NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Vrabel kicks his feet up on his desk and leans back in his chair. He still looks like an NFL linebacker, but he has the Tennessee Titans’ big office now. He’s breaking it in his way.
A melodious country music playlist, ranging from Garth Brooks to Blake Shelton, plays slightly softer than speaking voice in his office. Vrabel’s Boston College-bound son, Tyler, makes a tepid entrance. He’s up at the Titans facility at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday for a workout with Titans strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson.
Vrabel switches into dad mode.
“You don’t seem too excited about this. You tired? Couldn’t go to bed last night,” Vrabel says before giving his son speed-training instructions. “Go work out. I’ll come find you. See you, brother.”
Tyler, a high school senior who has his dad matched in body measurables (6-foot-4, 260 pounds), exits. Vrabel smiles proudly, “He’s big, huh? They’re doing a great job with him.”
It has been only a month, but Vrabel is already at home here.
Vrabel, 42, has a unique and challenging job. He’s a first-time head coach tasked with being the ground-level CEO for the Titans, an up-and-coming playoff team that isn’t broken, has a strong locker room and a franchise quarterback.
“Everybody is going to tell us to win the f—ing Super Bowl and it’s f—ing February,” Vrabel said. “We all have to manage expectations, positively and negatively.”
There were grumbles from NFL assistant coaches at the Senior Bowl, expressing frustration that Vrabel was able to reach the head coach mantle so quickly.
It’s no secret that Vrabel’s 14-year NFL playing career, in which he won three Super Bowls and embodied the Patriots Way, helped expedite his path. His relationship with Titans general manager Jon Robinson, a former Patriots scout, worked in his favor too.
But Vrabel isn’t about to apologize for his connections. He says he believes he’s ready for the job. Those who know Vrabel well say his presence, intelligence, ability to relate to players and unrelenting competitiveness will make him successful and worth the risk for the Titans.
“I love his passion for the game, his passion for players. Mike is one of the smartest guys that I’ve ever met. That’s why I’m here,” said Titans defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs, who coached alongside Vrabel at Ohio State for two years. “Mike understood players better than anybody I’ve ever coached with. He has a great handle on how to teach and communicate. There are people you encounter in your life that have that ‘it’ factor. He’s one of those guys.”
Presence, confrontations, brutal honesty
The Eddie George-Vrabel Ohio State practice battles were legendary. From 1993 to 1995, they competed at everything from wind sprints to 10-yard shuttles.
George recalls many practices having Vrabel as his blitz-pickup responsibility. Vrabel was trying to knock him into next week. It was physical, and they let each other know who won each battle.
“His motor was nonstop. He was hell off the edge. He was one of the great defensive players to come through Ohio State,” said George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner and leading rusher in Titans/Oilers franchise history. “Mike doesn’t back down from a challenge. He’s not afraid of being confrontational. He would call you out in a heartbeat — coaches, teammates. It didn’t matter.”
Vrabel figured he wasn’t the fastest, strongest or best player, but he could be the toughest. He learned that from his dad, Chuck, a longtime Ohio high school basketball coach.
“He embodied that Patriots culture. He’s a natural leader,” said 49ers general manager John Lynch, who briefly was a teammate of Vrabel’s during training camp with the Patriots in 2008. “Just because he was a great player doesn’t mean he’s going to be a great coach. But it’s important to Mike. He’s reflected that with the way he works. Knowing Mike and what he stands for, I think they found a good one.”
Former Patriots and Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork said Vrabel was Houston’s best coach. Two others who played for Vrabel said he demands a lot, but he gets it from a player’s perspective.
“He’s willing to put his arm around you,” George said. “He’s not so insensitive that he forgets you’re a human being.”
That brings us back to Vrabel’s presence, sort of a fluffy buzzword.
“I don’t know what it is or means. I don’t try to pretend, I don’t try to be fake,” Vrabel interjected as if he had heard the word “presence” one too many times. “I can be an a–h— Monday to Saturday. I let them play on Sunday. That 3 1/2 hours is your time.”
University of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Vrabel’s best friend and former Ohio State teammate, predicts people might struggle adjusting to Vrabel’s brutally honest approach to football and life.
