Tuesday, January 16, 2018

NFL Coaching Carousel: Mike Vrabel Emerges as a Strong Fit for Titans’ Head-Coach Position

Since the Titans announced that they were parting ways with head coach Mike Mularkey on Monday morning, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel has quickly emerged as a strong fit to step in the opening — and more updates as the NFL's coaching carousel spins.

By Albert Breer
January 15, 2018

Every decision the Titans have made for three years now has been with quarterback Marcus Mariota’s development at the forefront.

When they fired Ken Whisenhunt halfway through 2015, the beheading the Titans’ quarterbacks were taking early that season pushed the issue. When they hired Jon Robinson as GM in January 2016, his time spent around Tom Brady as a scout for the Patriots and in drafting Jameis Winston as the Buccaneers’ director of player personnel were factors. And when Mike Mularkey was given the head-coaching job full-time, it was largely because he’d fixed the aforementioned protection problem.

So the Titans are about to hire an offensive guru as head coach, right?

Not so fast.

On Monday, two head-coaching spots were, for all intents and purposes, filled, and another one opened up. And one widely-held assumption early in the day was that Josh McDaniels’s availability had pushed the Titans to pull the plug on Mularkey, an idea that was punctuated by McDaniels’s offense tearing through an overwhelmed Tennessee team in Foxboro on Saturday night.

My belief is that was never the case, and McDaniels—who’s as bright a head-coaching prospect as there is on the market—probably wouldn’t have been the Titans’ lead dog had he still been available (the Colts are expected to hire the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, according to multiple reports). The reason why is simple: it’s about fit.

Over the last two weeks, as news of Mularkey’s employment status was widely reported and and written about by the media, the trust between Mularkey and Robinson fractured—and that was a piece of why talks on bringing Mularkey back broke down over the last couple of days. It may have been difficult to get Mularkey to take a Band-Aid deal and make staff changes previously. These circumstances made that impossible.

Now the Titans will look to find alignment, and the first man they requested to interview, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, is seen as a better match for the team’s brass than McDaniels from a personality standpoint. Also, he and Robinson have common background in that each spent many years in New England. Vrabel will have to sell Tennessee on his staffing choices and his vision for developing Mariota, but word of how well Vrabel interviewed in Detroit and Indianapolis has gotten around. Robinson laid out criteria for the job during his press conference on Monday, and the first thing he said he was looking for was a “leader of men.”

That’s Vrabel, whose strengths are in his presence and ability to reach people. It doesn’t mean he has job, but there’s little question that he’s well-positioned for it.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Iowa Hawkeyes in the NFL: Riley Reiff Will Play For A Trip To The Super Bowl!

By J.P. Scott
January 15, 2018

Three former Hawkeyes entered the NFL Divisional Round with dreams of making it all the way to the Super Bowl. Only one of those dreams is still alive this season.

Riley Reiff helped the Minnesota Vikings defeat the New Orleans Saints in one of the greatest postseason finishes in NFL history. His efforts helped the Vikings put up 403 yards of total offense while converting 10 of 17 3rd down attempts.

Reiff and the Vikings will now travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles — the NFC’s top seed — next Sunday. That game will kick off at 5:40 pm CST on Fox.

Dallas Clark still holds all-time postseason receiving records for tight ends

By Michael David Smith
January 14, 2018

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown on Saturday night, and he’s now within striking distance of the NFL’s all-time postseason receiving records for a tight end.

Gronk now has 835 postseason receiving yards in his career, moving him ahead of Shannon Sharpe into second place, behind only Dallas Clark. In the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Gronkowski needs just 13 yards to pass Clark for the most postseason receiving yards for any tight end in NFL history.

With 58 career postseason catches, Gronkowski is just six behind Clark’s all-time record. And with 10 postseason receiving touchdowns, Gronkowski already has the most for a tight end in NFL history and tied for third-most among all players, behind only Jerry Rice’s 22 and John Stallworth’s 12.

Asked about those records after the game, Gronkowski changed the subject.

“What’s most important is getting that win and that’s what we did,” Gronkowski said, adding that having a record is “great to hear and everything but that’s not really the main goal. Maybe down the road you can look back and look at that stuff but as of right now what our main goal is just keep on grinding, get the win and that’s what we did tonight.”

Thats what the Patriots have done throughout Gronkowski’s career, and those performances are why Gronkowski, at age 28, is already among the great tight ends in NFL history.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Former Bears rave about team’s new line coach Harry Hiestand

Harry Hiestand working with the Bears in 2006. (Chicago Tribune)

By Brad Biggs
January 11, 2018

When Harry Hiestand arrived as the Bears offensive line coach in 2005, there was a brief period of adjustment for his players.

