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Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Mike Vrabel continues to dominate NFL head coaches in key area

 


SAM PHALEN
46 MINUTES AGO (october 31, 2023)

 

NASHVILLE -- If you want to know what makes Mike Vrabel such a good head coach, you need not look further than how his Tennessee Titans do coming off the bye week.

With a 28-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Vrabel improved to 6-0 as the Titans head coach in games after the bye week. When you give the players extra rest and Vrabel extra time to prepare, the Titans are a wagon.

        

But it's not just Vrabel's undefeated record off the bye that is so impressive. It's the dominant fashion in which Tennessee has won so many of these games. Accompanying that 6-0 record is a 6-0 record against the spread and a shocking point differential. Vrabel's Titans have more than doubled the scoring output of their opponents (179-83).

Once again dating back to the start of 2018, the Titans are averaging 22.5 points per game in weeks with regular rest. There is a significant jump to averaging 29.8 point per game off the bye.

Here's a look at the game directly after the bye in every season since 2018 (Vrabel's first year):

11/05/2018 - W 28-14 @ Dallas

11/24/2019 - W 42-20 vs. Jacksonville

10/13/2020 - W 42-16 vs. Buffalo

12/12/2021 - 20-0 vs. Jacksonville

10/23/2022 - 19-10 vs. Indianapolis

10/29/2023 - W 28-23 vs. Atlanta

So what exactly does Vrabel and the Titans organization do so well when given extra time to prepare?

"We just try to focus on getting better. I think we focus on improving and doing things that are going to help us win," Vrabel said when I asked him earlier this week. "I think for me as the head coach here, it's frustrating sometimes like yesterday, when we were really, really close to putting teams away...We make it a little closer than what it should be. But that's this league sometimes. All the credit to the players for going out there, performing and being ready to go."

Not the most insightful answer from the head coach, but who can blame him? Whatever Vrabel and the Titans have going on in their approach to the bye week is working. That might be best kept close to the vest.

But it's undeniable at this point. This is more than a coincidence or trend. You could even take things one step further and point to the Titans' 4-1 record in games following Thursday Night Football. Mike Vrabel and his coaching staff do a better job than other staffs of getting prepared and approaching weeks with extra rest

That could bode well for the Titans against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10 after playing in Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Vikings vs. 49ers Week 7 Rehash





























Oct 24, 2023 at 06:30 PM

 

Craig Peters

Senior Editor

 

 

   

The Vikings prevailed 22-17 against the 49ers Monday in an impressive team performance.

 

Several players hit milestones, including Kirk Cousins, who passed for 378 yards, recording his 50th career game with at least 300 yards through the air. He's the fifth QB to do so in his first 12 NFL seasons and 15th with at least 50 games all-time.

 

T.J. Hockenson led Minnesota with 11 receptions, blowing past a record for fastest tight end to record 100 receptions with a team. Hockenson entered the game with 96 through his first 16 regular-season games. The previous record was 20 games.


















Jordan Addison recorded his first 100-yard game, making his Monday Night Football debut with style and substance, with 20- and 60-yard touchdown catches. He became just the fifth rookie since 1970 with at least 400 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns through his first seven games.

 

Danielle Hunter recorded his 80th career sack, passing former teammate Everson Griffen for seventh in franchise history.

 

Camryn Bynum snagged two interceptions for the first time in one game and teamed up on a tackle with Harrison Smith of Christian McCaffrey. Smith forced a fumble by the running back that was recovered by Dean Lowry.

Up next is a renewal of the Border Battle between the Vikings (3-4) and Packers (2-4) at noon (CT) Sunday.

 


The chips and choice routes that turned into a gem for TJ Hockenson vs. 49ers

 






The Vikings' tight end had arguably his best game as a Viking

MATTHEW COLLER OF PURPLE INSIDER

2 HOURS AGO (October 26, 2023)

 

EAGAN — The most Minnesota nice way to describe the first six games of the 2023 season for TJ Hockenson would be that it wasn’t exactly the start to his new contract that he wanted. But in the biggest moment of the season, Hockenson played quite possibly his best game as a Viking.

On Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers, the 26-year-old tight end caught 11 passes for 86 yards, which doesn’t even begin to tell the entire story. Six of those receptions resulted in first downs and he played a massive role in helping protect Kirk Cousins throughout the 22-17 victory.

At the center of his performance, which Pro Football Focus graded as the third best game of his entire career, was two concepts that have made Hockenson an invaluable part of the offense versus the 49ers: Choice routes and chips.

On the Vikings’ second drive, he combined both on a play that would shape the game.

After recovering a Christian McCaffrey fumble the Vikings were in the shadow of their own end zone facing third-and-12. A punt would have given the 49ers the ball right back in Viking territory and given San Fran a chance to jump ahead in a game where they were already coming in as a heavy favorite. Instead Hockenson found himself wide open over the middle for a first down. The drive ended up in a tone-setting touchdown.

It wasn’t a coverage bust or random event that led to him getting open. Hockenson explained on Wednesday that after giving a chip block to pass rusher Nick Bosa, he had an option to read the situation and go where he sought fit.

“I have the option to do whatever I want there,” Hockenson said. “I saw [the linebacker’s] eyes go deep and outside and he lost leverage of me. Kirk and I were on the same page.”







Hockenson had 11 receptions in Minnesota's upset win over the 49ersImage courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

The choice route has been a staple since Hockenson arrived. He said that O’Connell’s system gives him the option to read and react.

“It took me a while when I was first in the league, they gave me choice routes in Detroit my first year with Stafford and he sat me down and took me through all the coverages and what he assumed in different situations,” Hockenson said. “Here it’s been super easy because [Cousins] is really good with anticipation with me and KO has given me the freedom to see what I see. That makes it a lot easier than, ‘you have to break out here, you have to break out here, oh now you can break in.’ Instead of being able to actually read it and understand what the defense is giving you and feel space. That’s something I can do well.”

Throughout the game Hockenson was difficult to cover for the 49ers, creating an average of 3.1 yards of separation per reception according to NFLNextGen Stats (which was the same as Stefon Diggs in Week 7). A number of his most open targets came on choice routes.

“I think there’s a trust level with him,” Cousins said. “He showed right away that he has a good feel for some of those routes where he has to make a good decision on the fly. That he’ll make the right decision, that with his athleticism he’ll create separation, and a lot of it is also Kevin designing the plays and putting him in a position where the ball is likely going to go to him. As long as I throw with accuracy and he does his job, the ball goes to him.”

Later in the first half Hockenson had a more subtle role in a gigantic play that swung the game.

With seven seconds remaining in the first half and the Vikings ahead 10-7 with the ball at the Minnesota 40-yard line, Cousins flung the ball toward Jordan Addison. The rookie stole it away from cornerback Charvarius Ward and trotted into the end zone for a spectacular touchdown. What went less noticed was that when the 49ers sent an all-out blitz, Hockenson got lined up against Bosa. He was smashed back toward the QB by the defensive MVP but held on just long enough for Cousins to get the throw off.

“We asked him to do a lot in the plan, whether it was be responsible for some of those kind of protection tools to help Kirk [Cousins] be as efficient and as explosive as he was,” O’Connell said on Wednesday. “We don’t really know where 97 [Nick Bosa] is going to be, well it ends up he’s got to block him one-on-one and survived that down enough that Kirk can get that ball thrown and caught on Jordan’s great play.”

Most of Hockenson’s efforts against Bosa were in the form of chips, which is where he gives a little extra help to the offensive tackle before going out on his route. On ESPN, analysts Dan Orlovsky and Marcus Spears highlighted his role in O’Connell’s gameplan to slow Bosa.

“[Bosa’s] super power is getting off the football,” Spears said. “His first step is what puts tackles in a bind but you see a little hesitation because [Bosa] is trying to change his body angle.”

