Monday, December 14, 2015
By Tom Curran
December 13, 2015
HOUSTON – I never should have asked. I realized that right after I got the answer.
It’s 12 years ago almost to the day that a feature story I’d written on Mike Vrabel ran in the Providence Journal. December 11, 2003. I checked. I followed the usual formula – talk to the coaches, talk to the teammates, call the high school coach, get an anecdote or two and slam it in the Sunday paper.
A couple of days later, I asked Vrabel if he’d seen it.
“Yeah. It was kinda boilerplate.”
What a dink.
But I re-read it yesterday. It was kinda boilerplate.
The Patriots play the Texans on Sunday. Mike Vrabel, now 40, has been a linebackers coach in Houston for two seasons. This provides me with all the cover I need to write about Vrabel again. Can’t help it. He was absolutely one of the best players I covered on so many levels.
He just had a blunt, brutal, biting sense of humor and an impeccable sense of timing. “Like Vince Vaughan on steroids,” is how Stephen Gostkowski described Vrabel this week.
He was one of the smartest players the Patriots have had – and that’s Bill Belichick’s appraisal, not mine. He was as strong a leader – a leader of the leaders – during his eight seasons in New England.
If Vrabel decides to chase a head coaching job – which would mean determining he can deal with the amount of BS an NFL head coach has to deal with – he could probably land one.
“If he wanted to, he would be able to be a head coach at this level when the right time is appropriate,” said Vince Wilfork, who played with Vrabel for five seasons and plays under him now. “I think he knows that. I have so much respect for him, not only as a coach, but what he has done as a player, just being able to sit in a captain’s meeting with him or sit on the sideline or sit in some meetings as a player, we watch film together, how he looks at the game, or when him and (Patriots Head Coach) Bill (Belichick) used to talk all of the time about football in general, he is very, very, very brilliant when it comes down to football, so I definitely see him having a coaching career at this level, being the head coach when the right time is appropriate.”
If he did choose that path, Vrabel would be an anomaly. There just aren’t many accomplished players that become head coaches. Used to be. Not now.
The list of current NFL coaches that played in the league is six names long. They are (listed by level of NFL accomplishment) Jack Del Rio, Ron Rivera, Todd Bowles, Jason Garrett, Gary Kubiak and Jeff Fisher. Why aren’t there more former players that ascend? Maybe because the dues-paying and relentless pressure isn’t real appetizing for a player once his career ends. Maybe he got his pro football itch scratched and made more money and contacts while playing than the players of other generations.
It’s clear, though, that having played in the NFL isn’t a prerequisite to coaching successfully. And yet, the most accomplished NFL coach of his generation – Belichick – acknowledges there are things former players can lend that he cannot.
“I think Mike has a great mind for (coaching), great passion for it,” said Belichick. “He’s got great playing experience, so he can draw on things that honestly I can’t. I’ve never played in this league. I can’t draw on those, so I think there is definitely some advantage to that. I don’t think that’s a ticket. There are a lot of other things that go into it, too, but if it’s used properly I think it’s valuable.”
The truth is, Vrabel didn’t begin coaching in 2011 when he retired to join the Ohio State staff. He started coaching when he was playing.
“He’d give me advice and I would tell him, ‘Mike when you’re a coach and you’re calling the defenses, you should go ahead and do that. Here’s why we’re not going to do that. Or that’s a great idea. We can do that, that’s good, I’m glad you brought that up,’ ” said Belichick. “Mike is not afraid to make a suggestion, and we’ve had a lot of good discussions even when he was at Ohio State or when he was in Kansas City for that matter, we would bump into each other from time to time, but when he was Ohio State particularly when he got into coaching, we would talk about different things, whether it would be X’s and O’s or managing players or practice tempo or whatever it was. It could be general coaching things.”
The psychology of a particular team – the order of the hive, in a sense – is something Vrabel seemed particularly attuned to when he was a player.
