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NFL Coaching Carousel: Mike Vrabel Emerges as a Strong Fit for Titans’ Head-Coach Position

Since the Titans announced that they were parting ways with head coach Mike Mularkey on Monday morning, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel has quickly emerged as a strong fit to step in the opening—and more updates as the NFL's coaching carousel spins.

Every decision the Titans have made for three years now has been with quarterback Marcus Mariota’s development at the forefront.

When they fired Ken Whisenhunt halfway through 2015, the beheading the Titans’ quarterbacks were taking early that season pushed the issue. When they hired Jon Robinson as GM in January 2016, his time spent around Tom Brady as a scout for the Patriots and in drafting Jameis Winston as the Buccaneers’ director of player personnel were factors. And when Mike Mularkey was given the head-coaching job full-time, it was largely because he’d fixed the aforementioned protection problem.

So the Titans are about to hire an offensive guru as head coach, right?

Not so fast.

On Monday, two head-coaching spots were, for all intents and purposes, filled, and another one opened up. And one widely-held assumption early in the day was that Josh McDaniels’s availability had pushed the Titans to pull the plug on Mularkey, an idea that was punctuated by McDaniels’s offense tearing through an overwhelmed Tennessee team in Foxboro on Saturday night.

My belief is that was never the case, and McDaniels—who’s as bright a head-coaching prospect as there is on the market—probably wouldn’t have been the Titans’ lead dog had he still been available (the Colts are expected to hire the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, according to multiple reports). The reason why is simple: it’s about fit.

Over the last two weeks, as news of Mularkey’s employment status was widely reported and and written about by the media, the trust between Mularkey and Robinson fractured—and that was a piece of why talks on bringing Mularkey back broke down over the last couple of days. It may have been difficult to get Mularkey to take a Band-Aid deal and make staff changes previously. These circumstances made that impossible.

Now the Titans will look to find alignment, and the first man they requested to interview, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, is seen as a better match for the team’s brass than McDaniels from a personality standpoint. Also, he and Robinson have common background in that each spent many years in New England. Vrabel will have to sell Tennessee on his staffing choices and his vision for developing Mariota, but word of how well Vrabel interviewed in Detroit and Indianapolis has gotten around. Robinson laid out criteria for the job during his press conference on Monday, and the first thing he said he was looking for was a “leader of men.”

That’s Vrabel, whose strengths are in his presence and ability to reach people. It doesn’t mean he has job, but there’s little question that he’s well-positioned for it.

And after Monday, it’s one of only two spots (again, for all intents and purposes, because some of these can’t be official) left. In case you need catching up, here’s the rundown …

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Arizona: OPEN
Chicago: Matt Nagy
Detroit: Matt Patricia
Indianapolis: Josh McDaniels
N.Y. Giants: Pat Shurmur
Oakland: Jon Gruden
Tennessee: OPEN

Titans’ Open Head Coach Position Is Frightening for the Giants and Cardinals

Here’s a little more from the coaching-rumors grapevine …

• As I understand it, McDaniels was always going to want two things—a GM he respected and a quarterback he liked. Indianapolis checked off both boxes, and the credit goes to Colts GM Chris Ballard. Ballard and McDaniels built a rapport over the last year and, as ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported, Ballard worked to repair the team’s Deflategate-affected relationship with the Patriots, something that resulted in the Jacoby Brissett trade. Having the foresight to know those things might matter is a tribute to the foresight of Indy’s second-year personnel czar.

• As for the quarterback, I’ll say that McDaniels must’ve been satisfied with what he saw in Andrew Luck’s medicals to take the job. Others who went through there felt like Luck would be fine, and those coaches leaving the building were encouraged as well. When Luck left for Europe in October, he was noticeably lighter (one coach estimated he’d lost 20-30 pounds) than when he last played. Luck returned to the building during Week 17, having put the weight back on. “He looked like Andrew again,” the coach said. The plan has been for him to start a throwing program this month, and that’ll tell the tale, but his ability to return to fighting shape qualifies as a good sign.

• We wrote it last week, and this should become official soon after the McDaniels hire happens: Look for Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus to be the Colts defensive coordinator. When McDaniels got the Denver job in 2009, he made a run at making then-Philadelphia secondary coach Sean McDermott his defensive coordinator, but the Eagles blocked McDermott from interviewing. The idea was to pair with a rising young coach on the other side of the ball. That should happen now without a hitch, because Eberflus’s deal in Dallas is up.

• The Arizona search promised to be the most wide-open of any of these, and it certainly hasn’t disappointed. The Cardinals liked Shurmur quite a bit, but I wouldn’t think this would send them back to square one. Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is in the mix there, and part of the pitch there is that he’d bring Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo (whose contract in Philadelphia is up) with him as offensive coordinator. ESPN’s Adam Schefter mentioned the other day that Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores impressed in his interview, too, and that makes sense. Some in New England believe that Flores has a chance to wind up being the best eventual head coach to go through Bill Belichick’s program.

• The Giants were always going to prioritize finding their type of guy—candidates were going to have to fit them, not the other way around—and that’s a reason why Shurmur landed the job in New York. The Vikings offensive coordinator has an easy way about him, and has shown a great ability to manage crisis over the last two years in Minnesota. His work with the quarterbacks hasn’t been bad either, which should help in making a decision on Eli Manning’s future, and what to do with the second pick.

Obviously, Shurmur and McDaniels can’t do deals, or even enter into agreements yet. I’d expect both will get five-year contracts when they can.

• And here, we’ll wrap up atop my soapbox—the rules are beyond dumb. We knew three years ago that Dan Quinn was going to Atlanta as his Seahawks prepared for the Super Bowl, same as we knew Kyle Shanahan was going to San Francisco last year as helped those Falcons get to the big game. There would’ve been zero harm in allowing the teams to push those wink-wink situations into real deals and announcements. Allowing it, in fact, would enable those guys to name acting head coaches for the time in between. And by the way, it happens all the time in the college game. Alabama was able to win the national title this year even though it was announced before the playoffs that Jeremy Pruitt had taken the Tennessee job. And three years ago, Ohio State won it all a month after Tom Herman was introduced as Houston’s new coach.