“Offensively we are trying to give our tackle to get set before the first initial move and they did an outstanding job of making sure they gave Kirk a chance,” Orlovsky said.

O’Connell used Hockenson often during the win in conjunction with fellow tight end Josh Oliver. The No. 2 TE played a season high 30 snaps, a number of which came in alignments on the same side as Hockenson. The two have started to develop chemistry on combo blocks and releases, which was particularly demonstrated on Hockenson’s longest catch of the game, a play-action throw where he ran a deep crossing route. The Vikings got a different look than expected and Oliver had to adapt how he blocked in order to allow him to get out on the route.

“It was hard for me because I have to outside release that and Josh is on my outside so he has to really take a second and realize where I’m at in space and how I move around that guy rather than just being able to bulldoze,” Hockenson said.

The Vikings need all the contributions they can get with Justin Jefferson still on the shelf and that remains the case as they head to Green Bay. On Wednesday Hockenson did not practice due to a foot injury that he battled through during Monday night’s game. They won’t just need him in the lineup but once again in peak form in order to carry over the momentum from his best game of the season.

“He played a really, really strong game and quite honestly, that’s what I expect out of T.J. with what he’s done ever since he got here,” O’Connell said.


Monday, October 23, 2023

Mike Vrabel Credits 'Team First' Focus for New England Patriots Hall of Fame Induction

 














Former New England Patriots linebacker, and current Tennessee Titans head coach, Mike Vrabel has been inducted as the 34th member of the team's Hall of Fame.

MIKE D'ABATE

OCT 22, 2023 9:00 AM EDT

FOXBORO — Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel may currently be controlling the sidelines in Nashville. However, there is still a great deal of New England Patriots ‘Blue’ in his bloodline.

Vrabel, who was inducted on Saturday as the 34th inductee into the Patriots Hall of Fame, remains forever grateful for the eight seasons he spent in New England. Accordingly, he insisted on savoring the moment of being one of the select few to earn the organization's highest honor.

"I promise I'm not going to take this for granted," Vrabel said after donning his Hall of Fame red jacket for the first time. "Because I think that spending eight years here, and the success that we had, I think you could all say that we took it a little bit for granted ... You go to work, you coach football, you go to your next stop, and you lose sight of what this actually was and what it meant, and I don't want anyone to do that."

Just in case, Patriots team owner and CEO Robert Kraft reminded both Vrabel and all of Patriots Nation about where he is likely to be most fondly remembered. 

"You might be a Titan in the industry now, but to us you'll always be a Patriot," Kraft said. 

Vrabel joined the Patriots as a free agent in 2001. His signing remains one of the greatest in team history. Although he finished his playing career as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, Vrabel will forever be remembered as a Patriot. He was a three-time Super Bowl champion (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX), as well as a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro in 2007. He was selected as a member of the New England Patriots 50th Anniversary Team, as well as the Sports Illustrated All-Decade Team (2000–2009).

Throughout his time in New England, Vrabel defined the word ‘versatility.’ He primarily started at both inside and outside linebacker. Unsurprisingly, he mentioned fellow positional teammates — and Patriots Hall of Farmers — Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest with helping him to quickly learn and enact New England’s playbook.

"Coming here, as a guy that never started before, I wanted to prove that I could do it," Vrabel said. "I wanted to show guys like Bruschi, and McGinest that I belonged here. I'm so proud of what we accomplished together." 














New England Patriots Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for Mike Vrabel (far left) and Dante Scarnecchia (bottom right)

Photo Cred: CBS Sports

 

Though Vrabel earned his induction through his prowess at linebacker, he often aligned on offense in short-yardage and goal-line situations. As a Patriot, Vrabel caught eight regular-season passes and two more in the playoffs. All 10 of his receptions were for touchdowns, including scoring receptions in back-to-back Super Bowl wins over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXVIII and Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

In fact, even Patriots coach Bill Belichick was caught by surprise with regard to the success the team had in using Vrabel as a pass catcher. "I kept saying 'They know we're not going to run behind Mike' [as a tight end,] Belichick said at the dais with a quizzical grin. "This can't keep working. But it did," the Pats coach added as he knowingly glanced at Vrabel sitting near him. 