A career college assistant, Hiestand’s intensity, especially on the practice field wasn’t what players he inherited were accustomed to as professionals. But it didn’t take long for them to embrace Hiestand’s direction, which helped them finish eighth in the league in rushing that season despite playing with rookie quarterback Kyle Orton and routinely facing eight-man fronts.

New coach Matt Nagy made a splash with his first hire Wednesday when he lured Hiestand, 59, away from Notre Dame, setting up the current group of linemen for an adjustment of their own.

“From the moment you walked into his meetings, you knew he was serious,” former guard/center Roberto Garza said. “He had a plan that you were going to buy into it and a lot of guys, we weren’t ready for that. But once you go on the field with Harry and see what he has to offer, it’s hard not to fight for this guy every single play. He is a guy you can trust. He is going to fight for his offensive linemen and you will go to bat for him every day because he is going to have your back and you are going to have his.”

Former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz didn’t hesitate in declaring Hiestand the best position coach he played for in his 13-year career.

“He gets the most out of his guys,” Kreutz said.
“He totally buys into you, which makes you totally buy into him. He’s all about the offensive line and he has no other agenda. He just wants to help you and help the team win.
“Harry doesn’t care about moving up the ladder or getting credit for anything. His total focus is on the offensive line and the details that go with that. Put him in a room and just let him coach offensive line football and that’s heaven for him.”

Hiestand served as the Bears offensive line coach from 2005 through 2009 under offensive coordinator Ron Turner, for whom he had been an assistant at Illinois the previous eight seasons. He followed with a successful run at Tennessee and in South Bend, Ind. The Irish won the Joe Moore Award last month for the premier offensive front in college football and the Irish have had four linemen drafted in the top three rounds of the NFL draft since 2013 and are expected to have guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey selected in the first round in April.

Hiestand inherits a line with four likely returning starters in tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, guard Kyle Long and center/guard Cody Whitehair. The team needs to make a decision on the 2018 option for guard Josh Sitton. His contract will pay him $8 million this season if the team executes the option, which must be done between Feb. 9 and March 9, five days before the start of the new league year.

The current players can get a scouting report on Hiestand from retired guys.

“Harry doesn’t leave any stone unturned,” Garza said. “He puts a game plan together for you to execute and you work it every single day. There is nothing fancy about it. … It’s about coming off the ball. Harry is an intense guy … (and) says a lot about a guy who comes to work every day ready to do whatever is necessary to get his linemen ready. (He) doesn’t stop. He gives you everything you need and he’s going to demand it from you. It’s up to you if you take the challenge or not.”

Monday, January 08, 2018

3 things to know about Colts coaching candidate Mike Vrabel

By Scott Horner
January 8, 2018

The Indianapolis Colts have reportedly interviewed Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel for their vacant head coaching position. He was the linebackers coach for three years before that.

Here's why the Colts are interested in Vrabel.

The Belichick factor

The New England Patriots traded Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009. As Vrabel left, Patriots coach Bill Belichick released a statement about the linebacker.

"Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player," it read. "Toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level."

Two years ago, Belichick said Vrabel used his time as a player as a tool to become an even more effective coach. From a Boston Herald story:

"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," Belichick explained. "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."

Some Belichick disciples don't have great records as head coaches: Eric Mangini was 33-47, Romeo Crennel 22-54, Josh McDaniels 12-20 and Bill O'Brien 31-31.

He has 'It'

A current NFL head coach who doesn't have a tie to Vrabel recently told Sports Illustrated's Peter King the following:

"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."

His players believe

Even though the Texans struggled defensively this season (last in scoring defense, 20th in yards allowed), Houston players believe Vrabel has what it takes to be a head coach.

"Whatever he does, he's a great coach," inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. "He pushed me to my limits, puts me in spots to make great plays. He brings the best out of everybody."

"He's a smart guy," Jadeveon Clowney said. "High-energy guy. He brings the best out of his players and he's a good coach."

New ECU coach hits the ground running

Editor’s Note: Ada News sports editor Jeff Cali had an exclusive interview with new East Central University head coach Al Johnson Friday morning. Following are some excerpts from that question-and-answer session. A community meet-and-greet with Johnson has been scheduled for Tuesday at JD’s Cafe and will run from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

By Jeff Cali
January 6, 2018

Ada News: You left the University of Wisconsin football team on a fun note. Tell me about the experience of the Orange Bowl victory over Miami.

