If you ask me what has surprised me the most over the past five days, since I’ve been asking team people and some coaches with jobs about the various coaching searches around the NFL, I would say it comes down to this name: Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.
I have heard four people from four different teams bring up Vrabel as a possible 2018 head coach, and certainly as someone whom teams will be interested in interviewing. Detroit GM Bob Quinn will interview him for the Lions’ vacancy on Wednesday, and The MMQB’s Albert Breer says Indianapolis and Arizona could also be interested in talking to Vrabel about their openings.
The 42-year-old Vrabel, coming off his first season as a coordinator, will have some difficult questions to answer, including this one: You coached the worst scoring defense in the league in your only year as coordinator—why should we hire you as our head coach?
That will be a big one to get over. The Texans allowed seven points more per game in 2017 than in ’16, and Vrabel’s unit struggled to get over the early losses of Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt. So it’s a legitimate question, and one that coaches who have waited for an opportunity will pounce on if Vrabel gets his shot so soon.
“Of all the guys in this pool, the one I’d say who has the chance to be the best head coach is Vrabel,” one current NFL head coach with no ties to Vrabel told me on Monday. “It’s his presence, and the people he’s been around and learned from.”
Overall, the enthusiasm about Vrabel stems from these facts: He played on winning teams and know what it takes to win; he carries a lot of Bill Belichick with him from eight years as a Patriot; he has a commanding presence in front of players; and he’s seen as a unifier who can help build a winner. Fair or unfair, that’s his rep in NFL circles at the start of this hiring process. Don’t underestimate the Belichick connection.
Vrabel’s brief bio:
• Defensive end, Ohio State, 1993-96
• Steelers linebacker/special-teamer under Bill Cowher, 1997-2000
• Patriots Swiss army knife player (pass-rusher/tight end, special-teamer) under Belichick, 2001-08
• Chiefs linebacker, 2009-10
• Ohio State assistant, 2011-13
• Texans linebackers coach, 2014-16
• Texans defensive coordinator, 2017
Vrabel is of the unique players of the Belichick era in New England. He once had three sacks and a touchdown catch in a Patriots game, and he caught TD passes from Tom Brady in two of Vrabel’s three Super Bowls with the team.
Those who know him, or have seen him coach, or have been teammates with him over his 14-year playing career say Vrabel has it. He has a strong presence in front of players, and players respond to him. He was never afraid to spar with Belichick, or to reinforce Belichick’s locker-room message. When Vrabel left Kansas City after the 2010 season, I’m told he was the most respected man in the locker room. After retiring in 2011 and beginning his coaching career at Ohio State, he had a major impact on recruiting.
Now, starting in Detroit on Wednesday, he’ll have to convince general managers and perhaps owners, if he climbs that high in the process, that he’s experienced enough to be a head coach now—and will have a plan for the offensive side of the ball. Who his offensive coordinator would be if he gets a shot is unknown.
For those who’d say it’s a year or two too early for Vrabel, I’d say this: Sean McVay got his job with the Rams at age 30 in 2017. Mike Tomlin got his job with the Steelers at 36 in 2007. The mantra around the league when those guys were hired was, basically, it’s too soon. And sometimes it is too soon for young coaches who make the leap early. But I’m reminded of what the late Dan Rooney, Steelers boss, told me when I asked him whether Tomlin might have been hired a year or two before he was ready for the big step. Paraphrasing, Rooney said: We wouldn’t be looking for a coach in a year or two. We’re looking for one now. And he wouldn’t be available the next time we’d be looking for a coach.
In coaching hires, when you like a guy, and he might be greener than you’d prefer, you’d better get him now. Vrabel might be that guy this hiring cycle.
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