"He [Vrabel] was one of the most efficient receivers of all time," said, Kraft while offering his take on Vrabel's pass-catching prowess. "He was also a pretty good linebacker too.

Still, Vrabel remains cognizant that his success, along with that of the Patriots' dynasty, is due largely in part to the true and total concept of "team" embodied by both coaches and players. 

"Nothing was more important than the team," Vrabel said of his time in New England. "Not your feelings, not your stats, not your paycheck, not what you’ve done in the past.”

In turn, Belichick echoed those sentiments when speaking about Vrabel, as well as coach Dante Scarnecchia, who was also honored as a Patriots Hall of Fame enshrinee earlier in the ceremony.

"The way that both Dante and Mike felt about the team and their unselfishness and their commitment to the team — T-E-A-M team — in every sense of the word, puts them on a level with very few others," Belichick said

Accordingly, the lessons Belichick imparted to his players are the same which Vrabel is now teaching to his Titans roster. Like his mentor before him, the sixth-year head coach is putting his "team" first. 

“Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, you ended up respecting him ... because you know that every decision he made was with the best interest of the team in mind," Vrabel said. "That's what I try to do as a coach now in Tennessee every day"

While Vrabel will return to his duties as Titans head coach almost immediately following Saturday's ceremony, the 47-year-old was honored to be welcomed back into the Patriots fold -- even if only for a brief few hours. With the Patriots taking a unique approach to the induction process, fans are allowed to make the final selection for enshrinement via online fan voting. Despite getting the call on his seventh season as a Hall finalist, Vrabel knows the value of the well-deserved red jacket he will proudly wear from this day forth. 

"Maybe the seventh time was the charm, Vrabel said with a laugh. "I'm really appreciative of this ... This is an unbelievable honor."


Second-year Raven establishing himself as one of best at position

 










Baltimore Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By Aaron Becker  |  Last updated 10/20/23

The Ravens seem to have hit the jackpot on one of their draft picks from a year ago. Second-year center Tyler Linderbaum has quickly become one of the top players at his position.

Baltimore's 2022 first-round pick has allowed zero sacks or quarterback hits on 136 pass-blocking snaps to begin the season, per Pro Football Focus.

The Iowa product's start to the season is even more impressive as he has been reportedly dealing with a high-ankle sprain for much of the year.

It's not often that a center is taken in the first round of the draft, but Linderbaum was an intriguing option after being named an All-American and winning the Rimington Trophy, which is awarded to the player considered to be the best center in college football.

He has surely lived up to the hype and then some, and the happiest person out of everyone may be QB Lamar Jackson.

The relationship between a quarterback and his center is an important one, and Jackson and Linderbaum seem to be set for many years to come.

The Ravens have typically been a run-first team, so strengthening their trenches has always been a focal point. Linderbaum may just be the best player on Baltimore's offensive line just under a year-and-a-half into his NFL career.

Linderbaum will have another great test to prove himself as one of the top centers in the game in Week 7 when the Ravens (4-2) host the Lions (5-1), who have the best run defense in the league.

It's safe to say Linderbaum is looking forward to the matchup.

"These guys certainly have the pieces, play well as a team and definitely bring some challenges," Linderbaum told reporters. "It's gonna be a good challenge ... can't wait to get to Sunday."

 


5 Jaguars players with a strong chance to make the Pro Bowl in 2023

 




By Carlos Sanchez | 6:00 AM EDT

 

The Jacksonville Jaguars went through a rough stretch early in the season but they've bounced back and won four games in a row. The defense has certainly been the talk of the town but the offense has also done their part to ensure the Jags are in a position to win week in and week out.