Al Johnson: “The Orange Bowl was a great experience. It’s the first time I’d ever been. I’d been to some Rose Bowls and a lot of other bowls. It was a lot warmer than it was in Wisconsin or in Oklahoma, for that matter. I enjoyed it and the family enjoyed it, as well.”

Ada News: I’m sure it’s been a whirlwind for you since you arrived on campus. Tell me how things have been since you got here.

Al Johnson: “It was definitely a whirlwind. We left the morning of Jan. 2 and drove all day and into the night. We got here Tuesday about 10 o’clock. I got up early and got to work. You’ve just got to start prioritizing. That’s the big thing. You’re getting pulled in a lot of different directions. You have to do the HR and a lot of other things, but you really have to prioritize what needs to be done now. I have a nice long list (he shows me the list) of things to get done and mark a few off. For every one I mark off, three get added. But it will calm down. There’s just a lot to do right now with the transition.”

Ada News: A number of people have asked me why you would leave Wisconsin for little ol’ East Central. So why ECU?

Al Johnson: “I always say “why not?” This is a great university with a long tradition. This a great football town. When I moved to Dallas and played for the Cowboys, I met my wife. But I was also fortunate to meet a lot of people from Oklahoma (during his four years with the Cowboys). It started down in Hugo and kind of branched out. I was really drawn to Oklahoma because it was a lot like home. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, in a part of the country where people were genuine and you did business with a handshake. People were real. They weren’t trying to be somebody they’re not. You don’t always get that in big cities. That’s really what drew me to Oklahoma, the people.”

Ada News: I understand you were interested in the ECU football program before the head coaching position came open.

Al Johnson: “I was looking at this school for a long time before anyone on this campus knew who I was. I was watching from afar. When it actually did come available ... I decided to go with everything I had. Every person I had ever met with Oklahoma ties, I called and asked if they had ties to the university. I called every friend and every connection I had. Luckily, I had OU connections, I had Dallas Cowboys connections, and I used friends of friends who knew people who worked here. I used every connection I could to at least get my name out there to let them know I was interested. I just wanted a real look at this job and this opportunity.”

Ada News: Have you had time to sit down and meet with the returning Tiger football players yet?

Al Johnson: “I’ve only met a few returning players on campus. Timing wasn’t conducive enough to have a full team meeting. I did not want to go a month and a half from being named the new head coach to our first team meeting. So what I did is get the roster, get all their phone numbers and called all the players. I was able to get through to about 99 percent of them all. We had good conversations. It took three days, but it was worth it. I wanted to let them know I was here for them — that we are in this together. I wanted them to know I would do whatever I could to help them and this university. They had just gone through a whole month of being in limbo and not having a head coach. I didn’t want it to be another month before they heard from me. I had to answer the same questions and talk about the same things 75 times, but I believe it was worth it. I didn’t want them to go through Christmas and the holiday season not knowing what was in store for ECU football. For a lot of these kids, football is a very important part of their life. It’s what brought them to Ada, Oklahoma. I wanted them to be OK.”

Friday, January 05, 2018

Reflecting on the Todd Graham Era: Why he leaves a lasting legacy

Todd Graham runs with his team before a game against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

January 4, 2018
Brittany Bowyer

To many, Todd Graham was nothing more than an NCAA college football coach at the largest university in the country. To some, Graham was the driving force behind a positive change in college football culture. While some were outraged with his firing and others were pleased, his imprint on the program cannot be denied.

It’s a well-known fact that when Graham arrived at Arizona State the program was an absolute wreck. There were a number of off the field incidents taking place, there was no sense of “student” in the term “student athlete” and relational turmoil between players was clearly visible on the field.

This all took place under the Dennis Erickson era, which spanned from 2007-2011. When the former athletic director Lisa Love announced that Todd Graham would be taking over at Arizona State, few could have imagined how much of a legacy he would be to the program.

It was not just his ability to raise graduation rates by putting an increased importance on the scholastic aspect of the student-athlete experience. Nor was it his ability to bring the school back into the national spotlight for the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

It was his ability to motivate the players to be the best they can be both on and off the field. It was his ability to build character, and turn boys into men.

It was his ability to bring back a sense of tradition within the program, such as the installation of the Pat Tillman statue in Sun Devil Stadium and the tradition of giving the players a picture of someone special, reminding them of who they play for. It was bringing back camp Tontozona, where Sun Devil Great Frank Kush used to take the team to practice. It was bringing Frank Kush around as a guest, to remind the players of what it means to rep maroon and gold as a Sun Devil.

