NASHVILLE, Tenn. ⏤ Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel isn’t a play-caller, so analysts attempting to describe his impact typically go in the stereotypical “leader of men” direction.
Much of that probably stems from Vrabel’s 14-year career as an NFL player, during which he gained a reputation for being a vocal leader with an alpha presence.
However, the reason Vrabel is a good head coach⏤so good that he’s currently the betting favorite⏤has very little, if anything, to do with his ability to give some kind of stirring pre-game speech.
He’s a great leader, sure, but not just vocally. Vrabel’s success as a leader stems from his abilities to maintain a strong culture, prepare his team for success each week and develop meaningful relationships with his players.
“He does a great job of setting the tone for the organization, holding our standard, setting the pillars of our program and the things we believe,” QB Ryan Tannehill said.
A.J. Brown on Mike Vrabel’s relationship with players: “I appreciate him so much. I know wherever I go, I’ll have a friend in him and he’ll have one in me.
“What he does doesn’t go unnoticed.” #Titans
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) November 18, 2021
“Culture” is a word thrown around too often in the world of sports, often with little meaning behind it. For the Titans, though, their culture greatly influences their ability to win games.
Vrabel and the Titans’ culture doesn’t have as much to do with what happens off of the field as what happens on it.
The close bonds and lack of distractions within the Titans’ locker room certainly aid them, but what’s been most important is the team’s playing style, the pillars of which are effort and finish, being detailed, fighting for turnovers and avoiding “dumb stuff that hurts the team.”
Vrabel has preached those four keys since his first day on the job, and that persistence is, perhaps, the biggest reason why the Titans so clearly abide by them.
It would be one thing if Vrabel had puffed out his chest in his opening press conference or inaugural team meeting, spouted out those keys and let them pass by the wayside.
That’s not what he’s done, though.
“It is something we talk about really often,” safety Kevin Byard said.
“Those four team keys, as far as what defines our culture, everybody knows those and could spit them out to you if you wanted.”
KEYS OF THE WEEK
In addition to ensuring that the Titans’ overall team keys are firmly entrenched, Vrabel begins each week with a plan, motto or series of keys specifically applicable to the Titans’ upcoming game.
The frequency with which those keys turn out to be spot on is another token of Vrabel’s strength as a head coach.
“Coach does a great job of finding a good message for the week,” Tannehill said. “I think over the course of time, we have seen those messages play out. It is not just something that is thrown on the board and then at the end of the week you are like, ‘Oh, it didn’t really matter.’”
Vrabel’s weekly message does more than promote an ideal strategy⏤it keeps the entire organization focused.
Similar to how a good leader of an office sets clear expectations for employees and assists in the meeting of those expectations, Vrabel’s messages cast a defined vision that promotes synergy for the Titans’ players and coaches each week.
“He paints a great picture for us of what it’s going to take to win games and then holds us to that standard,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “That’s all you could ever ask for out of a head coach⏤tell me what you need from me to help this team win and then hold me accountable to doing it.”
“I APPRECIATE HIM SO MUCH.”
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 17, 2021
The crowning jewel of Vrabel’s leadership, though, is his ability to develop relationships with players. Without that, all else would be rendered futile.
Coaches who flame out at any level of football often suffer from an inability to get their players to “buy in,” a phenomenon often spoken of as if it requires some kind of difficult or secret formula to achieve.
Vrabel’s formula to getting his players to buy in hasn’t been difficult or secret. It’s been simple: get to know the players on a personal level, and care for them.
“He truly is genuinely caring about each individual player on this team whatever their role might be, whatever situation they’re going through,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “I think when you care about guys, that’s when you start to earn their trust and their respect.”
Want an example? Look no further than Pro Bowl WR A.J. Brown.
Brown revealed in a TikTok video on Nov. 12 that, one year prior, he considered committing suicide. The video, along with his follow-up press conference on Thursday, served as a powerful reminder that athletes aren’t invincible superheroes; they’re human, too.
That’s a truth Vrabel understands all too well, and that understanding has guided his interactions with players since he took over with the Titans in 2018.
“I appreciate him so much for opening his door, listening, trying to help me as much as he can,” Brown said. “It doesn’t go unnoticed from me.
“I think, forever, I’ll be a friend of his and he’ll be a friend of mine.”
That’s what leadership looks like. It’s not about standing on a table and getting people excited or about finding the best “bulletin board material” to motivate players to, somehow, prove others wrong.
Rather, leadership is about guiding human beings to be their best, putting them in a position to succeed. Vrabel does those things exceptionally well.
Cover image: Steve Roberts/USA Today