To coaching staff certainly deserves credit for Jacksonville's recent success but they wouldn't be where they are if they weren't for its players. After all, there's only so much a coach can do, it's up to the players to deliver and these five most definitely have. In fact, they should have a realistic shot at making the Pro Bowl.

No. 5 Jaguars player with a chance to make the Pro Bowl in 2023: Brandon Scherff, RG

Right guard Brandon Scherff is no stranger to the Pro Bowl, having earned a selection five times, along with a First-Team All-Pro designation during his seven-year stint with the Washington Commanders. He joined the Jags in 2022 in managed to play every game, a feat he hadn't achieved since 2016. However, he also dealt with an abdomen injury throughout most of the offseason that hindered his performance.












































https://twitter.com/PFF_Jaguars/status/1711476656123134092?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1711476656123134092%7Ctwgr%5E207e7faed30b61f523400148979f432876d437a8%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fblackandteal.com%2Fposts%2F5-jaguars-players-strong-chance-make-pro-bowl-evan-engram-josh-allen

Scherff was healthy to start the 2023 and it showed in his performance. It's true that he struggled against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2 but has otherwise played at a high level. In fact, he didn't allow a single pressure in Weeks 4 and 5. He's currently dealing with a knee injury but he still managed to play at a high level against the New Orleans Saints.


Friday, October 20, 2023

Kirk Ferentz Named to Dodd Trophy Midseason List


OCTOBER 19, 2023 


IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa Moon Family head football coach Kirk Ferentz is one of 20 head coaches named to the 2023 Dodd Trophy Midseason Watch List. The announcement was made Thursday by the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation and Peach Bowl, Inc.

 

The Dodd Trophy, college football’s most coveted national coaching award, celebrates the head coach of a team who enjoys success on the gridiron, while also stressing the importance of scholarship, leadership and integrity — the three pillars of legendary coach Bobby Dodd’s coaching philosophy.

The watch list was created through a selection process by the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation and Peach Bowl, Inc., taking into consideration each program’s graduation rate, commitment to service and charity in the community, on-field success thus far for the 2023 season and Academic Progress Rate (APR).

Ferentz is in his 25th season as Iowa’s head coach, the longest tenured head coach in college football. Ferentz has coached 13 individual national award winners and 85 NFL Draft selections during his tenure. He became Iowa’s winningest head coach on Sept. 1, 2018, and earned his 200th victory as a college head coach at Iowa State earlier this season.

Ferentz has led the Hawkeyes to 20 bowl invitations, including 12 January bowl game appearances. Iowa is bowl eligible once again in 2023, having won six of its first seven games to start the season. The Hawkeyes have won 10 or more games seven times under his direction and have been ranked in the final Top 25 rankings four of the previous five seasons.

Ferentz has led the Hawkeyes to a 192-116 overall record, including a 118-84 Big Ten Conference record. Ferentz is third in the Big Ten Conference for league wins and ranks fourth in total victories.

Ferentz was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 2015. He has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times (2002, 2004, 2009, 2015) and was named the Woody Hayes and Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year in 2015, as well.

The 20 coaches joining Ferentz on the midseason list represent Air Force, Alabama, Duke, Florida State, Georgia, James Madison, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Texas, Tulane, USC, Utah and Washington.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Willing and Vrabel: Ferocity and Versatility Earn Mike Vrabel's Place in Patriots Hall of Fame

 





With a mix of ferocity on defense and finesse on offense, Mike Vrabel established himself as one of the most versatile and dependable Patriots of all time, earning him a rightful place in the team’s Hall of Fame.

Oct 19, 2023 at 03:06 PM

Eric Adler

















Patriots 2023 Hall of Fame inductee, Mike Vrabel.

 

One of the things Bill Belichick has been known for over his coaching career has been finding players who can do more than just one thing.

 

It's wide receivers Troy Brown and Julian Edelman returning punts and doubling as defensive backs; it's defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Dan Klecko lining up in a three-point stance but in the offensive backfield as fullbacks; it's cornerback-turned-punt returner-turned wide receiver Marcus Jones, who last season became the first NFL player in 75 years to score a touchdown in all three phases of the game.

