- His injury-plagued defense stumbled in 2017, but Mike Vrabel’s players and other NFL insiders see the qualities that make him a prime candidate for a head-coaching job: the ability to motivate and develop talent
Bernardrick McKinney has a story about the first time he met Mike Vrabel that begins to explain why the first-year defensive coordinator whose Houston Texans defense allowed the most points in football in 2017 is almost certainly going to become an NFL head coach this offseason or the next.
Before the 2015 combine, Vrabel came to Mississippi State to work out McKinney, an inside linebacker. Without much ceremony, Vrabel launched into yelling fits directed at McKinney. Punch harder! Run faster! Run harder! “He was really hard on me. It was very intense,” McKinney says. “Everything I did, he was yelling at me, the whole time. I’m like, Oh my god. I just knew the Texans weren’t gonna pick me. I called my momma and told her I felt like I was just in a boxing ring.”
To his surprise, Houston drafted him in the second round in 2015.
“I was like, they want me?” McKinney says. “I didn’t think I had a good workout, but I guess they did see something in me. Still to this day, he’s on me, trying to make me better. I respect it.”
Vrabel, the former NFL linebacker and utility man who was a key player on three New England championship teams, was searching for what he tries to identify in all Texans draft prospects, a quality he understood to be the driving force behind New England’s success during his eight seasons.
“I’m looking for the guys that love football,” Vrabel told me in August. “Tedy Bruschi loved football, and a lot of those other guys too. They were passionate about it, competitive, they had an energy about it.”
And they loved the game so much, they were open to being challenged in ways that make the average 21-year-old SEC linebacker uncomfortable.
“I think it woke me up,” McKinney says of that pre-draft workout with Vrabel. “I guess he wanted to see my reaction, whether I was going to keep my poise, so I just kept my mouth shut and kept working.
“Everybody coming out of college thinks they’re the top guy. I had to understand that this is a grown-man league and I had to come in and earn it every day. He pushes everybody that way.”
Vrabel’s ability to manage and develop individual players is what earned him a bump from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator last offseason. The promotion came on the heels of glowing endorsements from defensive leaders like J.J. Watt, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Whitney Mercilus, the sixth-year outside linebacker and former first-round pick who struggled in his first two seasons in Wade Phillips’ system, before the Texans brought in Romeo Crennel and Vrabel to transform the defense. Now Mercilus is annually one of Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded edge defenders.
“I think when Vrabel came, the execution, development, everything stepped up,” Mercilus says.
The Texans allowed the fewest yards in football in 2016 despite losing Watt to injury after three games. There were high expectations for both Vrabel and his defense entering 2017; having never been a coordinator, Vrabel landed eighth on a list of future head coaches in my survey of NFL minds last summer.
When I talked to Vrabel in August about his head-coaching aspirations, he said one thing that might make you believe in jinxes: “We’re lucky that J.J.’s here, and we’re lucky that Whitney’s here, and all these great guys,” Vrabel said. “We’re gonna add J.J. back into that mix and see where we can go from there.”
Of course, the Texans lost defensive anchors Watt and Mercilus to season-ending injuring early in 2017. Coupled with the free agency departure of cornerback A.J. Bouye and struggles on the offensive side of the ball after Deshaun Watson’s injury, the Texans defense stumbled, robbing the league of an opportunity to see what kind of unit Vrabel could assemble under better circumstances. But the personnel evaluators who were high on Vrabel last year had never seen him coach a defense; they each pointed to his ability to motivate and develop talent and his unique perspective on Bill Belichick’s success in New England.
Unlike the former Patriots assistants who have crashed and burned in head-coaching roles, Vrabel saw the Hoodie through the eyes of a player. From that experience he came away with some core beliefs about coaching. “That preparation is vitally important,” Vrabel says. “Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a player, being consistent, never predicting how a game is going to go, being ready for constant change, evolution. We try to take [the opponent’s] best plays and best players away from them every week and make them beat us with something that’s not their strength.
“Versatility is a huge thing. If you’re a versatile player, capable of learning more than one spot, then we can move you around and create matchups.
“If I’m making a defensive player in a test tube, I just want tough guys who love football and love their teammates.”
It’s Vrabel’s ability to find and develop those sorts of players that will have him at the helm of a franchise sooner than his 2017 record would suggest.
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