Friday, January 13, 2006

He's a Real Smart Guy

Vrabel's sharp mind (and wit) serves him well

By Jackie MacMullan, Globe Staff | January 13, 2006

FOXBOROUGH -- He is the only one who can get away with it.

Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel will not only perform hilarious impressions of Bill Belichick right in front of him -- he'll actually do it in the middle of a practice that is going extremely poorly, and still elicit a chuckle from his normally deadpan coach.

"Bill has granted Mike immunity," said former teammate Ted Johnson. "He has written him a free pass. And you know what? Vrabel deserves it. He's a great football player. He's so versatile, and no one is tougher. There are only three guys on defense that never need to come out of the game in Bill's scheme, and Mike is one of them. That's because his skill sets are so far more advanced than anybody else."

We take it for granted that Vrabel is an indispensable piece of a New England defense that has won three Super Bowls in four years, and will continue its quest for a fourth tomorrow night in Denver. Vrabel has proven to be a big-play defender, and an opportunistic goal-line receiver (8 career receptions, 8 touchdowns). Yet it was only six years ago that Vrabel was a largely unnoticed Steelers free agent defender with a thin NFL résumé and only a couple of viable options.

One was to play for New England and Bill Belichick. His decision to follow that course cemented a relationship of mutual respect and admiration between a coach and a player, who, on the surface, appear to be nothing alike. Belichick is as guarded as Vrabel is boisterous. The coach is introverted; the player wouldn't even begin to know how to be.

Yet their common traits are striking. Both grew up as the only child of a coach, and reveled in the time they spent watching their fathers at work. Both were reared by educators who insisted on intellectual as well as athletic stimulation. Each developed a keen interest in the nuances of the game. Neither spares feelings when they see football played poorly.

Some players just want to know their assignment; Vrabel prefers to break down that assignment, analyze its benefits and its deficiencies, then tweak it so he can maximize his abilities. No wonder the coach and the player have developed such an unusual relationship, which includes the kind of competitive banter that has managed to keep the team loose during pressure moments.

"We heard a story about Mike up there in New England that didn't surprise us," said Gerry Rardin, Vrabel's high school football coach. "I guess one of Bill Belichick's favorite expressions when something goes wrong is, 'I've been in football 40 years and I've never seen anything like this!' Well, apparently one day in practice, somebody screwed up pretty good. The whole team knew they were in trouble, and there was this uncomfortable silence while the players all waited for Coach Belichick to explode.

"At that point, Mike took off his helmet and shouted, 'I've been in football 40 years and I've never seen anything like this!' From what they tell me, even Coach Belichick had to laugh."

Vrabel likes his fun, but there are some matters he does not find amusing. You better be fit, attentive, and prepared if you plan on being his teammate. If you aren't, he won't tolerate it.

"He was the first true enforcer I had," said Dave Kennedy, Vrabel's strength and conditioning coach at Ohio State. "In Andy Katzenmoyer's first year with us, he was having trouble keeping up. We went out running, and Mike clipped Andy from behind as he passed him.

"He talks so much, but he gets away with it because he outruns and outworks everyone. The offensive guys hated his guts. If they didn't do things right, he had no problem telling them.

"Our offensive coordinator, Joe Hollis, couldn't stand Mike. He'd say, 'That Vrabel, he has all the answers.' Of course, the frustrating part for Joe was Mike really did have all the answers."

Personality, versatility

One of the indelible qualities of Belichick's New England teams has been their unflagging devotion to preparation. Vrabel, along with fellow linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, quickly made that a prerequisite for all newcomers on defense. Pop quizzes in the locker room were not uncommon. The linebackers were mainstays in the weight room, and chastised those who didn't follow suit.

Vrabel proved to be a quick study, whether it was when he was 7 years old and his father was teaching him how to bunt, or when he was 28 years old and Belichick was teaching him a new scheme.

"When you tell Mike something, that's pretty much it," Belichick said earlier this week. "He has it and processes it and can recall it and put it into application, whereas [with some other guys] you are repaving those roads all the time."

Vrabel's ability to grasp new concepts has made him a favorite, from Little League all the way to the NFL. At one point or another, every coach interviewed for this story (with the exception of Belichick) described Vrabel as someone "who knew as much about what we were doing as the coaches did."

Naturally that kind of cachet provides you with some latitude.

"I remember coming into school one morning and the light was on in my office," said Rardin, who still coaches football at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "I opened up my door and there was Mike, sitting in my chair, with his feet up on my desk and a big smile on his face.

"A couple of years after he left us, I went to visit him at Ohio State. He was in [coach] John Cooper's office, with his feet up on his desk.

"But you didn't mind. There was no disrespect involved. In fact, many times when he put his feet up on that desk, he would make some football suggestions that made an awful lot of sense."

On game days, Vrabel's playful demeanor often evaporated once his cleats were knotted. Rardin recalls a tight game late in Vrabel's senior season that was slipping away.

"Mike was doing his best to get our team fired up on the sidelines," Rardin said.

"Then he strapped his helmet, ran on the field, rushed the quarterback, and ran over the blocking back to get to him. Then he ran over the quarterback and knocked the ball out of his hands. He fell on the ball and recovered it. I had never seen anything like it. It was the turning point of the game."

