When Chris Ballard set out to find the next head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, he made it very clear that preparation and the ability to teach and lead players into battle on a football field was more important than previous head coaching experience or age. There have been plenty of coaches come through Indianapolis who were inspirational figures and proven NFL coaches but there was always something missing.
Under Chuck Pagano there is no doubt that players loved him, admired him as a man, and even that he left a positive lasting impression on his players. Still, those players couldn’t bring themselves to display that admiration on the football field. They loved him but either didn’t respect him or were not inspired by him when the lights came on. True coaches, ones that can inspire the hearts and minds of their players off of the field and demand their respect and command their performance on the football field are hard to come by.
One man who seems particularly suited to be that total package is Mike Vrabel. I’ll say up front that I don’t know anything about how meticulous he is in his preparation. I don’t know how much Houston’s defensive struggles are a reflection on his shortcomings as a coordinator or limitations as a coach.
I know that the Texans were miraculously as injured as the Colts. I know that J.J. Watt is arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL when healthy and I know that Whitney Mercilus may have been the team’s best pure pass rusher. I know that the front office was unable to retain A.J. Bouye in free agency and that they were not able to replace his skills on the back end.
How much of that falls on a first year defensive coordinator, how much of that falls on the front office for failing to have depth who could fill in, that is all hard to say. The Texans still had one of the better run defenses in the league, so I guess Vrabel has that going for him.
It is entirely fair to turn up the pressure on Vrabel about the 2017 Texans defense. It might be the most meaningful question for him to answer.
“Mike, the Texans came into the season projected to compete with Jacksonville for the AFC South Championship. Instead, your team finished at the bottom of the division and your defense finished near the bottom of the league in scoring and was particularly suspect through the air. Fans in Indianapolis have been frustrated with this kind of defensive performance for over a decade, how do we go to our fans and tell them that you’re our new head coach after Houston’s defensive struggles in 2017? Why should we hire you for this position with this backdrop, one season as a coordinator who led one of the top defenses in 2016 to the bottom in 2017?”
That’s a tough one. It would take a very strong answer, meticulous preparation, a developed notebook from his experiences this season, and evidence of rare leadership to overcome this question. One thing is for sure though, Vrabel’s history suggests that he is the kind of candidate who might be able to display all of these things.
Peter King put together a story on coaching candidates who are making their rounds this off-season and picked Vrabel out as potentially the most surprising and fastest rising. One NFL coach who King interviewed and who has no ties to Vrabel said:
Of all the guys in this pool, the one I’d say who has the chance to be the best head coach is Vrabel. It’s his presence, and the people he’s been around and learned from.
King also made numerous observations as he completed his research on Vrabel and talked to people around the league. The most powerful passage from his story lays out a cliff’s note version of Vrabel’s background.
Those who know him, or have seen him coach, or have been teammates with him over his 14-year playing career say Vrabel has it. He has a strong presence in front of players, and players respond to him. He was never afraid to spar with Belichick, or to reinforce Belichick’s locker-room message. When Vrabel left Kansas City after the 2010 season, I’m told he was the most respected man in the locker room. After retiring in 2011 and beginning his coaching career at Ohio State, he had a major impact on recruiting.
Needless to say, there are legitimate reasons to believe that Vrabel might have “it” and it doesn’t just stop with Peter King’s reporting or the opinion of one random NFL coach. Maybe the most impressive part of Vrabel’s background and what could be his biggest advantage over the other candidates is his playing career. No one can paint a better picture of the kind of player Vrabel was and how it can translate to coaching than his former head coach Bill Belichick.
I think Mike’s got a great mind for it, great passion for it. He’s got great playing experience. He can draw on things. I never played in this league. I can’t draw on those. I think there’s definitely an advantage. I don’t think that’s a ticket. There’s a lot of other things that go into it, too, but I mean that’s something that, if it’s used properly, I think it’s valuable.
So, what exactly can Vrabel draw from in terms of his experience as a player? We know he was a defensive player who would terrorize quarterbacks as a pass rusher but does that tell the whole story? Belichick makes it clear that Vrabel was something different, something special as a player.
Mike was a great player who played in different systems. He played different positions. He played on offense, defense, special teams. He played tight end. He played linebacker. Honestly, he would play free safety in practice for us once or twice a year, especially when we were up against a guy like Ed Reed who really knew what he was going to do. Just say, ‘OK, sit back there and go with what you see. If you want to gamble, gamble.’
And Mike, he would love that. He’d drive Brady crazy. It’s Ed Reed, you didn’t know where he was going to be. He was usually wherever the ball was. He somehow got there. So, Mike did that. You could just see his overall passion for the game, whether it was offense, defense. He had a great total understanding of the game and loved to play it. Loved to play tight end. If it was a big receiver, he’d play receiver (on scout team).
There aren’t very many players who are good enough to be used on offense and defense when you get to the NFL level. Vrabel caught touchdown passes from the tight end position from Tom Brady to help lift the Patriots to Super Bowl wins. Vrabel ate the Colts for lunch regularly early in his career and was one of a handful of New England defenders who would find a way to turn the game in their favor. What linebacker, tight end have you ever heard of filling in for a Hall of Fame safety in practice and finding ways to emulate that player and frustrate their starting quarterback -- at 6’4” and 260 lbs?
Look, Vrabel may not be the guy for the Colts. If I could choose, I would have him be a part of a Josh McDaniels led staff as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator but I wouldn’t be surprised if that offer wouldn’t be enough to lure him away from Houston or away from his other offers. He is on a fast track to a head coaching opportunity and he may very well get that chance in 2018.
No matter where he ends up or how his interview goes today with Chris Ballard, it’s hard to argue that he would command respect in the locker room. It’s hard to imagine that when he would give orders and make difficult calls players would realize that he is pulling from the experience of winning three Super Bowls during his playing career. If he truly has “it,” and I think it’s very likely that he does, he could be one of those rare coaches who checks off all the boxes.