NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This past Tuesday the Tennessee Titans made their latest round of assistant coaching announcements, rounding out the remaining major components of Mike Vrabel’s new staff.
So, what do we make of the decisions the rookie head coach has made thus far? Let us briefly recap some of the changes at St. Thomas Sports Park.
Dean Pees, most recently the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, was lured out of retirement less than a month after leaving coaching to come to Tennessee and take the same position. The news was broken in unconventional fashion and it is more than fair to question why the coaching veteran of 45 years would return to an NFL sideline in 2018 after citing the desire to spend more time with family as his primary reason for leaving the game. Baltimore’s defense finished in the Top 10 in three of the six campaigns with Pees at the helm and, in 2017, ranked 12th in total defense, shut out opponents a league-leading three times and had the most takeaways in the NFL (33). The Ravens plus-17 turnover margin was also a league best.
The 2017 iteration of Baltimore under Pees, however, benefited hugely from the level of offensive competition they faced.
As Jamison Hensley of ESPN.Com notes, the Ravens played nine games in 2017 against back-up and rookie quarterbacks, allowing only an average of 13.3 points in those contests. When playing starting signal-callers in the other seven contests, Baltimore coughed up 26.1 points on average, including a 23-20 loss at the hands of a struggling Marcus Mariota and the Titans in Nashville.
Pees’s opportunity to work with his son, who will be a quality control coach on Tennessee’s staff, rightfully raised some eyebrows from onlookers in a league where retreads are frequent and nepotism can easily be spawned. And any professional athlete will tell you that, once thoughts of retirement have entered your mind, it is incredibly difficult to commit yourself to grind of a full football season; coaching can be just as arduous a task. Pees is hugely respected among his peers and players, has maintained a standard of excellence and sports a championship resume. But, it is fair to wonder whether a 68-year-old coach who was, albeit briefly, out of the profession will approach a job as taxing as this with the same enthusiasm he once did (Dick LeBeau would surely argue otherwise).
“I signed a multiple year contract,” said Pees, speaking to the local media for the first time Wednesday. “It’s as if I didn’t retire. … I am here. I am here until Mike (Vrabel) doesn’t want me here anymore, or whatever. I am not planning on making this a (one)-year deal at all.”
— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) February 10, 2018
New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur made a lateral move in coming to Nashville from the Los Angeles Rams, although, his role with the Titans comes with additional responsibility. 30 years Pees’s junior, LaFleur is certainly qualified for his new role.
LaFleur did not call the plays in L.A. but, as coordinator, presided over the highest scoring offense in football in 2017 (29.9 points per game) after the Rams languished at the bottom of the League in that same category only a season before (14.0 ppg in 2016). He helped work wonders with the development of sophomore signal-caller Jared Goff, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance this season. LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach for the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 and 2016, coinciding with Matt Ryan’s NFL MVP/Offensive Player of the Year campaign the year the team made it to the Super Bowl, additionally, and helped facilitate the success of Robert Griffin III in his rookie season during his time as Griffin III’s position coach in Washington.
Griffin III set franchise rookie records for passing yards (3,200), completions (258), passing touchdowns (20) and rushing yard by a quarterback (815); he coached quarterbacks with in D.C. from 2010 to 2013. With LaFleur’s guidance, Griffin III was the first Washington rookie quarterback to be elected to a Pro Bowl and led the team to it’s first division win in over a decade.
While quarterbacks under LaFleur’s tutelage have flourished (a major point of contention between the Titans front office and the previous coaching staff with Mariota appearing to regress in Year 3), the effect he had on Los Angeles’s offensive success deserves further scrutiny.
No doubt, LaFleur’s influence was felt in the Rams offensive game-planning, practices and meetings. But, when it came to the in-game execution, how much did LaFleur truly catalyze the worst-to-first points-per-game turnaround? Not only was L.A. head coach Sean McVay the man calling the plays, he was helping his quarterback audible as well.
League rules permit the use of communication to one offensive and defensive player on each team through the helmet earpiece between plays up until the 15 seconds remain on the play clock. McVay and Goff utilized the coach-to-quarterback communication in so unique a way that, by rushing the Rams offense to the line of scrimmage well in advance of the 15-second mark, the rookie head coach and sophomore quarterback could maximize the time both needed to read opposing defenses and provide the necessary adjustments.
The Washington Post’s Mark Bullock was the first to pick up the trend on an NFL SoundFX clip and, from there, the way Goff audibled in conjunction with how Los Angeles worked the play clock on offense was impossible to ignore.