It was his generous contributions to the program in order to help build a state-of-the-art facility, which would have a positive impact on the current players as well as bringing in recruits. It was his ability to improve local recruiting efforts, which was lacking for many years in the past.

Among the many things unmentioned about Graham was how he believed in players that many coaches would overlook, and he would be able to get the most out of those players.
It was his ability to bring in top Junior College recruits like Jaelen Strong and Marcus Hardison, giving them a chance to shine on the big stage when the NCAA wasn’t in the cards the first time around.

Graham also had a good number of players enter the draft and go on to play in the NFL, which was something that was lacking under Erickson.

Nov 25, 2017; Todd Graham celebrates after defeating the Arizona Wildcats during the Territorial Cup at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Also often forgotten was how he was able to unite the players so they played as a team and got along better. He made the team feel like a family, truly embodying the term “Sun Devil Brotherhood”.

His faith in God helped play a part in this too, as he and a small group of players and coaches started going to church together every Sunday at the beginning of the season. By the end of the season, it became something that nearly every player looked forward to each week.

Finally, it was his 4-2 record over the Arizona Wildcats and his 46-32 overall record with the Sun Devils that will leave a lasting impact.

It says something when fans are pleading on social media to keep a head coach, even after a 7-5 regular season record. For Graham, and much of Sun Devil Nation, it was about more than just football… A culture that they hope will stick with the program despite Graham’s absence.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Coaching Candidate 2018: Mike Vrabel and His Players on His Style

• His injury-plagued defense stumbled in 2017, but Mike Vrabel’s players and other NFL insiders see the qualities that make him a prime candidate for a head-coaching job: the ability to motivate and develop talent

By Robert Klemko
January 4, 2018

Bernardrick McKinney has a story about the first time he met Mike Vrabel that begins to explain why the first-year defensive coordinator whose Houston Texans defense allowed the most points in football in 2017 is almost certainly going to become an NFL head coach this offseason or the next.

Before the 2015 combine, Vrabel came to Mississippi State to work out McKinney, an inside linebacker. Without much ceremony, Vrabel launched into yelling fits directed at McKinney. Punch harder! Run faster! Run harder! “He was really hard on me. It was very intense,” McKinney says. “Everything I did, he was yelling at me, the whole time. I’m like, Oh my god. I just knew the Texans weren’t gonna pick me. I called my momma and told her I felt like I was just in a boxing ring.”

To his surprise, Houston drafted him in the second round in 2015.

“I was like, they want me?” McKinney says. “I didn’t think I had a good workout, but I guess they did see something in me. Still to this day, he’s on me, trying to make me better. I respect it.”

Vrabel, the former NFL linebacker and utility man who was a key player on three New England championship teams, was searching for what he tries to identify in all Texans draft prospects, a quality he understood to be the driving force behind New England’s success during his eight seasons.

“I’m looking for the guys that love football,” Vrabel told me in August. “Tedy Bruschi loved football, and a lot of those other guys too. They were passionate about it, competitive, they had an energy about it.”

And they loved the game so much, they were open to being challenged in ways that make the average 21-year-old SEC linebacker uncomfortable.

“I think it woke me up,” McKinney says of that pre-draft workout with Vrabel. “I guess he wanted to see my reaction, whether I was going to keep my poise, so I just kept my mouth shut and kept working.

“Everybody coming out of college thinks they’re the top guy. I had to understand that this is a grown-man league and I had to come in and earn it every day. He pushes everybody that way.”

Vrabel’s ability to manage and develop individual players is what earned him a bump from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator last offseason. The promotion came on the heels of glowing endorsements from defensive leaders like J.J. Watt, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Whitney Mercilus, the sixth-year outside linebacker and former first-round pick who struggled in his first two seasons in Wade Phillips’ system, before the Texans brought in Romeo Crennel and Vrabel to transform the defense. Now Mercilus is annually one of Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded edge defenders.

“I think when Vrabel came, the execution, development, everything stepped up,” Mercilus says.

The Texans allowed the fewest yards in football in 2016 despite losing Watt to injury after three games. There were high expectations for both Vrabel and his defense entering 2017; having never been a coordinator, Vrabel landed eighth on a list of future head coaches in my survey of NFL minds last summer.

When I talked to Vrabel in August about his head-coaching aspirations, he said one thing that might make you believe in jinxes: “We’re lucky that J.J.’s here, and we’re lucky that Whitney’s here, and all these great guys,” Vrabel said. “We’re gonna add J.J. back into that mix and see where we can go from there.”

