NASHVILLE — Amy Adams Strunk had one charge for Mike Vrabel when hiring him as the Tennessee Titans’ new head coach in January 2018.
Implement the “Titan Way” and turn a franchise with one Super Bowl appearance into a consistent championship contender.
The man who won three Super Bowl rings as a linebacker with New England, working with a general manager who got his NFL start with the Patriots, has taken the Titans a step further each season. They’ve gone from a wild card that made the conference final, losing to Kansas City, to division champs and now the AFC’s No. 1 seed despite using an NFL-high 91 players.
Vrabel’s next challenge is using their first-round bye to prepare to chase the Titans’ first Super Bowl berth in 22 years.
“This is when you have to play your best,” Vrabel said. “This is when it matters. There is no do-overs. There is no, ‘Hey, let’s come back next week and get them.’ ”
With Vrabel, the Titans have gone 43-26 with that one AFC championship game appearance in January 2020, and back-to-back AFC South titles. They just earned the franchise’s first No. 1 seed since 2008.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan’s first two seasons in the NFL came when the Titans went a combined 5-27, with Ken Whisenhunt fired in November 2015. A pair of 9-7 seasons followed before Vrabel’s hiring. The man who played 14 seasons himself made clear they were just getting started after the Titans’ bye on Dec. 5.
“In the past, there wasn’t that mentality ...,” Lewan said. “The past coaches didn’t set that mentality. Vrabel has done that. We really believe it that our season is just getting started now.”
Ryan Tannehill, who took over as the Titans’ starting quarterback in mid-October 2019 after being acquired in a trade with Miami earlier that year, credits Vrabel with doing a great job of setting the tone for Tennessee. He sees Vrabel setting both the expectations and holding the Titans to those standards.
Tannehill, who has an NFL-high 13 game-winning drives since taking over, also likes how Vrabel manages games.
Vrabel’s aggressive, “Go score” mentality was on display last week as the Titans got the ball with 44 seconds left in the first half. Tannehill drove them 64 yards for a touchdown with 11 seconds left for a 21-0 halftime lead.
Tannehill said Vrabel and John Streicher, Titans director of football development, study games from around the NFL each week so the head coach has a plan for each possible situation. Vrabel, added to the league’s competition committee in November, also knows the NFL rule book inside and out.
The Titans have won a league-high 12 games decided by three points or fewer since 2019. Nobody has more comeback wins when trailing by seven or more points in the fourth quarter than the Titans: seven since 2018.
“That is part of his job. Then, conveying the message each and every week, giving the team something to rally behind, holding us accountable,” Tannehill said. “It all falls in his job title, and he does a good job of being efficient in all those areas.”
This season has tested the skills of Vrabel and his coaches, along with general manager Jon Robinson and his staff. Injuries started taking a toll when kicker Sam Ficken was lost two days before the season opener. The Titans wound up using 91 players this season, including three more last week in Houston.
That group included a player signed off Buffalo’s practice squad on a Wednesday playing 42 snaps at left tackle in the next game, a 27-3 victory over Kansas City. Greg Mabin signed the same day as OT Bobby Hart was claimed, and Mabin started at cornerback against the Chiefs.
The Titans lost the NFL’s leading rusher midway through the season when two-time rushing champ Derrick Henry broke his right foot Oct. 31. The Titans continued a six-game winning streak without Henry, with the final five wins over 2020 playoff teams for an 8-2 start.
They signed D’Onta Foreman off the street the day Henry had surgery, and Foreman finished as the Titans’ second-leading rusher with three 100-yard games.
Vrabel’s biggest challenge may have been Dec. 23. Lewan and left guard Rodger Saffold already had been ruled out with injuries, then came a positive COVID-19 test for Saffold. Then Kendall Lamm, set to replace Lewan, tested positive on the morning of their game against San Francisco.
That left rookie Dillon Radunz to make his first NFL start at left tackle after preparing all week to back up both tackles — and the Titans edged the Niners 20-17. Tannehill credits the confidence Vrabel projects that no matter who’s playing someone will grab his opportunity.
Vrabel said the bottom line is everyone wants to win.
“The big thing about this is you never want to sleep on this game,” Vrabel said. “You never want to feel like you have arrived. You never want to feel like you have all the answers.”
Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard believes Vrabel should be the NFL’s Coach of the Year for how he’s guided the Titans through this season to the AFC’s top seed. But Byard knows a big reason people mention the “Patriot Way” is because of New England’s six Super Bowl titles.
“We don’t have a Titan Way until we win a Super Bowl, so I think that’s what’s next,” Byard said.
Vrabel couldn’t agree more.