Growing pains, high expectations face Titans' new head coach
By TERESA M. WALKER
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Mike Vrabel has been around the NFL long enough to know that he will have some growing pains as a first-time head coach.
His goal with the Tennessee Titans is pretty basic.
Don't make the same mistake twice.
"There's going to be a lot of things that are going to come up for the first time ...," Vrabel told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"I'm going to make mistakes. I'm not going to make too many of them hopefully and not make the same mistake twice. And learn from the mistake and be able to ask for advice."
Vrabel seemingly has been destined to be an NFL head coach for years, even during his 14-year career as a linebacker with Pittsburgh, New England and Kansas City.
The only question after Vrabel started coaching first as an assistant at his alma mater at Ohio State and then the NFL's Houston Texans was which team would hire him first.
The Titans had tried men with prior experience as NFL head coaches in Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey. Whisenhunt was fired in November 2015 with a 3-20 record , while Mularkey was fired in January despite consecutive 9-7 seasons and the franchise's first playoff victory in 14 years .
Controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and general manager Jon Robinson, who first met Vrabel when both men worked in New England, hired Vrabel five days after firing Mularkey as the team's 19th head coach.
Vrabel filled his coaching staff with a combination of experience and youth. He convinced Matt LaFleur, who also interviewed for the Titans' head coaching job, to be his offensive coordinator and lured Dean Pees out of retirement to be his defensive coordinator.
Pees, who coached Vrabel in New England, said he always knew Vrabel would be a great coach someday even if he didn't know if it would be in college or the NFL.
"The thing about Mike he's everything that you expect and want out of a player," Pees said.
"He's tough, he's an overachiever, he's smart as heck. He's got an incredible work ethic, so when I'm watching him and watching his style of coaching I'm not surprised one bit at any of it to be honest with you."
After hiring his coaching staff, Vrabel has made other changes with each move dissected for any signs of installing the "Patriot Way" in Nashville .
He closed the locker room to the media during the team's offseason program, instead having reporters talk to players on the practice field. Vrabel talked about his decision but didn't waver.
Vrabel also has tried to make clear that he's been influenced by many coaches from Bill Cowher and John Mitchell in Pittsburgh, Bill Belichick in New England, Urban Meyer at Ohio State to Bill O'Brien in Houston.
"I think that my personality is probably different than Bill and Urban," Vrabel said. "Probably a little similar to Bill O'Brien. But it's still kind of just who I am and appreciate everything that I've learned from those coaches."
On the field, Vrabel has been a hands-on coach who has jumped on a blocking sled and shown rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans a specific technique he wanted. He also veered off script in practices, calling out different downs and distances to test how everyone reacted - including himself.
"He's going to be taping ankles sooner or later," four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo said.
"I mean he's going to be cooking lunch. This guy is all over the place, and we love it. It's high intensity, high motor, energetic. Sometimes you really can't tell if he's joking or not. But he's still a player's coach and we're thrilled that he's on board."
The Titans wrapped up their offseason program last week , and Vrabel said he feels settled in now after working to get a feel for each person's strengths and weaknesses. That also included some self-scouting for how Vrabel can improve as a head coach.
Now he's got a break before rookies, quarterbacks and injured Titans report July 22 followed by the rest of the team July 25 for training camp. Vrabel won't coach his first game until Aug. 9 when Tennessee opens the preseason in Green Bay. The Titans' season opener is Sept. 9 in Miami.
And Vrabel knows he faces very high expectations even if this is his first season.
"Everybody knows what the expectations are," Vrabel said. "It's to win."
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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
Updated June 20, 2018