Monday, January 03, 2022

Tennessee Titans' Mike Vrabel deserves to be NFL's coach of year


January 2, 2022 | by Mark Wiedmer | Copyright © 2022

The Tennessee Titans' Mike Vrabel isn't likely to win coach of the year this season. That NFL honor will probably go to Cincinnati's Zac Taylor, who has taken the Bengals from worst to first in their division to clinch the franchise's first playoff appearance in six seasons. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick also deserves serious consideration, though the award should probably be named for him.

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel watches warmups for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins in Nashville. In four years as coach, Vrabel has led the Titans to a winning record each year and three straight playoff berths.

But good as Taylor's team has been in winning 10 games and clinching the AFC North with Sunday's victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Vrabel has done arguably better work under inarguably worse conditions. The Titans not only grabbed their 11th win of the season with Sunday's 34-3 triumph over the streaking Miami Dolphins, they clinched the AFC South for the second straight year.


One number to underscore Vrabel's season-long challenge and success: 88.


That's the number of players who have made their way onto Tennessee's roster for at least one week this season due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols. No other NFL roster has been so liquid and unstable. Ever. At least in a season that didn't have a strike.


Beyond that, arguably more damaging than that was the midseason loss of running back Derrick Henry. King Henry may yet be back for the playoffs if the Titans can get a bye for wild-card weekend — they wouldn't play until the divisional round on Jan. 22-23 — but the NFL's two-time reigning rushing champion been out of the lineup since injuring his foot on Halloween.


If any one Tennessee player would have seemed indispensable and irreplaceable before this season began, it would have been Henry. Merely consider this: Despite being unavailable the past eight weeks, his 937 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns through the first half of the season have him still ranked no worse than sixth in the league in both categories.


Yet did Vrabel whine and moan and make excuses as player after player was lost, including his best player?


No. Instead he repeatedly talked of "no one's feeling sorry for us" and "next man up."


He went out and activated journeyman running back D'Onta Foreman off the practice squad, then watched the University of Texas product solidify a running game that was struggling, never more so than against the Dolphins, when he rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown against a team that had won seven straight prior to arriving in the Music City.


Said Vrabel of that move, along with signing former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Moc and veteran NFL defensive back Buster Skrine: "Buster was out of work. D'Onta was out of work. When guys like that are given an opportunity, they're not in a hurry to give it up."


AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel reacts to a play in the second half of Sunday's home game against the Miami Dolphins. The Titans won their second straight AFC South Division championship with a 34-3 victory against the Dolphins, who had won seven games in a row entering Sunday.


Even on Sunday, having already suffered so many injuries and so much roster upheaval, the Titans watched tight end MyCole Pruitt carted off the field with an ankle injury so severe CBS would not replay it.


Yet here they stand, having now repeated as AFC South champions, a win at Houston away from clinching the overall No. 1 seed in the conference for the playoffs.


It won't be easy. Houston has already won at Tennessee this season. The four-win Texans had also won two straight before losing to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The Titans will have to play well not to lose in the town the franchise formerly known as the Oilers once called home.


But Vrabel has also built a culture after four years on the job — all of them winning seasons, by the way — that serves the franchise well in these situations.


"You want to try and create a family that has a common goal of winning," he said in Sunday's postgame news conference. "Our job as coaches is to try to pull everybody together."


At another point, Vrabel answered a reporter's question about a couple of coaching decisions he made during the game, including one or two that failed, thusly: "You live in doubt. We live in being decisive. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But there is never any doubt."


Though the Atlanta Falcons lost to the host Buffalo Bills in a snowstorm Sunday, a defeat to officially remove them from the playoffs, there is also little doubt that former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith seems to be building a similar family in the Big Peach. Short on talent and similarly cursed by injuries and illness in his first year as Atlanta's head coach, Smith nevertheless kept the Dirty Birds in playoff contention until Sunday's setback.


Look for a winning record for Smith and the Falcons a year from now, if not a return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2017 season.


Yet the Titans are not only in the playoffs, they have a realistic chance to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1999 campaign. Especially if they can win at Houston next weekend.


"It's definitely good to be in this position," Titans safety Kevin Byard told the Associated Press. "Usually, the last game of the year we're fighting for something anyway. It's good to go into the last game of the season trying to fight to be this No. 1 seed."


Especially when there would seem to be no doubt that you've got the No. 1 coach, at least for this season, to direct you toward that goal.

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