Of course, the Texans lost defensive anchors Watt and Mercilus to season-ending injuring early in 2017. Coupled with the free agency departure of cornerback A.J. Bouye and struggles on the offensive side of the ball after Deshaun Watson’s injury, the Texans defense stumbled, robbing the league of an opportunity to see what kind of unit Vrabel could assemble under better circumstances. But the personnel evaluators who were high on Vrabel last year had never seen him coach a defense; they each pointed to his ability to motivate and develop talent and his unique perspective on Bill Belichick’s success in New England.

Unlike the former Patriots assistants who have crashed and burned in head-coaching roles, Vrabel saw the Hoodie through the eyes of a player. From that experience he came away with some core beliefs about coaching. “That preparation is vitally important,” Vrabel says. “Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a player, being consistent, never predicting how a game is going to go, being ready for constant change, evolution. We try to take [the opponent’s] best plays and best players away from them every week and make them beat us with something that’s not their strength.

“Versatility is a huge thing. If you’re a versatile player, capable of learning more than one spot, then we can move you around and create matchups.

“If I’m making a defensive player in a test tube, I just want tough guys who love football and love their teammates.”

It’s Vrabel’s ability to find and develop those sorts of players that will have him at the helm of a franchise sooner than his 2017 record would suggest.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Vrabel Could Thrive As Lions’ Head Coach: “He’s Headed For Great Things”

Dec 10, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel sits on the bench during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

By Will Burchfield

January 3, 2018

Lions fans might not be all that familiar with Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel who will interview with the team on Wednesday for its head coaching vacancy.

Allow Texans beat writer John McClain of the Houston Chronicle to introduce him.

“I’m in my 39th year of covering the NFL, and Mike, as an assistant coach, has got head coach written all over him more than anyone I’ve ever covered,” McClain told 97.1 The Ticket.


“Not only did he have great credentials as an outside linebacker with the Steelers, Patriots and Chiefs, but everybody he played for, including Bill Belichick, knew that he wanted to be a coach. He didn’t make any bones about it.

“He has talked to Belichick a lot about coaching, why he did things organizationally, as well as the team on the field and off the field,” said McClain.

Vrabel, a one-time All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champ, enjoyed a 14-year career before getting into coaching. He joined his alma mater, Ohio State, in 2011 as a linebackers/defensive line coach and made the jump to the NFL in 2014 as the Texans linebackers coach.

Houston promoted him to defensive coordinator this season, in large part because other NFL teams were trying to poach him. The Texans defense was ravaged by injuries and allowed the most points in the league, but that did nothing to change McClain’s conviction about Vrabel’s potential as a head coach.

He has that uncanny knack for getting the most out of his players.

“Mike is a very forceful person,” McClain said. “He’s a great interview, he exudes confidence. The players who played under him at linebacker swore by him. Every coach, including (Texans head coach) Bill O’Brien, will tell you: At some point, whether it’s with the Lions or another team, Mike Vrabel’s going to be a head coach.”

In addition to the Lions, Vrabel is expected to interview with the Colts. The belief around Houston is that he’s as good as gone.

If Detroit is Vrabel’s next stop, the Lions will get a gruff, spirited, defensive-minded head coach — a stark departure from Jim Caldwell, who the team fired on Monday.

“He is tough on the players, very demanding. But he’s also very fair. He doesn’t wear his Super Bowl rings, but the players know — not from him but from the media — how successful he was, what a leader he was and how he’s always wanted to be a coach,” McClain said.

He added, “Mike was always a very commanding presence. I know he would get respect from his players.”

That’s not to say Caldwell lacked respect in the Lions’ locker room. Far from it. But his ability to motivate his players seemed to wane as his tenure wore on. The Lions came out flat in far too many games this season, and it cost them down the stretch.

By all accounts, Vrabel has no trouble inspiring his troops. Players respond to his strong personality and on-field success.

Lions general manager Bob Quinn is familiar with Vrabel as the two spent eight years together in the Patriots organization. Such a connection could give Vrabel an edge in the interview process.

McClain said it’s only a matter of time before Vrabel lands a head coaching gig. In many ways, it’s always been his calling. He joined the Texans’ staff in 2014 because he wanted to study under Romeo Crennel, his defensive coordinator for four seasons with the Patriots.

Crennel, at the time, was the Texans defensive coordinator.

“He wanted to learn more from Romeo. Not just about playing and coaching as he did with the Patriots, but about coaching a defense, about doing everything it takes to run a successful defense,” McClain said. “Crennel swears by him, too.

“I don’t know anybody who’s worked with Vrabel who doesn’t really respect Mike and believe he’s headed for great things in the NFL.”