“Some people would say it’s brash. Some people would say it’s arrogant,” Fickell said. “No, this is the standard he’s going to set. He’s going to set it for himself, and he’s going to hold people to it.”
Fickell saw people grapple with Vrabel’s tough method of leadership, like when he wasn’t voted a captain at Ohio State.
“Mike was the best leader we had on the team. But it wasn’t a popular thing,” said Fickell, who also gave Vrabel his first coaching job at Ohio State. “He says things that people don’t want to hear. Some people didn’t like it. He found out at an early age that he didn’t care.”
Vrabel went on to become a multiyear captain and all-pro player with the Patriots.
“[Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick was brutally honest. [Ohio State head coach] Urban Meyer taught me to be brutally honest,” Vrabel said. “He was clear, clean, concise and direct. Sooner or later, you got to be honest. It might as well be sooner. In the end, players and people want to know you’re not bulls—-ing them.”
‘Vrabel was the smartest’
Vrabel doesn’t have much patience when it comes to his family. He used to get angry when Tyler’s high school football coaches repeatedly called out his last name as if he were his dad.
“He’s got a f—ing name,” Vrabel told the coaches. “I swear to God if you yell Tyler, he’ll turn around.”
Vrabel was trying to protect his son from the unnecessary expectations. He figures it’s not easy playing the same sport as your famous former NFL star dad. Tyler plays offensive line, which Mike hopes will make things easier. His younger son, Carter, plays baseball. His wife, Jen, loves sports and plays gatekeeper in determining who enters their lives.
Sitting on the back wall of Vrabel’s office is a collection of children books. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of 2nd & 7, a foundation Vrabel and his friend Ryan Miller started to promote childhood reading comprehension in Ohio. It started buying books for second-graders and reading to them. Then Vrabel and Miller decided to write books. Vrabel has plans to expand the program to Nashville by this fall.
Education was important for Vrabel, an only child, with a mother and father who were both school principals.
Vrabel wanted to play football long enough so his kids could experience it. Tyler and Carter have memories of carrying Tom Brady’s pads off the practice field and playing catch with former Patriots linebackers Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi.
Once Vrabel retired from the NFL in 2011, at 36, he accepted a job from Fickell to be the defensive line coach at Ohio State the next day. He didn’t plan to leave Columbus. He built a home there that “I thought they would bury me in.”
Vrabel loved recruiting, and he was good at it — proving Meyer’s initial doubts wrong — but he grew tired of spending his springs in the homes of 17-year-olds while hearing Jen describe the awesome sports moments he missed with his own teenager and preteen.
“Some people would say it’s brash. Some people would say it’s arrogant. No, this is the standard he’s going to set. He’s going to set it for himself, and he’s going to hold people to it.”
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell on Vrabel
So his coaching dream moved to Houston as linebackers coach from 2014 to 2016 followed by one season as defensive coordinator in 2017, and now Tennessee, where his family has a front-row seat. Vrabel thought back to when the Titans told him he’d be their head coach.
“I’ve won a Super Bowl. I’ve been on the podium with my son when he was 3 years old. Caught a TD in the Super Bowl. Strip sacks in the Super Bowl,” Vrabel said. “To me, it’s right up there with all those moments and probably a little higher.”
This opportunity is special because Vrabel wanted to be a coach before he was a player. Those who know Vrabel well laugh when they see people miscategorize him as a “football meathead.”
“Vrabes was always the guy who saw more than just what was on the handout. He would understand why,” said Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst. “All of us were smart players, but I always thought Vrabel was the smartest. Before I went to a coach with a question, I would check with Vrabes first.”
Bruschi remembers Vrabel as the only guy who could naturally joke about him coming back from a stroke while still matching his intensity on the field.
“Toughness and humor, a lot of guys can’t mix the two,” Bruschi said. “Vrabes mastered that.”
The Vrabel-Fickell college dorm consisted of drinking, little sleep and wrestling until 2 a.m.
Fickell was a wrestler, but Vrabel wanted to win. So they fought and fought, often drawing blood and leaving bruises.
“I whooped his ass. He would never admit it. But he would never stop. You would have to knock him out,” Fickell said. “He’s probably the most competitive son of a b—- I’ve ever met. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, recruiting, playing cards for money, shooting baskets or in some business endeavor. He’s in it to win.”