 

The list of two-way talents extends beyond that, but when it comes to versatility, there was no one quite like Mike Vrabel.


During his eight years with New England (2001-2008), Vrabel was a human Swiss Army Knife. He played inside linebacker, outside linebacker, special teams and occasionally came in on offense as a tight end, where he assembled a truly unique stat line that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been rivaled since: 10 catches for 10 touchdowns.

 

Vrabel's uncanny can-do-ism made him a fan favorite in Foxborough, not just because it was fun to watch but because it was central to the team's success. His offensive contributions often took center stage – after all, two of his catches came in the Super Bowl. But make no mistake, Vrabel was just as dynamic on defense, recording 11 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 56 sacks and 690 tackles (regular season and post season combined).

 


















The impact Vrabel made on both sides of the ball helped propel the Patriots to unprecedented heights, including an NFL-record 21 consecutive wins (2003-04), a franchise-record 21 consecutive wins at home (2002-05), 10 straight playoff victories (2001-05), and a dynastic run that included three Super Bowl championships in four years (2001, 2003 and 2004).

 

"Mike's leadership and versatility were principal to one of the most successful eras in franchise history," Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said. "Many Patriots players have made contributions in all three phases of the game, but none more significantly than Mike."

 

Patriots fans clearly agree with that statement, so much so that this spring they gave Vrabel the ultimate honor by voting him into the team's esteemed Hall of Fame. He becomes the 34th HOF member and joins ex-teammates Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Kevin Faulk, Ty Law, Matt Light, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour as the eighth player to enter the Patriots Hall of Fame as a three-time Super Bowl champion.

 

"It's an unbelievable honor to be associated with all the people in the hall," said Vrabel. "You don't think it's a big deal until you get called and obviously, I'm very honored and I feel very blessed."

 

Few people, including Vrabel, could have ever imagined he'd earn Patriots immortality after signing with the team as a free agent in 2001 following a four-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was used primarily on special teams and as a reserve linebacker. But under Belichick, he blossomed.

 

Vrabel quickly earned Belichick's respect by seldom making a mental mistake and started 12 of the team's 16 regular season games in 2001. He registered two interceptions, three sacks and established himself as a tough-nosed tackler, playing a key role on a defensive unit that was the backbone of the Patriots first Super Bowl title team.


















That defense boasted a litany of defensive stars: Law, McGinest, Seymour and Bruschi, just to name a few. But at the time, they were led on offense by a still-unproven second-year quarterback, sixth-round pick Tom Brady, and had their share of doubters.

 

The Patriots came into Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams as 14-point underdogs; only the N.Y. Jets (at +18) faced bigger odds when they took on the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That was just fine with many of the players, including Vrabel, who knew a thing or two about being overlooked and underestimated.

In fact, Vrabel may have taken it so personally that he acted on it by having a hand in arguably the most seminal play in Patriots team history.

 

The Rams – known as the "Greatest Show on Turf"– began mounting a drive midway through the second quarter in hopes of building on their already 3-0 lead. But the pendulum swung the other way when Vrabel blitzed off the edge and made a B-line straight to QB Kurt Warner.


The heavy rush forced the NFL MVP to throw an errant pass that sailed softly through the air and into the waiting arms of Law, who returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. It gave the Patriots the lead and – more importantly – a boost of confidence. Yes, they could beat the Rams, whom they had lost to by seven points at home 10 weeks earlier. Yes, they could stop or at least slow down Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and the rest of St. Louis' high-scoring stampede. Yes, they could shock the world and become the first Patriot team to hoist the Lombardi trophy. All of it, because of Vrabel and Law, now seemed possible.

