After Bill O'Brien was given a four year contract extension and significant input into choosing Rick Smith's replacement as Houston Texans' general manager, it felt like Texans' ownership was essentially ignoring the team's 4-12 record in 2017 and giving O'Brien and his staff a mulligan. In other words, injuries outweighed actual poor coaching when it came to O'Brien's performance evaluation.
If the Tennessee Titans' evaluation process in hiring their next head coach is any indicator, the Texans are not alone in essentially erasing their 4-12 record and all of its fallout from existence. In 2017, the Houston Texans allowed the most points in the entire NFL (436 points) and had the 23rd-rated defense, according to Football Outsiders. Mike Vrabel was the defensive coordinator skippering that unit. It was his only season as a coordinator at any level.
On Saturday, the Tennessee Titans named Vrabel their new head coach, replacing Mike Mularkey, who was let go this past Monday.
When people around the league — players, coaches, former teammates — discuss Vrabel, they rave about his football IQ and his communication skills. My radio cohost Ted Johnson, a teammate of Vrabel's for three seasons in New England, calls him the smartest player he ever played with. It's been nearly a foregone conclusion that Vrabel would become a head coach at some point, but that he is becoming one on the heels of ONE season as a coordinator, and a poor one at that, tells you how much of hiring head coaches is based on reputation and narratives, and it tells you how little some see 2017 as being anything from which you can remotely assess the Texans.
Yeah, Vrabel's defense was the worst at keeping teams from scoring all season, but they were missing J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for most of that time, and did Vrabel tell Rick Smith to let A.J. Bouye walk? That's what Vrabel's apologists will say, and it's clearly a derivative of what the Titans believe.
I have to believe that Vrabel went into his Titans interview with a clear strategy on assembling a coaching staff, as this will be the first time he's had to hire people, another cause for concern if I'm a Titans fan. Marcus Mariota is as important to the Titans as Deshaun Watson is to the Texans. The Texans' decisions with respect to O'Brien at least reflect an acknowledgement of his criticality to Watson's development and usage. What message does Vrabel's hire send about the Titans' consideration of Mariota's future, as the young QB heads into a crucial fourth year and the team enters a crucial period of contractual decision making with respect to an extension for Mariota?
The positives for Vrabel, aside from everyone being ga-ga over his charisma and football intelligence as a player, stem from his teaching ability as a position coach. Generally speaking, the linebackers he coached became much better players on his watch. Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveion Clowney, and Bernardrick McKinney all rightfully attribute Vrabel's teachings to what they've become as players.
Part of the Titans' rationale for hiring Vrabel is his relationship with their general manager, Jon Robinson, who was in the Patriots' front office during Vrabel's playing years. Courtesy of ESPN.com:
"In the interaction between Mike and Jon during the interview, you could see their connection right away from the history they have with one another — seeing the game in a similar way and talking the same language," controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said. "Mike has a commanding presence and a deep understanding for how he will attack this head coaching opportunity. Throughout his football career, he has played for, been mentored by and coached with successful teams and organizations. He knows what it takes to reach that level of sustained success — he has seen it first-hand. We have a chance to build on the solid foundation that we established over the past couple of years and I believe Mike is the right person to continue that progress."
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Sound familiar, Texans fan?
From the Texans' side, Vrabel's departure will mean a familiar face resuming duties leading the defense, as Romeo Crennel will once again assume the defensive coordinator's role while retaining the additional title of assistant head coach. Personally, I don't see this as a bad thing at all. In 2016, with Watt missing all but three games, Crennel coordinated a defense that was first in the league in yards allowed.
In other words, if we are going to pretend 2017 never happened like the Texans and Titans appear to be doing, then essentially the Texans lost a pretty good linebacker coach on Saturday, that's it. The defensive coordinator in 2018 will be the same high performer they had in 2016.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.