That competitiveness is part of what attracted Robinson to Vrabel. Robinson wasn’t satisfied with being a “decent” team, and he says he believes Vrabel can push them toward “great.”
The Titans went 9-7 in 2016 and 2017, and last season won their first playoff game since 2003. Marcus Mariota is the present and future. This team isn’t broken. But it’s a lot harder to go from decent to great, with further to fall than to climb. The realistic goal is a championship.
“You can look at the Rams. Yeah, they had a QB, but they weren’t a playoff team,” Vrabel said. “This is a very unique situation.
“We’re going to have to manage expectations. We talk about winning the division, something that we haven’t done since 2008 here, hosting a playoff game, then seeing what happens.”
Before winning, Vrabel will have to teach his culture and sell his program. Many Titans players loved former head coach Mike Mularkey.
“His biggest challenge is going to be winning that locker room over,” George said. “You have to be careful with friction at the beginning. It can be a distraction.”
Vrabel’s experiences as a player — being an underachieving draft pick, a backup, a special-teams player, a captain, an all-pro player, a champion, a traded player and a grizzled veteran trying to hold on — will help him relate to his players.
His coaching experiences — swimming in his first year from player to coach, bombing his initial interview with Meyer in 2012, and becoming a hot coaching candidate over the past two years — have shaped him, too.
Vrabel’s dad taught him the importance of teamwork and toughness. Meyer taught him the importance of teaching a player. Belichick taught him the importance of preparation. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher taught him the importance of special teams. Vrabel will take from them and add his own style.
“I’m going to treat each individual player exactly how they treat the team,” Vrabel said. “If they treat the team or teammates like s—, I’m going to have a tough time having a relationship with that player, and that player probably won’t be here very long.”
Vrabel’s first training camp might make some players puke. He’s that type of coach. But winning could make everything better.
One month in, Vrabel looks content with the challenge, comfortable in his new home and confident in his ability to make it work. One thing is certain: He’ll do it his way.
Tony Jones, two-time Super Bowl champion with Denver Broncos, dies at 54
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Tony Jones, a starting tackle on two of the Denver Broncos‘ championship teams, has died, the team announced Friday. He was 54.
Jones, who started at right tackle in the Broncos’ win in Super Bowl XXXII and started at left tackle when the team won Super Bowl XXXIII the following year, played 13 seasons in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Broncos after he entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 1988.
Known as “T-Bone” to his Broncos teammates, he spent the last four years of his career with the Broncos, retiring after he started 16 games in the 2000 season at age 34.
“We lost a great man,” former teammate Rod Smith posted on Twitter. “Just happened to be a hell of a ball playa. We love you and miss you Bone. One of the Broncos’ all time best tackles. Greatest dresser of ALL TIME!”
Ed McCaffrey, another former teammate on the Broncos, called Jones “a great teammate and a wonderful man,” and Hall of Famer Steve Atwater, who also played on those two Super Bowl teams, said Jones was “a great teammate” with “just the most beautiful kids.”
Atwater also said Friday night that many of the players on those Broncos teams have continued to stay in contact with one another and that “everybody is hurting in this.”
The Broncos, believing they were poised to rebound from a playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars to end the 1996 season, traded a second-round pick to the Ravens in 1997 to acquire Jones.
In Super Bowl XXXII, at right tackle, he held Hall of Famer Reggie White without a sack and to one tackle overall as the Broncos rushed for 179 yards and Hall of Famer Terrell Davis was named the game’s MVP.
After Gary Zimmerman, also a Hall of Famer, retired before the 1998 season, Jones moved to left tackle and started every game on the way to a Pro Bowl selection as the Broncos went on to win a second consecutive title.
Jones was named to the Broncos’ Top 100 team in 2019.
In a social media post, former Bengals tackle Willie Anderson called Jones “a great dad, friend, offensive tackle, trainer and coach.”
Panthers GM Scott Fitterer doesn’t commit to Teddy Bridgewater – Carolina Panthers Blog
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Scott Fitterer looked the part of general manager, dressed in the dark blue suit he bought 12 days ago in Charlotte because the clothes he brought from Seattle for his interview with the Carolina Panthers were tight after nearly a year in a pandemic.