The Lions interviewed two in-house head coaching candidates on Tuesday in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. They’re expected to sit down with Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and Packers linebacker coach Winston Moss on Thursday and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia over the weekend.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Mike Vrabel’s Name Keeps Popping Up as a Candidate for a Head Coach Opening. Here’s Why

• The former Patriots linebacker spent just one year as a coordinator with the Texans, and his unit didn’t perform particularly well. Still, he’s a prime candidate for a 2018 head coaching job. It’s his commanding presence, the Belichick connection—and the sense that if you want him, you’d better get him now

By Peter King
January 2, 2018

If you ask me what has surprised me the most over the past five days, since I’ve been asking team people and some coaches with jobs about the various coaching searches around the NFL,
I would say it comes down to this name: Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.

I have heard four people from four different teams bring up Vrabel as a possible 2018 head coach, and certainly as someone whom teams will be interested in interviewing. Detroit GM Bob Quinn will interview him for the Lions’ vacancy on Wednesday, and The MMQB’s Albert Breer says Indianapolis and Arizona could also be interested in talking to Vrabel about their openings.

The 42-year-old Vrabel, coming off his first season as a coordinator, will have some difficult questions to answer, including this one: You coached the worst scoring defense in the league in your only year as coordinator—why should we hire you as our head coach?

That will be a big one to get over. The Texans allowed seven points more per game in 2017 than in ’16, and Vrabel’s unit struggled to get over the early losses of Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt. So it’s a legitimate question, and one that coaches who have waited for an opportunity will pounce on if Vrabel gets his shot so soon.

“Of all the guys in this pool, the one I’d say who has the chance to be the best head coach is Vrabel,” one current NFL head coach with no ties to Vrabel told me on Monday. “It’s his presence, and the people he’s been around and learned from.”

Overall, the enthusiasm about Vrabel stems from these facts: He played on winning teams and know what it takes to win; he carries a lot of Bill Belichick with him from eight years as a Patriot; he has a commanding presence in front of players; and he’s seen as a unifier who can help build a winner.
Fair or unfair, that’s his rep in NFL circles at the start of this hiring process. Don’t underestimate the Belichick connection.

Vrabel’s brief bio:

• Defensive end, Ohio State, 1993-96
• Steelers linebacker/special-teamer under Bill Cowher, 1997-2000
• Patriots Swiss army knife player (pass-rusher/tight end, special-teamer) under Belichick, 2001-08
• Chiefs linebacker, 2009-10
• Ohio State assistant, 2011-13
• Texans linebackers coach, 2014-16
• Texans defensive coordinator, 2017

Vrabel is of the unique players of the Belichick era in New England. He once had three sacks and a touchdown catch in a Patriots game, and he caught TD passes from Tom Brady in two of Vrabel’s three Super Bowls with the team.

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.

Now, starting in Detroit on Wednesday, he’ll have to convince general managers and perhaps owners, if he climbs that high in the process, that he’s experienced enough to be a head coach now—and will have a plan for the offensive side of the ball. Who his offensive coordinator would be if he gets a shot is unknown.

For those who’d say it’s a year or two too early for Vrabel, I’d say this: Sean McVay got his job with the Rams at age 30 in 2017. Mike Tomlin got his job with the Steelers at 36 in 2007. The mantra around the league when those guys were hired was, basically, it’s too soon. And sometimes it is too soon for young coaches who make the leap early. But I’m reminded of what the late Dan Rooney, Steelers boss, told me when I asked him whether Tomlin might have been hired a year or two before he was ready for the big step. Paraphrasing, Rooney said: We wouldn’t be looking for a coach in a year or two. We’re looking for one now. And he wouldn’t be available the next time we’d be looking for a coach.

In coaching hires, when you like a guy, and he might be greener than you’d prefer, you’d better get him now. Vrabel might be that guy this hiring cycle.

There’s a much better alternative for GOP than toxic Hagan

Anthony Gonzalez, when he played for Ohio State. Columnist Brent Larkin believes Gonzalez is young, bright and genuinely cares about issues related to all Americans — not just some.

By Brent Larkin

December 28, 2017

Greater Cleveland Republicans involved in exacerbating their party's moral decay should circle next May 8 on their calendars.

That's when they can nominate a candidate for Congress in a rock-solid Republican district who is easily capable of losing that safe seat to a Democrat next November.

If those same Republicans don't care if they lose control of the U.S. House, Canton area State Rep. Christina Hagan is their candidate. She's a resident of the party's lunatic fringe, firmly aligned with the Steve Bannon wing of President Donald Trump's version of the Republican Party.

