Friday, November 19, 2021

A.J. Brown's words say much about his own bravery — and Titans coach Mike Vrabel | Estes


Gentry Estes

Nashville Tennessean

A tough exterior was shed Thursday at a place where it's often required. That made it all more powerful: The tears. The courage. The vulnerability. The good — difficult, but good — conversation, the kind we all should probably have more often.

This wasn’t about football, but life.

I’m going to repeat that in this column.

Such a scene and topic wouldn’t have been expected, though, during a game week at the home of the hottest team in the NFL, owners of a six-game win streak.

That’s kind of the point. You don’t know what’s going on with someone.

Like Tennessee Titans receiver A.J. Brown, for instance. When he revealed Friday night on social media that he’d struggled with depression, it was jarring. Here was this enormously gifted, young NFL star with everything going for him. And he’s admitting that a year previously he’d considered taking his own life.

It took selflessness and bravery for Brown – in a brutal sport played by tough-minded people – to go public with his own struggles in order to help others and bring awareness to mental health. On Thursday, Brown followed it up by speaking to reporters at the Titans’ facility. He didn’t have to do that, either.

He fielded questions Thursday with a cool maturity far beyond his 24 years, and one of those questions was about his Titans coach, Mike Vrabel. 

Brown paused a bit longer to collect his thoughts on that one.

“You don't want to get emotionally attached or tied with someone, because there's a business side of it,” Brown said. “I appreciate (Vrabel) so much. People like that, no matter how this business may go, forever I'll be a friend of his and he'll be a friend of mine.

“I appreciate him so much, just opening his door and just listening and trying to help me as much as (he) can. It doesn't go unnoticed with me. He's definitely family in my book.”

Again, this isn’t about football. What’s important here is that it sounds like Brown is taking care of himself. He sought help and he says he’s doing much better.

How prominent a role Vrabel played in that, I don’t know. Brown’s comments would suggest his coach did a lot more than stand on the side and critique his route-running.

Note to NFL teams: Find yourself a coach who is discussed by players the way Brown spoke of Vrabel.

Because it's not normal, even if it has become that way around the Titans.

Vrabel’s players have been saying that sort of thing for a while. That his door has always been open for players to approach him about any topic, be it personal or professional. Like Brown, they tend to express an appreciation for him that goes beyond a standard player-coach relationship.

“Obviously, the conversations that I have with the players, I will keep between us,” Vrabel said this week when asked about Brown. “I do appreciate his courage and his willingness to share that message. The mental health of our staff or everybody in this building is something that I focus on very regularly. … It is part of our job to make sure that they can deal with the stresses of life, the stresses of professional football, the strain it sometimes puts on their family.”

Vrabel added that he is “relaying to the team that if you are willing to ask someone how they are doing, be willing to sit there and listen to them. Don’t make it a fly-by.”

I’ve known a lot of successful football coaches at all levels. Most are well-meaning and care about their players beyond winning games, but they don’t all think this way. Such compassion isn’t a given, and it can't be faked.

It's a unique strength that isn’t always understood by those who'd sit back and wonder how this former Bill Belichick linebacker has been so successful with the Titans. Vrabel is no softie, of course. You look at him and see this hard-nosed, former jock – and yet his words and actions keep reflecting a lot more under the surface.

“He cares about the guys,” Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “Like he truly, is genuinely caring about each individual player on this team, whatever their role might be, whatever situation they are going through. I think when you care about guys, that's when you start to earn their trust, each their respect. And, ultimately, they are willing to do whatever for you.”

Look at how Vrabel has assembled those around him. He's immensely loyal to those he trusts. With his coaches, both Bowen and offensive coordinator Todd Downing were promoted, just like Arthur Smith, Downing’s predecessor.

Vrabel is also loyal to players. He doesn't lose phone numbers. Long is the list of those who've been released only to return to the Titans later in a contributing role. A large number of Titans players over the years, too, had previously been in Houston, where Vrabel was an assistant coach with the Texans.

I’m not cynical enough to believe Vrabel’s relationship with players is strictly a means to an end for winning. I don’t mean to imply that on his part.

But it doesn’t hurt.

The margin between franchises is so small in the NFL. The best head coaches tend to be the ones who’ve figured out how to get a locker room full of young millionaires to cohesively buy in and play their hardest each week, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the team.

That’s what Vrabel has done better than perhaps anyone in the NFL. The Titans play their tails off for him. They always have, and that’s the reason why – no matter injuries or adversity – they’ve continued to win.

And the reason for that, actually, doesn't have much to do with football.

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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