick smiling on the sidelines, looking as proud as fans have ever seen him in the midst of a game.

Fast forward a few months, and that display of football knowledge came back to haunt Belichick and the Patriots in the middle of a playoff game.

Delivering a dose of Belichick’s own medicine, Vrabel had his Titans commit similar penalties on fourth down in the fourth quarter while holding a 14-13 lead.

When the 4th & 4 scenario started, the clock showed just around 6:00 left in regulation.

A delay of game and a false start on the Titans, followed by a neutral zone infraction on the Patriots, brought the clock all the way down to 4:50, eliminating more than a minute of time from the Patriots’ potential comeback attempt.

As Belichick yelled at referees throughout the situation, Vrabel looked calm and collected on the Titans’ sideline.

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While it wasn’t exactly a “passing of the torch” or a pivotal part of a specific coaching tree, it was a showcase of something that Belichick saw during Vrabel’s tenure with the Patriots.

“I have a ton of respect for Mike as a person, as a coach,” Belichick said before the playoff game in 2020. “He’s been a friend for a long time. He was a really smart player, a very fundamental player, so I’m sure that you can see those strengths in the way he coaches his team.”

Vrabel proved that his extensive football knowledge didn’t stop there, with another showcase of smarts in a game against a division rival in October of 2020.

While down 30-29 in Week 6 against the Texans, Vrabel’s defense wound up with 12 men on the field on a second down with just over three minutes to go in regulation. The CBS announcers calling the game labeled the penalty a blunder for the Titans, but the way the rest of the game played out proved it to be anything but a mistake.

As Warren Sharp laid out after the fact, Vrabel rushed in an extra player on defense before the play on 2nd & 1, leading to some confusion within his own defense. After the call for 12 men on the field was made, Vrabel feigned being upset and took that extra player off the field, but managed to stop the clock in the process.

That simple, self-enforced penalty stopped the clock, and saved the Titans an extra defensive play on second down that would’ve drained an additional 40 seconds or so.

The Texans then scored a touchdown, the deficit remained at just one touchdown, and the Titans drove down the field to score a game-tying touchdown of their own with just four seconds left in the game.

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After a victorious coin toss and a touchdown in overtime, the Titans won the game and moved to 5-0 on the year.

When asked about the situation, Vrabel simply said that the team has “to do a better job with penalties,” trying to draw attention away from the call.

While it was called “an unforced error” and “a big mistake” by CBS analyst Rich Gannon during the game, Vrabel’s past practice proves that wasn’t the case. He had utilized a similar strategy in a game against…you guessed it…the New York Jets.

In a tightly-contested game against the same team that Belichick ridiculed in that previously-mentioned Monday Night Football game, Vrabel drew the same intentional penalty with just over two minutes to go in regulation.

He gave up the first down in the same scenario on second down to save some time on the clock, all before his offense scored a game-winning touchdown in the final few minutes.

In that moment in 2018, Gannon called it “a mental error” on Vrabel’s part.

“Bill Belichick told me personally that Mike Vrabel was the smartest football player he’s ever coached,” Vrabel’s former high school coach Gerry Rardin told The Tennessean. “His football acumen is just through the roof, I believe. He was like that in high school.”

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It’s easy to be given lots of talent when you take over a head coaching job in the NFL, and move the pieces around well enough to bring a team to the playoffs.

But, it’s a coach’s mind that helps a team win those playoff games, and leads the way when the football field turns into a chess board.

In this case, there’s one man that stands out among the rest when evaluating the true geniuses across the NFL’s 32 teams.

That man is Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel.

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