 

New England's defense continued to dominate and Brady's 14-yard TD pass to David Patten just before halftime gave the Pats a 14-3 advantage. The Rams stormed back in the fourth quarter to tie the game, but with 81 seconds to go, Brady led a 53-yard drive that set up Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard game-winning field goal. The ball sailed through the uprights just as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and moments later, red, white and blue confetti reigned down from the Louisiana Superdome.

 

"A game like this makes you trust in all those corny-sounding clich├ęs," Vrabel said afterward. "On paper you may not look as talented or as fast or as strong as your opponent, but if you get guys to buy into a system and fight to the bitter end, you can accomplish incredible things."

 

Few words have proven as prophetic as those. Although the roster changed from year to year, the Patriots team-first ethos remained intact and was the guiding force behind their overwhelming success as they began piling up more wins, more division titles, more conference crowns and more Super Bowl rings.


















It didn't matter who played where or when as long as the team won – and no one took that philosophy to heart more than Vrabel, who added a new wrinkle to his game as a receiver. Many imagine that Vrabel secretly fashioned himself as pass catcher and petitioned for that role by badgering the coaching staff to let him play offense. And if he did, who could've blamed him? Everyone wants to score a touchdown. But the truth is, QB Drew Bledsoe and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis were the real advocates.

 

"I used to warm up with Drew [in 2001], just go out a couple of hours before the game, goof around and run routes," said Vrabel. "I didn't want to sit at my locker if I got there early, so I wanted to do something. And I said, well, you know, I'll go out and catch balls for the quarterback. So I would mess around with Drew and then I think he might've said to Charlie, 'Hey, this guy could probably actually do something.'" Four games into the 2002 season, Vrabel got his chance. The Patriots were in a goal-to-go situation against San Diego when in strolled a sixfoot- four, 250-pound linebacker, who promptly lined up on the line of scrimmage, ran a crossing route and caught a game-tying 1-yard TD from Brady. In doing so, Vrabel became the first Patriots defender to catch a touchdown pass since linebacker John Tanner in 1974.

 

The Patriots lost the game, 21-14, but gained valuable insight into a new offensive weapon for years to come.

"It was as if he'd been playing tight end all along," Weis said. "He was physical. He was athletic. He could really catch the ball. He wasn't a stiff out there. He wasn't some glorified lineman playing tight end. We had confidence in him." To the point where Vrabel began making more and more cameos as a touchdown target, including the most meaningful one of his career, which came the following season in the waning moments of Super Bowl XXXVIII. A defensive dogfight for the better part of three quarters, the Patriots and Panthers came to life in a fourth quarter filled with offensive fireworks as they combined for 37 points.


Photos: Rare Mike Vrabel Pictures from His Time with the Patriots

We take a look at some rare pictures of Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who will be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Saturday, October 21, 2023.

https://www.patriots.com/photos/photos-rare-mike-vrabel-pictures-from-his-time-with-the-patriots

 

 

Carolina took its first lead, 22-21, with just under seven minutes to go, but Brady rallied the Patriots with his signature composure and precision passing. As New England moved within striking distance, Vrabel came into the huddle and heard Brady call out the play: 1-36-Y Cross Z-Flag. It was music to Vrabel's ears, as he ran a shallow crossing route (similar to the one he ran against San Diego) and palmed the 1-yard pass, giving New England the lead with just 2:51 remaining. With the clutch catch, Vrabel became the first defensive player to score a Super Bowl touchdown on offense since William "The Refrigerator" Perry did so for the Chicago Bears against the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It was all most people could talk about, but in true Mike Vrabel form and fashion, he delivered just as much (if not more) on defense, finishing with six tackles and two sacks, the latter of which occurred when he stripped Jake Delhomme of the ball, resulting in a fumble that led to a Patriots touchdown in the second quarter. Vrabel's all-purpose playmaking, coupled with another last-second Vinatieri kick, helped the Patriots claim a 32-29 win and their second Super Bowl title in three years.

