Mike Vrabel Should Be NFL's Coach of the Year—and It's Not CloseNovember 18, 2021
Kliff Kingsbury. Brandon Staley. Sean McVay. Mike Vrabel. Matt LaFleur. Bill Belichick.
Those are the names most commonly brought up in NFL Coach of the Year conversations—yet they all pale in comparison to the Tennessee Titans' Vrabel.
Vrabel, somewhat quietly thanks to a strange AFC, is like a Hollywood blockbuster script's idea of a coach of the year through 10 weeks. His team has won eight games already, sprinting out to the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The Titans have endured more setbacks than most teams this season. They have won six in a row, the NFL's top current streak, and are 6-0 against teams that made the playoffs last season (7-0 accounting for a sweep of Indianapolis).
Those numbers would be impressive before looping in the dramatic setbacks. But the Titans have already cycled through a stunning 82 players, which is close to an NFL record—set by teams over the course of 16 games.
Sports Illustrated's John Glennon put this into context:
The last teams to reach that mark were San Francisco in 2020 and Miami in 2019—the former finished 6-10, the latter 5-11. Vrabel's squad is 8-2 and not just dominating a conference but teams with recent playoff resumes.
Chief among the losses, of course, is star running back and borderline MVP candidate Derrick Henry. Over eight games, he rushed for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns on a 4.3 yards-per-carry average, putting him in range of 2,000-plus yards for a second consecutive season.
Since Henry went down in Week 8 with a foot injury that could keep him out for the rest of the regular season, the Titans haven't mustered 300 yards of offense in a game. Since his injury, the offense has totaled just 135 rushing yards on a 2.5 yards-per-carry average over its last two games.
Henry is one of the double-digit names that comprises one of the NFL's biggest injured reserve lists, though. 2021 first-round corner Caleb Farley is there. So is star wideout Julio Jones. Not that names have to be on the list to be noteworthy, though—star pass-rusher Bud Dupree, after joining from the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency, has appeared in just seven games and left his most recent outing after one snap.
The losses extend beyond the simple, too. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith in the offseason. The coach's work with the veteran passer last year helped him earn the head coaching gig with the Atlanta Falcons, a team off to a 4-5 start.
But Tannehill hasn't skipped much of a beat, completing 66.5 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He's not a statsheet stuffer, but the efficiency even without Henry to take pressure off explains the 89.5 Pro Football Focus grade, placing him just a hair under the "elite" category.
As The Athletic's Ben Baldwin pointed out, he's still thriving despite a miserable showing by the line in front of him:
Computer Cowboy @benbbaldwin
I'm not sure people are fully appreciating what Ryan Tannehill is doing this season. After yesterday, the Titans have 3rd-worst pass block grade and these are the skill position players he's working with. And he's still No. 10 in EPA/play, similar to Josh Allen & Aaron Rodgers https://t.co/cMgce1a3Mp
So what has Vrabel done since Henry went down? For one, "he treats every single week differently," as star safety Kevin Byard told Rich Eisen on the Rich Eisen Show recently. That sounds like a little thing, but other teams that don't adapt what they do on a weekly basis, particularly hot starters that cool off once opponents get fresh film to start a season, generally do worse.
The Titans don't have that problem because of Vrabel's approach, surely learned under Belichick in New England as a player. And, in general, the team already flashed this malleable ability to line up with anyone and win with various personnel in Week 8, an overtime escape of Indianapolis. Henry got stuffed for 68 yards on a 2.4 per-carry average, but the defense picked off two passes to seal the win.
That's not a lone example. In Week 7, it was all about the defense in a 27-3 rout of Kansas City that had some questioning whether Patrick Mahomes' regression was permanent.
Zooming back, this isn't anything new for Vrabel. He helped yank the Titans out of the Marcus Mariota era, took on Tannehill—who nobody wanted—and slowly rebuilt the program. This past offseason, he nailed two tough coordinator decisions, with Todd Downing taking over the offense and Shane Bowen the defense. Both were internal promotions.
We could nitpick about the fact the AFC is an unpredictable mess where nobody seems to want to emerge as the front-runner. The AFC South is laughably soft again, with Indianapolis at .500 and both Houston and Jacksonville combining for three wins. Tennessee caught the Chiefs in the middle of their tailspin, New Orleans with a backup quarterback and even lost to the two-win New York Jets. Loosened practice squad call-up rules in the last two seasons might help inflate the number of players used too.
But at this rate, there's no reason to think anything can stop the Titans. They're at eight wins already and boast the league's easiest remaining schedule. New England and Pittsburgh are tough opponents, but the Titans have overcome tougher opponents already, and if all else fails, games against Jacksonville, San Francisco, Miami and two against Houston will butter up the record.
There's no doubt Kingsbury has been impressive for the 8-2 Cardinals in a brutal NFC West. But he's got the luxury of going all-in with a Madden-esque roster. Staley has worked wonders with Justin Herbert's development, McVay is McVay, now with Matthew Stafford, LaFleur has the Packers at eight wins while navigating some quarterback drama and Belichick is dragging the Patriots to AFC East contention with first-round passer Mac Jones.
But none of that is as impressive as Vrabel's sprint to eight wins. Not when considering the wealth of injuries. Not when factoring in the difficulty of the schedule and the consistency in overcoming it. Heck, Vrabel's dominating the league with a downhill-based rushing attack and opportunistic defense in the era of the passing game while being malleable enough to line up against anyone.
Generally, these awards go to coaches who overcome expectations, and that works against the Titans a little bit. Most expected they'd contend, because of a weak division if nothing else. But the Henry injury and the spotlight it helps point on the stunning number of ailments helps form an irresistible narrative, especially if they cruise through the rest of this season.
Few teams have faced more adversity than the Titans, and if the performance on the field is a reflection of the coach's identity within the program he's building, Vrabel's the coach of the year in a competition that isn't up for debate much at all.