There were many teams who had disappointing 2017 seasons. Some teams, like the Cleveland Browns, finished with a 0-16 record but, decided not to fire their head coach. Others like the Indianapolis Colts, however, decided not to clean house in the coaching department. There were a whopping seven head coaching changes in the past year, and it may be difficult to diagnose what those coaches should and/or will accomplish in their endeavors with their respective teams. In this edition, I will be analyzing the expectations for 2018 and beyond for newly hired Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel.
The 2017 season went quite well for the Tennessee Titans, who found themselves with a wild card spot in the AFC Playoff Picture. Despite that success, head coach Mike Mularkey’s job was rumored to be in jeopardy due to the Titan’s organization being reportedly dissatisfied with the development of third year quarterback Marcus Mariota. As the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, a heavy burden was placed upon the Oregon product’s shoulders, that being to be the savior of the struggling Titans. After Mariota led a historic comeback to defeat the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs in the wildcard round of the 2017 playoffs, Mularkey’s job seemed to be safe. But then came a crushing loss in the divisional round to the heavily favored New England Patriots, and Mularkey was surprisingly fired by the Tennessee shortly after.
It became apparent that the Titans were in search of a brilliant offensive mind who could utilize Mariota’s talents and push the team over the hump. That idea made their coaching hire all the more head scratching when the Titans hired Houston Texans’ defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel as head coach. It would have made too much sense to hire Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich or Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator (and quarterback guru) Matt LaFleur, but instead they went with the defensive minded Vrabel. After his hiring on January 20, 2018, Vrabel recognized the need for a sharp offensive coordinator, and went on to lure LaFleur from the Rams. LaFleur wanted the chance to call plays after not getting that opportunity in Los Angeles, where head coach Sean McVay called plays, and LaFleur’s wish will be granted in the upcoming season.
Vrabel has the luxury of taking over an already competitive team. To review the talent on the Titans, let’s take a look at the notable players that will learn Vrabel’s defense. In the secondary, there are safeties Kevin Byard and Jonathan Cyprien, who both return from 2017. In front of them are cornerbacks Adoree Jackson (returning), Logan Ryan (free agent signing from New England), and Malcolm Butler (free agent signing from New England). The linebacking corps looks nearly as fierce as the secondary, with 2018 first-round draft pick Rashaan Evans from Alabama, 2018 second-round draft pick Harold Landry from Boston College, Brian Orakpo (returning) amd Wesley Woodyard (returning). Anchoring the defensive line is veteran star Jurrell Casey (returning).
It seems like Vrabel has a lot to be excited about while preparing to work with his new defense this year.
On the offensive end, there is plenty for LaFleur to be excited about, especially Mariota at quarterback. At wide receiver, there is plenty of talent with Rishard Matthews (returning) and 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis. They have pro bowl tight end Delanie Walker (returning) to lock down the middle of the field for Mariota. There is up and coming star running back Derrick Henry in the backfield. Protecting Mariota is pro bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan (returning), who anchors the Titans offensive line. The big variable in this equation is the development of Mariota, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Fortunately for Mariota, quarterbacks seem to have success in large portions wherever LaFleur is present. To keep things short, LaFleur spent the 2016 season as the Atlanta Falcons’ QB coach. The significance to that is: Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan won the NFL MVP that season. The following season, LaFleur followed Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay to the Los Angeles Rams where McVay was sent to be the next head coach, and LaFleur was set to be the next offensive coordinator. McVay and LaFleur were given the tasks of reviving the Rams and saving 2016 1st overall pick Jared Goff, who struggled mightily in his rookie season in 12 starts as Rams quarterback. In 2017, McVay, LaFleur and Goff turned the NFL’s worst offense in 2016 into the NFL’s best offense in 2017. Goff was selected to the pro bowl that season. Mariota is quietly primed for a breakout 2018 season and should be able to shock the world and possibly win the AFC South.
Now it’s time to look at what Mike Vrabel brings. Under Vrabel, the Texans showed a number of different looks defensively, but most commonly utilized a 3-4 scheme in the dime package. This means that they most commonly used 3 down defensive linemen, 4 linebackers and 5 defensive backs, except, that adds up to 12 players. Which means that Vrabel often would take a linebacker out of the game to make room for a fifth defensive back. In his introductory press conference as Titan’s head coach, Vrabel emphasized that he would have his defense use many different looks. “I have a philosophy that we are going to have a coverage consistency and we’re going to have front multiplicity. We have great players. We’re going to introduce our coverage concepts to them, that’s going to remain consistent throughout what we do.” This basically means that Vrabel is going to stick to his ideas but will also use different schemes to keep the offense guessing. So it sounds like we can expect lots of creativity within the Titans’ defense throughout Vrabel’s tenure as head coach of the Titans.
Of course, the time has come for me to give all of you what you clicked on this article for: how much success will Vrabel have? Well, I think that it is reasonable for the Titans to win 11 games this year. Over his career, I think Vrabel will have a win % of about .682. The AFC South crown should belong to either the Titans or Jacksonville Jaguars for the foreseeable future. Yes, you heard me right, NOT the Texans. You might think “Oh, but what about DeShaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins and that defense?!” Well, confused fan, think about it. Vrabel has all the intel in the world about Watson and Texans’ head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense. They should own the Texans. The Colts are interesting, but Andrew Luck needs to prove he can get healthy and stay healthy, and there is also a myriad of holes in that roster. So, yeah. I think Vrabel should do just fine in the Country Music Capital of the World.