 

Flash forward a year and Vrabel was back on offense again in the Super Bowl. With New England facing a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Vrabel lined up on the left side and was in a one-on-one matchup with defensive end Jevon Kearse, but "the freak" couldn't stop him. Vrabel used a burst of speed to get off the line, and fought off a hold by Kearse (who was flagged on the play) before tipping Brady's pass into the air and coming down with it as he fell in the end zone. "I got dragged down by Kearse, but was lucky enough to catch it," Vrabel said. "He was holding on for dear life."

 

The third-quarter score helped New England edge Philly 24-21 and capture their third Super Bowl titles in four years. In addition to securing another ring on his finger, Vrabel became the subject of more trivia as the only defensive player in the history of the NFL to catch two touchdown passes in the Super Bowl. He also had a sack in the game, dropping Donovan McNabb for a 16-yard loss in a drive that ended with an interception by Rodney Harrison. Days later, the cover of Sports Illustrated read "Down Pat" and featured Vrabel and Harrison celebrating with outstretched arms and stadium-sized smiles. If he wasn't already before, Vrabel was now a household name. So how did a career backup transform himself into not just a starter, but such an unlikely hero on both offense and defense? "I tried to prove that I belonged there," said Vrabel. "I think every day and every week, I wanted to try to be there, to be productive and know as many positions as I could." Three Super Bowls in four years could easily cause complacency, but Vrabel was never satisfied with his past success. In 2005, he moved to inside linebacker after playing on the outside his first four seasons and led the team with 108 tackles (40 more than the next closest player). In 2007, he recorded a career-best 12.5 sacks and helped lead the Patriots to a perfect 16-0 regular season, earning a Pro Bowl nod and NFL First-Team All-Pro honors.


And of course, he kept on scoring touchdowns as an ever-reliable red zone receiver.

 

"He was very good at evading defenders and getting off the line of scrimmage," Brady said of Vrabel. "He's very quick and used his hands well. Vrabes was a machine."


















Vrabel played the final two seasons (2009-10) of his 14- year NFL career with Kansas City, where he added two more touchdown catches to his offensive oeuvre. All told, he amassed 13 TDs – 12 catches, and an interception return for a score against Carolina in 2005, in addition to his 850 career tackles, 66 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and 11 picks.

 

Versatility, thy name was Vrabel. Longtime Patriots beat writer Tom Curran recently compiled a list of the top 50 players in the Belichick era. He listed Vrabel as No. 6 overall. "There were Patriots players faster than Mike Vrabel. There were stronger Patriots and quicker Patriots. Some had softer hands or superior hand-eye coordination. A few could probably jump higher. But no Patriot in the almost 20 years I've covered the team was as far above average in each of those physical categories than Mike Vrabel," wrote Curran.


"He was like a decathlete, able to cross disciplines and excel in all of them."

 

Following his playing career, Vrabel returned to Ohio State, his alma mater, as an assistant coach, spending three years with the Buckeyes (2011-13). He parlayed that into his first NFL coaching stint, as linebackers coach for the Houston Texans (2014-16) before being promoted to defensive coordinator the following year. In 2018, the Tennessee Titans hired Vrabel as their head coach. He's compiled some big wins since then, including a playoff victory over the Patriots in 2019. Though he's the enemy on those days when the Pats and Titans clash, Vrabel – a member of New England's All- 2000s Team, 50th Anniversary Team, and All-Dynasty Team – will forever be remembered as a career Patriot.


"During his Patriots career, there was no player more respected for his football intellect and revered for his leadership by his teammates than Mike," said Belichick. "You could just see his overall passion for the game. Whether playing all the positions on offense and defense, he had a great understanding and awareness of the total game and loved to play it. He was a great Patriot."

 

This past spring, Kraft conducted a video call with Vrabel to tell him the news that he'd been inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Kraft threw a bouquet of "thank yous" at Vrabel way before offering him the highest compliment.


"You were the heart and soul of the greatest period of any team in the history of the NFL," Kraft said.

Indeed he was. On offense, on defense, and everywhere, Mike Vrabel was a peerless performer, a master of all things.


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