He sounded like a GM, not discussing specific players or plans until he gets to meet, and learn more about, everybody in the organization.
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What kind of general manager Seattle’s former vice president of football operations will be for Carolina remains to be seen.
Here’s what we learned from Friday’s made-for-Zoom introductory news conference:
Noncommittal on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater: Fitterer began by saying he wouldn’t talk about specific players. He mentioned only two, linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn and running back Christian McCaffrey. He mentioned Chinn because they have a mutual friend/agent. McCaffrey came up at the end when Fitterer said he wanted to talk to “Christian and other leaders on the team.’’ Bridgewater never got a mention despite several questions referring to him. Make of that what you want.
However, when asked for his definition of a franchise quarterback, second on Fitterer’s short list of criteria was “someone who can win when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter.’’ Bridgewater was 0-8 this past season when he had a chance on his final possession to win or tie the game.
Deshaun Watson interest: The Panthers have been linked in multiple reports to interest in trading for the disgruntled Houston Texans quarterback if he becomes available. Fitterer didn’t mention Watson by name. When reminded that Seattle lived by the mantra that it wanted to be in on every big deal in the NFL, even if it didn’t realistically have a shot, Fitterer said, “We will be in on every deal.’’ This was a big part of Seattle’s culture, because it helped the organization learn about others. It also allowed officials to reduce second-guessing.
Roster philosophy: Fitterer made it clear it starts with the quarterback. A former college quarterback himself, Fitterer helped Seattle find a pretty good one in Russell Wilson. Again, read into his silence on Bridgewater as you please. After quarterback, Fitterer plans to build inside out with offensive and defensive linemen.
Draft philosophy: Fitterer called having the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft a “new adventure,’’ and with good reason. The last time he had a pick higher than 27th was 2012, when the Seahawks picked 15th. He has made a living hitting on second- to middle-round picks. Wilson was a third-rounder in 2012. Fitterer found in Seattle that the top-tier players usually stopped between 16 and 18, and that in general there wasn’t a huge difference in players between 25 and 40. Seattle often traded down to acquire more picks. One instance was last year, when it gave Carolina the 64th pick (second round) for picks No. 69 and 148. The Panthers used that on Chinn, who became a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Fitterer said the eighth pick was great because it gave him flexibility to trade up or down. So don’t get comfortable at No. 8.
Who’s in charge? You’ve read here for a while that coach Matt Rhule will have the final say over the roster. Rhule reinforced that by saying, “In terms of on the contract, a lot of those things probably rest with me.’’ He also said that that’s a formality and that he welcomes a GM who will argue with him. He ultimately wants this to be a collaborative effort the way it was in Seattle.
Source — Matt Patricia returning to New England Patriots to assist Bill Belichick’s staff
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Matt Patricia, who was fired as Detroit Lions head coach in November before the completion of his third year on the job, is returning to the New England Patriots‘ coaching staff in 2021, a source confirmed.
Patricia had been an assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff from 2004 to 2017 before landing the Lions job. In Detroit, he posted a 13-29-1 record, with one of those victories coming over Belichick’s Patriots early in his first season.
It was a turbulent tenure in Detroit for Patricia, and a return to New England — where he is expected to assist Belichick’s staff in a variety of roles — provides him a safe and familiar haven in which to continue his coaching career in the NFL.
Patricia, 46, had most recently served as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017, and in his absence, Belichick hasn’t given that title to another coach. But Belichick referenced this past season that his son Steve, the outside linebackers coach, was calling the defense.
Also, inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has a significant role. Mayo, 34, is considered a coach on the rise, as evidenced by his recent interview with the Philadelphia Eagles for their head-coaching opening that went to Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
Patricia’s return mirrors, in part, what came in 2014, when Belichick hired Michael Lombardi — his former director of player personnel with the Cleveland Browns (1991-95) — as an assistant to the head coach.
The familiarity that Lombardi had with Belichick, and the team’s overall system, made his transition into the organization rather seamless.
The Boston Globe first reported Patricia’s return.
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