The hiring last week of Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel as the new head coach of the Tennessee Titans is indicative of many things, but the most important reflects the role of General Manager Jon Robinson. Unlike some teams, particularly the Patriots where Robinson worked with Vrabel for seven years, where the head coach has the final word in regards to on the field affairs, it is now clear that Robinson’s position with the Titans carries far more weight than just making the selections for the draft and doing an occasional trade or free agent pickup.
Indeed, Robinson picked Vrabel for the position more because the two of them agree on many things than anything else. The selection wasn’t the offensive guru that many felt the Titans needed to maximize the skills of QB Marcus Mariota. Vrabel had only been the Texans defensive coordinator for a season, and while he had a stellar 14-year career, including being on three Super Bowl championship teams with the Patriots from 2001-2008 while Robinson was a scout with the franchise, his experience and expertise still aren’t offensive but defensive.
However Robinson felt that was less important than having someone around who agreed with him on overall management philosophy and team direction. It was clear during Mike Mularkey’s final press conference that he did NOT agree with the contention of Robinson (and for that matter much of Titans’ ownership) regarding a lack of progress by Mariota, the general offensive stagnation of the team, or the notion that they underachieved by barely making the playoffs at 9-7 with a win in the season finale.
Furthermore Mularkey announced during the press conference that he was planning no staff changes, that he thought offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie had done a fine job, and that he didn’t view the past year as one where Mariota regressed. From his vantage point he took over a team that had won only five of 32 games over a two-year period and twice coached it to winning seasons. The Titans snapped a nine-year playoff drought and even won their first playoff game since 2003, reaching the divisional round.
But to Robinson and principal owner Amy Adams Strunk, they saw what Mularkey did as more a case of the glass half empty than half full. They viewed the three-game losing streak that nearly cost the Titans a playoff berth more severely than Mularkey did, and were alarmed at games like the victory over the hapless Cleveland Browns where the Titans prevailed but didn’t score an offensive touchdown. They also weren’t very happy about the progress of the passing game, and were concerned about the development of the two prize rookie receivers they used high draft choices to obtain. So while there were others who wished that the Titans had grabbed Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (who seems headed to Indianapolis) rather than Vrabel, Robinson seemed pleased when making the announcement on Saturday.
“I have always had a great deal of respect for Mike as a player and as a coach,” Robinson told the Associated Press. “I saw him up close as a player for the Patriots and saw how he prepared himself to be successful on a daily basis. He was the ultimate team-first player and he embodies that same mindset as a coach. He is intelligent, energetic, detailed and a leader whose deep passion for this game will resonate with our players. As a coach, I have seen him develop talent at both the college and NFL level, and put players in position for them to be successful. I am excited to get him in front of our team and watch us grow together as a team.”
Vrabel also seemed to indicate in his first public statements since accepting the position that he was in turn ready to help the Titans make the move from barely reaching the playoffs to becoming a legitimate contender. “I am excited to get to work and that work starts now,” Vrabel said in a statement. “We want to build a culture around winning, competitiveness and toughness. Everything we do is going to be geared towards winning and being physical. We want to prepare our players so they know what to do, which will allow them to play fast and aggressive.”
.Now his staff selections will be closely scrutinized. It was announced Monday that 80-year-old Dick Lebeau, a 59-year veteran of the NFL and a Hall of Famer as a player, would NOT be retained as defensive co-ordinator. So Vrabel will be bringing a completely new staff to town, even though all the current Titans coaches have contracts through 2018. His decision on both defensive and offensive coordinators, plus the various other position coaches, no doubt will prove critical as the Titans hope to truly contend for a Super Bowl berth in 2018.