That's the same Trump-Bannon alliance that enthusiastically embraced failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, a homophobic slavery apologist brought down by credible allegations that he made numerous sexual advances to under-aged girls.

As Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell aptly put it, "I believe the women."

Roy Moore: Banned at the mall. Embraced by the president of the United States and his shadowy handler.

Hagan is a candidate for the open congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Renacci. Ohio's 16th Congressional District meanders its way from Stark and Wayne counties, north through parts of Portage, Summit and Medina counties, into Cuyahoga - all or parts of Strongsville, Middleburg Heights, Parma Heights, Parma, North Olmsted, Olmsted Falls, Fairview Park, Rocky River and Westlake.

The 28-year-old Hagan is a member in good standing of what is widely referred to in Columbus - by Republicans as well as Democrats - as the GOP's "caveman caucus." She twists the truth on guns and state finances, and is an author of the "heartbeat bill," an unconstitutionally restrictive abortion law vetoed by Gov. John Kasich.

Hagan proudly boasts of her unwavering support for Trump, Bannon, and Jesus Christ, not necessarily in that order. Her campaign website solemnly proclaims, "Christina believes when we fix our hearts and attention on Jesus, the founder, the author of our faith, things begin to change."

How all that "attention on Jesus" fits in with a president accused of predatory behavior by a dozen women is unexplained in Hagan's spiritual biography. It's all part of the blind spot those on the religious right have with people like Trump and Roy Moore. And it's at the core of a hypocrisy that seems to constitute the essence of their very being.

So toxic is Hagan's candidacy that normal Republican leaders in the district's southern end, near where she lives, seem to be pretending she doesn't exist. Hagan actually resides in Rep. Bob Gibbs' district.
Corry Bliss was Sen. Rob Portman's 2016 campaign manager and now runs a super-PAC hoping to preserve the GOP's House majority in 2018. The day after Moore's defeat in Alabama, Bliss explained the danger of Republicans fielding unfit candidates for Congress.

"History tells us the House is in jeopardy," he said. "Last night is a reminder that candidates matter, there's no votes in pedophilia, and next year we need to nominate strong candidates who can raise money."
Hagan fits none of those prerequisites. Fortunately, Republicans in the district have a far better option.

He is Anthony Gonzalez, a 33-year-old Greater Cleveland native, and a football star while at St. Ignatius High School and Ohio State University. When Gonzalez's NFL career was cut short by injuries, he was accepted at Stanford Business School, where he earned a master's degree.

Gonzalez is a thoughtful conservative. He's young, bright and genuinely cares about issues related to all Americans - not just some. His Cuban ancestry and star-quality potential represent everything the Republican Party should embrace.

Most, though hardly all, Republicans have figured that out. Despite never running for office, Gonzalez is crushing Hagan in the fundraising race. What's more, the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, whose leaders not long ago tried mightily to wreck the Gonzalez candidacy, is about to endorse him. Cuyahoga County represents the largest segment of the district's electorate.

Hagan's campaign manager pathetically refers to Gonzalez as a "swamp puppet." And as she falls behind in this race, expect Hagan to get nasty. (Though she'll first probably pray for permission.)

The guest of honor at a Dec. 18 event for Hagan in Stark County was Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon acolyte and former White House staffer who now works at Fox News. Gorka told Hagan supporters Trump needs her in Congress "to help make America great again." That's the same Gorka who referred to Roy Moore's primary election win in Alabama as a "revolutionary moment in American politics."

Repulsive yes. Revolutionary hardly.

Sometime next year, Hagan's candidacy will end the same way as Moore's.

Ravens defensive players want coordinator Dean Pees back

By Edward Lee

January 2, 2018

The report that surfaced Sunday morning found its way to the players who make up the Ravens defense. And if it is true that defensive coordinator Dean Pees is planning to retire after Sunday’s 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, some players say they hope Pees calls an audible.

“Dean has to make the decision for him and his family,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “If he thinks it’s time to hang it up, then he’s going to do so. We’re going to miss him, but we’d love to have him back so we can finish. Don’t nobody want to finish like this."

Added rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey: “He’s a great defensive coordinator. I hope he can stay with us for another year.”

Several players said they were uncertain the 68-year-old Pees would step away, and the best person who could answer that — Pees himself — left M&T Bank Stadium shortly after the game had ended, according to a team spokesman.

If Sunday night was Pees’ final regular-season game as the team’s defensive coordinator, he might have much to be proud of. The defense finished the regular-season leading the NFL in interceptions with 22 and total takeaways with 33.