Vrabel developed a reputation at Ohio State as a hard-nosed throwback player who held each and every one of his teammates accountable.

"He was relentless," said Kennedy. "And if you were the right kind of person, you really appreciated that."

Bill Belichick was the right kind of person. He loved Vrabel's competitiveness, inquisitiveness, and combativeness. In 2000, Vrabel was a free agent who had difficulty finding his niche in a powerful and talented Steelers defense. He was viewed as a "tweener" who neither fit the Steelers' bill as a defensive end nor linebacker, and was relegated mostly to situational series and special teams play.

"My final season there, I got one series per half," Vrabel said. "I'd always hope the series would be 10 or more plays, so I could be on the field longer. When it was three plays and out, you'd sort of said to yourself, 'Oh well, get ready for kickoff duty.'"

Steelers coach Bill Cowher cited Vrabel for his work ethic and his attitude, and was willing to offer him a new contract to return. But Vrabel went looking for a more promising future. Only one other team came calling: New England. The first meeting between Belichick and Vrabel was brief, but memorable.

"I knew right away it was a good fit," Vrabel said. "Bill [Belichick] knew a lot about me. He asked me about Pittsburgh, and why I didn't play more. Then he said, 'Well, if you play like you did in that second series against Miami in the preseason, you'll be fine.'

"I walked out of there thinking, 'OK, here's a guy who really knows what he's talking about.'"

As one Patriots season folded into another, and the careers of the coach and the player blossomed, Vrabel discovered Belichick was willing to listen to a contrary view. Belichick, meanwhile, discovered he had a player with an uncommonly high football IQ.

Over time, as the two grew more comfortable with each other, their give-and-take became highlights of an often long and grueling season.

"Mike's comedic timing is impeccable," said Johnson. "He also judges Bill very well. We'd be in a team meeting, and he'd have a good sense of whether Bill was really ticked off, or just kind of ticked off.

"Next thing you know, he'd yell something from the back of the room that will just crack everyone up -- including Bill, who had no problem giving it right back to him."

"When you are the smartest kid in the class, and you already know all the answers on the test, you can afford to be a little sarcastic with the teacher," offered long snapper Lonie Paxton. "The position I'm in, I just keep my mouth shut."

Unselfish transition

When Mike Vrabel was a senior at Walsh Jesuit High School, he narrowed his choices to Ohio State and Michigan before choosing the Buckeyes. He had been a three-sport star at Walsh, but once he committed to a big-time college football program, a number of people informed basketball coach Frank Lupica that he would likely have to do without Vrabel.

"The so-called 'experts' told me Mike would be too busy getting ready for Ohio State football to play basketball with us," Lupica said. "They didn't know Mike. He came out for the team, like I knew he would. At our school, there is no out of bounds on the court during practice. We play wall to wall. Mike dove just as hard into the bleachers to get those balls after his football scholarship as he did before."

In his senior year, Vrabel led the basketball team to a 16-4 record. He kept his teammates loose by doing a dead-on impression of Lupica, sitting with his legs crossed, his hand resting on his chin a certain way, and leaning forward before expertly mimicking his coach's instructions.

"He had me down," Lupica said, "including my short cadence and the way I said, 'Nice pass.' He would have me laughing so hard, the tears were coming down my face."

By the time Vrabel left Ohio State, he had garnered almost every honor imaginable: career records for sacks (36) and tackles for losses (66), first-team All-America honors, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. And, yet, because of questions about his size and his "true position" in the pros, Day 1 of the 1997 NFL Draft came and went without anyone calling Vrabel's name. Pittsburgh finally took him with the 91st pick, in the third round. He hoped his dreams would come true there, but it would be four more years before he would become one of the most beloved and trusted players of a growing football dynasty in Foxborough.

"People say Mike is lucky to end up in New England," said his father, Chuck Vrabel. "He's worked too hard to be lucky.

"Mike wants to be a coach someday. What his experience in New England has given him is an opportunity to be mentored by a terrific football mind. Mike and Bill's relationship has really solidified because of that. They both watch film. They are both sticklers for detail. And they both have the same work ethic."

After Johnson suddenly announced his retirement and Bruschi missed the first chunk of the season while he recovered from a stroke, Belichick asked Vrabel to switch from outside linebacker to the inside. He did it without blinking, although he acknowledges it has been a struggle.

"I feel better about it now," Vrabel said. "My first few games in there, we saw Denver, then Buffalo and the two-back power game, and then Indy, and I felt like I hadn't seen the same play twice. But, as the season has gone along, I can say, 'Oh, that's like what we saw a couple of weeks ago.' It's getting easier."

"I don't know if people realize how unselfish Mike has been," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "For him to step inside and accept it, without question, did not go unnoticed in here.

"It was huge for us. He'd love to be out there sacking the quarterback, but he'll never say it."

There is the possibility Vrabel could pop up in all sorts of places tomorrow: outside, inside, near the goal line. Or maybe there's something new the coach has dreamed up for the player.

"You can't possibly appreciate this man's preparation," Vrabel said of Belichick.

"This is a guy who, after we win the Super Bowl, says, 'Well, that's nice, but we're six weeks behind.'"

Vrabel, the man with all the answers, would love to be six weeks behind. Just think how much fun he can have busting his teammates and his coaches while they try to catch up.

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