When the Detroit Lions fired head coach Matt Patricia on Saturday, another former Bill Belichick assistant flamed out without much success. It has been a common occurrence when it comes to the Belichick coaching tree.
However, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel comes from a different branch of that tree. Vrabel never coached alongside him but spent more than half his 14-year career as an NFL player with Belichick and the New England Patriots.
In two-plus seasons with Tennessee, Vrabel has had his share of success. Following Sunday’s victory at Indianapolis, his win percentage is 60.5 and he is guaranteed to finish .500 or better for the third consecutive year. The Titans, who reached the AFC Championship game last season, are in the thick of this year’s AFC playoff chase and currently are third in the conference standings.
“I try not to be fake,” Vrabel said during training camp. “I try to be as real and as honest as I can and try to point out the stuff that we're doing well that we have to continue to do, try to point out the things that when players carry over individual drills and group drills to team settings. Also, I try to point out when they had an opportunity to do that, try to coach the situations to a minute, things that come up third down, red zone, try to point to short yardage, or miss tackles, or taking care of the football.
“Basically I just try to be as honest as I possibly can and I'm going from there.”
The Belichick coaching tree is a complex one, but its most famous successes haven’t happened on the professional level. It’s larger than life member is Nick Saban, who is arguably the best coach in college football history. Saban was a member of the Belichick coaching staff during his tenure with the Cleveland Browns. He helped Cleveland reach the playoffs in 1994 before he left to become head coach at Michigan State.
Pat Hill is another member of the Belichick coaching tree who found success at the collegiate level. He coached with Belichick in Cleveland from 1992-94. After that short stint, he took a job at Fresno State, where over 15 seasons he compiled a 112-80 record. And he was famously known to be willing to play anyone, anywhere.
Kirk Ferentz was a hot commodity for coaching positions in the NFL in the early 2000s. His fame came from his tenure as Belichick’s offensive line coach in the mid-1990s. However, he became Iowa’s coach, and he has found relative success there winning two Big Ten championships.
Yet, in the NFL Belichick’s former coaches routinely find limited success, at best. Names like Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels and Patricia all come to mind when looking at the shortcomings of former Belichick assistant coaches.
O’Brien saw the wheels fall off this season. In 100 regular-season games with the Houston Texans, O’Brien accumulated a 52-48 record. In the postseason, he went 2-4, often losing games that seemed winnable.
He was the first NFL coach to lose his job in 2020, and with Patricia’s ouster, two of the three NFL coaches fired already this season were former Belichick assistants.
Crennel, post-Belichick, was named interim coach with Houston after O’Brien was fired. He has led the Texans to a 4-3 record, and in 2011 went 2-1 as interim coach in Kansas City. Yet in five seasons as a full-time head coach with Cleveland (2005-08) and Kansas City (2012) he has had just one winning season. His career record is 32-58, including the stints as interim coach.
Mangini went 23-41 in his final five seasons as a head coach with the New York Jets (2006-08) and Browns (2009-10).
McDaniels compiled an 11-20 record with Denver before he was fired in 2010. He currently is Belichick’s offensive coordinator and backed out of a 2018 opportunity to lead Indianapolis, which has led to speculation he is the heir apparent when Belichick’s time in New England ends.
Patricia spent nearly three full seasons at the helm of the Lions and went 13-29-1. In his two full seasons, Detroit finished last in the NFC North. This season looks to be no different.
So, what makes Vrabel so different? It could be his experience as a player under Belichick that gives him a different perspective on his coaching philosophy. He knows what works with players, and he knows what doesn’t work.
He is also malleable. He makes needed adjustments and can make a tough decision when it comes to football. The decision to go with Ryan Tannehill instead of Marcus Mariota midway through last season comes to mind.
“I've tried to take stuff from all the different places that I've been and the people that I've been around,” Vrabel said. “I've been blessed, since the time that I started at Ohio State as a player up until now that I'm here. There are people here that we take ideas off of, or coaching techniques or styles.”
As it stands now, Vrabel is 2-1 in the postseason. And in that playoff run, the protégé beat his former teacher in the Wild Card round of last season’s playoffs.
It remains to be seen whether he can lead the Titans to one Super Bowl victory, never mind equal Belichick’s six with the Patriots. But his particular branch of that coaching tree has been fruitful in ways others have not.