As a player, Mike Vrabel was always the smartest guy in the room. Or on the field. Just ask him. But that confidence was well-founded because he was that player. Thus, Vrabel’s rapid rise in the coaching ranks - he’s now the defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans - was predictable for those who saw him make that same rise as a player in New England, where he went from Steelers castoff to cornerstone piece in a dynasty.
“Mike had a lot of great qualities as a player, so yeah, no surprise,” Bill Belichick said earlier this week.
“It won’t be long before he’s a head coach,” Tom Brady said. “He’s just got a great presence. He was a great player for us.”
“I think he’s doing a good job,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien, himself a former Patriot staffer and offensive coordinator. “He’s very organized, detailed, works very hard. He’s got a great way with the players, so I think so far, so good.”
In his matter-of-fact way, Vrabel confirmed what Belichick, Brady and O’Brien said about him.
“I’m not cut out to do much other than play football and now coach football,” he said. “It took me nine years to graduate from Ohio State, if that tells you anything.”
Vrabel and Brady spoke for about 10 minutes following the Pats and Texans joint practice in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Wednesday, smiling, laughing and no doubt needling each other about who got the best of who in these sessions.
“He’s been one of my great friends for a long time,” said Brady. “It’s nice to see him out there. There’s a little friendly talk back and forth, which is always fun. I love the guy and what he’s accomplished.”
“Tom’s a phenomenal leader, a good friend,” Vrabel said.
That friendship will have to be tabled in Week 3 of the regular season. That's the first time Vrabel will be the lead dog game-planning to stop Brady and the Pats offense. The former Ohio State standout and Buckeyes assistant coach spent the previous three seasons in Houston as a linebackers coach, but now as the defensive coordinator, the buck stops with him.
“They beat our ass the last couple of times we’ve played them, so it’s been hard to sit over on the other sidelines, but I think to be able to practice against them and see them in somewhat of a relaxed setting, it’s great,” said Vrabel, reflecting on the joint practice. “Hopefully we can be a little bit more competitive this year against them.”
That won’t be easy. The Pats added explosive wideout Brandin Cooks, along with a couple of versatile backs in Rex Burkhead and Mike Gilislee. Mix that into an offense that was already at the head of the class, and you can see why Vrabel will probably have a few sleepless nights prior to that Sept. 24 meeting in Foxboro, especially after what he just saw in mid-August.
“Well, it’s as advertised,” he said. “There’s a lot of weapons, led by Tom [Brady]. Josh [McDaniels] calls a great game over there and it was good because nothing was scripted and we all kind of had to just come up with the calls on the fly and think fast, just like a game.”
Having the think the game and match wits with Brady, McDaniels, Belichick, etc, has overwhelmed many over the years, but to hear Belichick talk about his former charge, you understand Vrabel is different.
“He played a lot of positions on defense,” said Belichick. “He played everything in the kicking game and also did a lot for us on offense, playing tight end in short-yardage situations. He could call signals, he had great leadership, was a multi-year captain, so his leadership, his presence, his communication, awareness, situational awareness in addition to just being a good football player, but those things were traits that carried over into coaching. And Mike's one of the physically and mentally toughest players I’ve ever coached, so I’m sure that will serve him well in this profession, too. There are times when you need that.”
Like, say, when you’re trying to outthink the Pats game day braintrust? Save the date. That one should be fun.