This is the SoundFX clip I mentioned earlier. Listen out for McVay calling the audibles in the headset before Goff calls them https://t.co/rvT76HnYNw
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 16, 2017
“I am very excited,” LaFleur said Wednesday in his first Titans media availability. “This is something when you get into the coaching profession, you are always looking for that next step. In L.A., I think Sean McVay is one of the best play-callers there is in the NFL, and I don’t see him giving that up any time soon. To get this opportunity, I couldn’t be more excited.”
Before we get any further, let me make this perfectly clear: the information that I have laid before you is in no way meant to discredit or diminish Pees or LaFleur (or Vrabel for hiring them). We will have no way of truly evaluating these men until the 2018 season is underway and the product that they put forth is made evident to all. These hires come with questions that cannot be answered until then, but nonetheless needed to be posed. Vrabel’s new staff can be likened to his stated defensive philosophy: “coverage consistency and front multiplicity.” The individuals he has surrounded himself with speak to a mantra of adaptation and a willingness to learn in order to grow all while not forgetting who he is or where he comes from.
LaFleur was one of three candidates, including Vrabel, who interviewed in January for Tennessee’s head coaching vacancy to replace Mike Mularkey. When asked if he knew Vrabel or new quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara prior to this hiring process, LaFleur admitted he did not. That Vrabel respected LaFleur enough to offer him the opportunity to run the Titans offense and that LaFleur thought enough of Vrabel to take the job despite getting spurned for the head coaching gig both men applied for speaks volumes of both.
Pees was Vrabel’s position coach with the New England Patriots from 2004 to 2005, a season in which they won a Super Bowl, before taking over the Pats defense from 2006 to 2008. Having preemptively answered the question about his decision to un-retire Wednesday, Pees made it clear to all why he had decided to come back to the game.
“No.1 was Mike (Vrabel) – Mike convinced me,” Pees said. “I felt really humbled that a guy I coached (in New England) would ask me to come back and be persistent on me coming here.”
Pees is not the only face from Vrabel’s past he intends to forge ahead with in his first NFL head coaching gig. Kerry Coombs, a coaching veteran of 35 years makes his first appearance at the professional level to run the Tennessee secondary. Vrabel and Coombs spent two years together as a part of Ohio State’s defensive staff. Shane Bowen (outside linebackers) and O’Hara followed Vrabel to Nashville after two and three seasons as defensive and offensive assistants respectively with the Houston Texans.
Vrabel’s assistants and coordinators are an amalgamation of experience, youth and an acknowledgement of the importance of bringing elements of the college game to the professional level. Coaches like Coombs and running backs coach Tony Dews offer a wealth of experience from the NFL’s “farm system” while the concepts LaFleur ran in Los Angeles show how the players who are coming into the sport today can benefit from spread systems, run-pass options and other schematic trends offensively that rest of the NFL has been slow to adpot. The additions of Pees, O’Hara and Bowen also show that Vrabel respects and recognizes the work of those he has met, worked with and played for as his career has progressed and will provide a sense of familiarity to the new program he intends to implement. NFL veterans-turned-coaches like Rob Moore (wide recievers) and Tryone McKenzie (inside linebackers) provide positional insight that only former players can and the hire of Keith Carter (offensive line) and defensive line coach Terrell Williams speaks to Vrabel’s acknowledgement of those who have had success around the League and have worked with other members of his newly-formed staff.
But what stood out in particular about Vrabel’s hires are the changes he decided not make.
Two members of Mularkey’s regime remain at St. Thomas Sports Park. Arthur Smith, who is in his seventh season with Tennessee and oversaw the tight ends for the past three under Mularkey, will remain in his position on the Titans new staff. Former special teams assistant Craig Aukerman will be promoted to take full charge of the all-important “third phase” under Vrabel and will remain in Tennessee after joining the organization a season ago and long-time strength coach Steve Watterson will also continue to be in the building. It is not unheard of for a new head coach to keep members of his predecessor’s staff, nor is it uncommon for the new hire to completely clean house.
Too often do we see a total tear down of an organization for no reason other than that the newly-appointed person can. Vrabel’s decision to retain Watterson, Smith and Aukerman, while bringing in coaches of varying backgrounds and experience levels shows a presence of mind and a lack of ego that few coaches in his position show.
None of what Vrabel is doing here is unprecedented, mind you; the hires he has made are not unconventional in any sense. But Vrabel enters a job that will come with much scrutiny from us media vultures ready to pick a part his every move and a fan base that is tired of years of complacency. That a rookie head coach’s decision-making is difficult to criticize thus far is as important as anything for the new-era Titans.
Based on conversations with the “new” staff Wednesday, this “leader of men” general manager Jon Robinson described seems to fit Vrabel to a tee. Maybe it is simply the infection of hope trafficking that often follows the sort of organizational transformation this team just underwent. We will not see the fruits of these changes for some time to come.
But, for now, Vrabel appears to embody the right kind of change in a franchise that seemed destined for stagnation only a month ago.