‘Players’ coach’ Vrabel hits 50-win milestone

Quicker than Phillips, Fisher

Friday, November 25, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 47

Mike Vrabel won his 50th game as Tennessee Titans head coach at Green Bay, a franchise feat accomplished by just two other coaches, Bum Phillips (55-35) and Jeff Fisher (142-120).

Unless you looked it up, you probably would never know Mike Vrabel just reached a milestone in his coaching career with last week’s win in Green Bay.

The 27-17 victory at Lambeau Field marked the 50th win of Vrabel’s coaching career (including playoff games) and made him just the third coach in the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans history to reach that plateau.

It took 80 total games for Vrabel to join Oilers legend Bum Phillips (who did it in 83 games) and Jeff Fisher (93 games) in this exclusive club.

Vrabel continues to roll despite the Titans trading away like A.J. Brown and losing many to significant injuries the past two years, costing them the likes of Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, Harold Landry, Bud Dupree and numerous other starters for extended periods or to season-ending ailments.

So what is the key to Vrabel’s success in four-and-a-half seasons at the helm of the Titans?

Well, don’t expect the coach himself to tell you. After all, he came from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, where everything from injuries to what the team ate for lunch is pretty much kept under wraps.

“I appreciate what the players do each and every day, how they are able to stick together, and how they’re able to respond,” Vrabel says when asked about the 50 milestone. “They know how to win. I feel like we know how to win.”

All true. But not very revealing.

So that leaves it to the players to explain. As it turns out, they credit Vrabel’s approach and experience as a player for 14 years in the league himself as the reasons they want to play so hard for him.

“There are a lot of things. First and foremost, it is a clear plan and clear foundation for the program,” says quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has enjoyed a career resurgence under Vrabel. “Everyone that comes in the building knows what we’re about, knows what we believe in, and we hold each other accountable. He starts that. Every day you know what you are getting.”

What you might be getting depends on the situation itself a lot of times. Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard, who predated Vrabel in Tennessee by two years, says players who buy into Vrabel’s system and the culture never have to worry whether their head coach has their back. Nearly all the players asked about this story described Vrabel as a “players’ coach.”

But don’t get the idea he’s soft. Vrabel being a players’ coach means he can identify with things players go through not only in the locker room, but in life.

Therefore, it’s not out of the question, Byard says, he’ll listen with an open mind to players who come to him with an issue about practices or meeting times.

“One thing I can tell you about Vrabel is that if you’re a guy who is on the team, and you care about the team and play really hard, you may look at the meeting times,” Byard says. “If you’re a guy who treats the team right, you can go in there and have a conversation with him, and he might adjust the schedule.

“I think that’s why guys truly respect him, and I think that’s why guys want to play hard for him. He respects you as a player. We’ve all got our hands in the same pot. I have a ton of respect for him.”

Byard, of course, has spent his entire seven-year career as a Titan. Does the same hold true for guys who’ve spent significant time in other locker rooms?

Absolutely, say linebacker Joe Schobert and defensive end Mario Edwards, both of whom arrived this year a few weeks into the regular season. Edwards spotted it almost immediately, after spending seven years in the league toiling for the Raiders, Giants, Saints and Bears with very little winning to show until he got to the Titans in week four.

“This is definitely one of the best organizations I’ve been around,” Edwards says. “He’s a players’ coach. He makes you want to go play for him, the way he treats his players, and the way that we go out here and practice and handle one another. You love to play for a guy like that.

“He respects us as men, No. 1. And he treats us like adults. He’s going to let us go out there and be adults at the end of the day.

“We’re not kids and he doesn’t treat us that way. He knows how to take care of our bodies, mentally and physically, and you just love to play for a guy like that.”

Edwards says he has experienced locker rooms with the opposite focus.

“It creates a lot of dysfunction,” he says. “You just go to work and that kind of thing. But (Vrabel) makes it very fun to come to work and go play for him.”

Part of Vrabel’s success, says Schobert, who also came from losing situations like Cleveland and Jacksonville (and Pittsburgh last year), is how he prepares each player for success.

“I think the biggest thing is he played and he understands what players are going through on a week-to-week basis, and you can trust that he’s going to have your best interests in mind in terms of getting you to the game as best prepared and healthy as possible, so you’ll be able to go out there and win a game,” Schobert says. “I think everybody believes in that, and he’s done nothing to disprove that.”

The traits Schobert speaks of go back to the coach being able to translate his experiences as a player into his coaching style, Byard says.

“I’ve spoken about this since he’s gotten here,” Byard says. “He came from a winning culture with the New England Patriots, winning Super Bowls. He played a long time.

“As a player coming into this league, it’s very easy for him to relate to players, because he’s sat in these chairs. He’s won, so he knows how to get it done. So it’s very easy for us to buy in. Just the culture he’s built here is incredible.”

The most visible clue to Vrabel’s approach can be seen on the practice field when he occasionally Vrabel picks up the blocking pad and gets physical with his players. Or when he sticks his two cents-worth in with the offensive line or tight ends regarding blocking.

Schobert says that type of hands-on approach is quite rare.

“He relishes football. He’s a football guy,” Schobert says. “He likes getting in there, and he still likes the contact – just a little bit.

“I don’t think he likes it as much as he used to, I don’t think but he takes advantage of it and gets in there and mixes it up with the guys from time to time.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com, a part of Main Street Media.