The Ravens had allowed the fourth fewest points per game at 18.1 and were in the top 10 in fewest passing yards allowed per game (213.9), total yards allowed per game (322.8), third-down defense (37.2 percent success rate) and red-zone defense (47.6 percent). The unit was poised to finish in the top 10 for the fourth season in a row.

Those numbers might change, however, after Sunday’s loss. Cincinnati gained 146 rushing yards courtesy of a ground game that had been ranked second-to-last in the league. And with the Ravens nursing a 27-24 lead, the defense surrendered a 49-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Andy Dalton to wide receiver Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

This was cornerback Brandon Carr’s first year with the Ravens, but it did not take him long to understand Pees’ value to the defense.

“His fingerprints are all across this defense,” said Carr, who tied a career high in interceptions with four. “Just the years that he’s been here, you’ve seen the shutouts and big-game defenses that we’ve had from his play-calling. So without him, moving forward, if it happens that way, we’re going to miss him. But at the same time, it’s going to be time for the next person to step up, that next signal caller for the Ravens defense to go out here and call some plays for us.”

If Pees does retire, finding his successor will be a significant priority in the offseason. Coach John Harbaugh has promoted from within on all three occasions during his tenure when he’s had to hire a new defensive coordinator, and linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale is expected to be the top candidate. Martindale was the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator in 2010 and played a crucial role in developing young linebackers C.J. Mosley, Zachary Orr and Patrick Onwuasor.

There could be some intriguing options outside of the organization. Chuck Pagano was fired by the Indianapolis Colts after Sunday’s win against the Houston Texans, and Pagano was the Ravens defensive coordinator in 2011, the year before Pees took over. Indianapolis defensive coordinator Ted Monachino was the Ravens linebackers coach from 2012 to 2015.

Although word of Pees’ plan began trickling to the players before Sunday’s game, Carr said there was not much talk among them.

“If anything, [it was,] ‘Let’s go out with a bang.’ That was the main thing,” he said. “But I didn’t put too much weight into it. I’ve been around long enough and lot of stories come out around this time, a lot of distractions. It’s just noise. Just block it out. I don’t think anybody talked about that today.”

But with an unclear offseason awaiting the organization, the defensive players spoke glowingly of how meaningful Pees has been to them.

“All I can say is I appreciate him,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “He’s the best defensive coordinator I’ve ever been around. From his resume alone, he’s a top defensive coordinator.
If he’s not here, hopefully God is with him, and he has a great life and is prosperous in what he does. Hopefully though, he’s back. He’s a guru.”

Said Mosley: “I love him. He’s had a long career, way before I was born. I love him as a man. Obviously, it’s something out of our control, but he’s got my full support no matter what he does.”

Trey Flowers in no rush to bring attention to himself and his potentially career high sack numbers

By Jeff Howe

December 31, 2017

FOXBORO — Defensive end Trey Flowers is peerless among Patriots pass rushers over the past two seasons, and he has a chance to set a career high today in the regular-season finale against the Jets at Gillette Stadium.

Flowers has 6.5 sacks, which is just shy of his seven from a season ago. Barring a late charge from linebacker Kyle Van Noy (5.5 sacks, but potentially inactive due to a calf injury) or rookie defensive end Deatrich Wise (five sacks), Flowers will lead the team in back-to-back seasons.

It just isn’t a huge deal to him.

“It is what it is. I’m not looking for any milestones,” Flowers said. “As long as we get the win, as long as I do my job, that’ll be cool.”

Flowers has been impactful across the board. He leads the Patriots with 20 quarterback hits, 18 pressures and 44.5 disruptions (sacks, hits and pressures). Those numbers would have led the team last year, too, even including all playoff games, which is indicative of the punishment Flowers has levied upon opponents.

Plus, Flowers missed two games this season, and offenses targeted him far more frequently than in 2016, when the Pats also had Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long to help the pass rush.

Flowers, who is consistently businesslike with his approach, said it’s just been his job description to be better this season, and there’s nothing more to it.

“I know my role has increased, so therefore my opportunities to be productive have increased,” Flowers said. “It’s my job to continue as such and keep getting better.”

The stats don’t always tell the story, either. A great pass rush might not result in a sack, but maybe an incompletion or interception, or possibly even a sack for someone else. But regardless of how Flowers’ season is measured, it’s blown away his production from his breakout campaign from a year ago.

“I’m not a real numbers guy,” Flowers said. “I’m more about impact. Oftentimes, you probably get a good rush, but he could let the ball go in a second and it’s an incomplete pass, so there are things like that. I’m not a big numbers guy. I want to be as impactful as I can, do the best job I can.”

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