“There was a select few when you got here – him, Tom (Brady), (Tedy) Bruschi, (Larry) Izzo, Rodney (Harrison), (Richard) Seymour – that you knew were the guys that everyone respected,” said Stephen Gostkowski, who came to the Patriots in 2006. “Those were the guys who won championships, who were well-liked around the locker room, were respected. You had to earn their respect. And Vrabel was one of the guys who really gave me a hard time my rookie year but when I proved I could play in this league he was really cool.”
Vrabel was like a beat cop when he was with the Patriots. Eyes everywhere. Involved. I remember watching him walk up to a player in the locker room just signed in the middle of a season, stick out his hand, introduce himself and tell the kid to find him if he needed anything. He was a media critic. His interactions with Mike Felger when Felger was on the beat were amusingly awkward because Vrabel would poke, poke, poke at Felger and Felger would persistently poke back. He would roll his eyes at Belichick when Belichick would go on about the 1980s Giants defense.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody that’s funnier,” said Gostkowski. “He had a comeback for everything. You could never get the better of him probably physically or mentally. He was someone I really looked up to coming in and I just wanted to prove to those guys that I belonged. I just kept my mouth shut until I felt a bit more accepted. But he was just non-stop. When you’re a rookie you can’t do anything without someone pointing it out to you how you did it wrong. And Mike’s one of those guys whose voice stuck out. Some people’s way of saying things affect you more than others. Him, Josh Miller and Tom were the ones who started calling me ‘Meat’ after 'Bull Durham' I can still hear his voice in my head. You could tell he was probably going to be a coach the way he carried himself.”
His personality hasn’t dulled in Houston.
“He is always laughing just like when we played,” said Wilfork. “Telling jokes all of the time and talking crap all of the time, but Vrabel is being Vrabel. The Vrabel that you have seen as a coach is the same Vrabel that I have as a coach, which is funny to me, but it is awesome to have that in a room, especially with the younger generation of guys coming up that they can kind of relate to a coach that is young, but played the game at a high level and has some accolades himself, Super Bowls and big games and stuff like that. I think guys cling onto him like they should and I am just here to let them know that what you see here now is what I had as a player and just the fun that we had was just amazing. He is still the same way.”
Blunt, funny and having been a great player only gets you so far, though. It’s Vrabel’s intelligence that separates him, in Belichick’s mind.
“He’s played different systems, he’s played different positions,” said Belichick. “He’s played offense, defense, special teams. He’s played end, he’s played linebacker. He would play free safety in practice for us probably once or twice a year, especially when we were up against a guy like Ed Reed or somebody who you really didn’t know what he would do. You would just say go back there and go with what you see and if you want to gamble, gamble. Mike, he would love that. He would drive [Tom] Brady crazy doing that, like, ‘He’ll never be there on that pattern,’ but it’s Ed Reed – you didn’t know where Ed Reed would be. He was usually wherever the ball was. He somehow got there.
“Even when he first got here, that was only his fifth year in the league or whatever it was, you could even kind of see it then and his career wasn’t even half over and he was already thinking about coaching,” said Belichick. “You could kind of tell when he got done playing that’s what he was going to do. That came up pretty early. But he had a real passion for not just knowing his position but understanding the total game. He was always very good on things like being able to anticipate what the offense was going to do, hearing a call and then that call coming up later – maybe not even that game, maybe it was like the next year we played them – a guy like [Peyton] Manning who is making checks at the line of scrimmage or things like that. He had a lot of those little things that you never see on film but somehow he knew them or he figured them out or anticipated them and made a lot of instinctive plays or plays based on experience and just knowledge.”
If Vrabel does become a head coach, his sideline manner won’t be mistaken for Pete Carroll’s.
“Mike was really tough,” said Belichick. “He was a tough football player. I’m sure that comes across in his coaching as well. I don’t think he babies them. I don’t think there’s a lot of sitting around eating marshmallows. That’s not really his style.”
It’s a style all his own. Far from boilerplate.
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