NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Vrabel spent eight seasons as a participant in Bill Belichick’s practices with the New England Patriots.
So it’s natural that Belichick’s approach — especially when it comes to technique and fundamentals — makes its way into the practices Vrabel runs with the Tennessee Titans.
“He came from that program, and I am pretty sure he learned a lot from there,” said Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler, who won two Super Bowls in four seasons with the Patriots from 2014 to 2017. “You see a lot of similarities, but it’s all about competing and coming out here to try and win the day.”
The joint practices between the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots this week presented an opportunity for them to reconnect, and Belichick gave Vrabel a ringing endorsement before practice on Wednesday.
“I have a ton of respect for Mike as a person, as a coach. He’s been a friend for a long time. He’s got an excellent staff, and I’m sure that he’s teaching these guys a lot of football. He was a really smart player, a very fundamental player, so I’m sure that you can see those strengths in the way he coaches his team,” Belichick said.
That’s exhibited during every practice when Vrabel rotates to various position groups to work with players.
New tight ends coach Todd Downing said he has never been around a guy who puts so much time into teaching the fundamentals and making sure his players have sound technique.
“It’s fun to watch him take every opportunity to teach his team in all the different situations that this game brings up,” Downing said about Vrabel.
But it wasn’t all smiles and happiness between Vrabel and Belichick at one point. After all, the Patriots dealt Vrabel and quarterback Matt Cassel to Kansas City in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2009 draft (No. 34 overall). The trade created a few hard feelings.
“He [Belichick] traded me to Kansas City; we didn’t talk for a couple of months, maybe a year. Then we became friends, and I used him as a resource when I started my coaching career and still talk to him a lot now,” Vrabel said. “As soon as I finished as a player, I talked to him about coaching and what I should look for. I asked him questions, and it’s grown from then.”
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After a three-year stint as a position coach at Ohio State, Vrabel’s first coaching job in the NFL was as a linebackers coach with the Houston Texans under Bill O’Brien, who also coached with the Patriots from 2007 t0 2011. And the Belichick ties also run deep on Vrabel’s staff.
One of Vrabel’s first decisions was to hire former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who was a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the Patriots from 2004 to 2009. Tyrone McKenzie, a third-round pick in 2009 who had a two-year stint with the Patriots, is Vrabel’s linebackers coach.
Sharing the field with the Patriots came together in an “easy and seamless” way because of the coaches’ relationship. And it gave the Titans a way to work on game situations that are easier to simulate when there’s another team on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“The execution in practice can and will lead to game reality,” Vrabel said. “The confidence that is built out here on the practice field carries over to the game field. That’s critical. Just how important practice is. If you make the plays in practice and you’re playing with the right technique and fundamentals, that will all carry over to the game.”
Vrabel and Belichick won three Super Bowls together in New England, and there will always be a link.
“I can’t deny the fact I played there for eight years, and we had a lot of success. Bill [Belichick] was my coach. But now, we’re competitors,” Vrabel said.