Other than injuries, there has been one constant for the Tennessee Titans in 2021 – head coach Mike Vrabel.
Despite a record number of personnel changes due to injuries, Vrabel has been steadfast in insisting the Titans stay the course and remain diligent, no matter the circumstances or the odds.
Once again, Thursday night, in an unfavorable situation – missing the left side of the offensive line and forced to play untested rookie Dillon Radunz at left tackle in his first NFL start – Tennessee proved up to the challenge, besting the red-hot San Francisco 49ers 20-17.
The victory pushed the Titans to within one win (a Titans win or a Colts loss) of clinching the AFC South for the second consecutive year.
Given all that the Titans have faced this year, Vrabel is the NFL Coach of the Year. That said, the award will probably land with Bill Belichick for retooling the New England Patriots in the post-Tom Brady era by swapping a washed-up Cam Newton for rookie Mac Jones at quarterback.
Or it could land with Andy Reid or Matt LeFleur for riding their superstar quarterbacks possibly to the top seeds in each conference.
But truthfully, when you assess things using the Booker T. Washington measure of success – not how much you accomplish, but how much you overcome – then Vrabel is the hands-down winner.
Some have marveled at John Harbaugh keeping the Baltimore Ravens afloat with all their injuries and issues. But consider all that Vrabel has guided the Titans through on the way to a 10-5 mark thus far.
There was the opening day beatdown administered by the Arizona Cardinals. Vrabel’s Titans rallied the next week from 15 points down at the half to win in overtime in Seattle.
It set the tone for what we’ve come to expect from this Titans’ team.
They lose star running back Derrick Henry to a foot injury, then stun the Los Angeles Rams the following week to run their record to 8-2.
Yes, there have been hiccups with losses to the Jets, Texans and Steelers, when it looked like this team was finally going to come unraveled, thanks mostly to turnovers and shoddy pass protection. But each time, Vrabel rallied his charges and somehow got the Titans back on track.
The Coach of the Year Award is not a media popularity contest. Vrabel’s wise-guy personality and surliness doesn’t always play well in front of the cameras or in interviews.
But the thing about the Titans coach is his single-mindedness of keeping his club focused on what must be done to win football games. It showed up again in rallying Thursday night from a listless first half that turned a 10-0 deficit into a 20-17 win.
“We always talk about you have to be playing your best football late, and the teams that do that are the ones that get into the tournament, and we always want to try to be one of those football teams,” Vrabel said after the win over the 49ers. “I think this certainly can help us in the nature in which we won it. The grittiness in which it was won with. Hopefully we can do some of those things and continue to carry that over into the next week.”
The players know their mindset flows from Vrabel’s, demonstrated by their knack for overcoming adversity. It helps when star players like A.J. Brown show up like he did in the second half of the win over San Francisco. But it starts with Vrabel’s ability to coax the most out of a patchwork team
The Titans not only have been missing Henry for several weeks and don’t seem to know exactly when or if he will return this season, but the offensive line has been inconsistent. Julio Jones has been missing in action for much of the year, all factors in leading to Ryan Tannehill’s statistics taking a big hit.
The 2021 Titans have already surpassed the record for most players used in a season with 87. Two previous teams that held the record of 84 (the 2019 Dolphins and 2020 Niners) wilted under those circumstances, winning 11 games combined.
The Titans have a chance to win more than that by themselves, wrapping up a division crown in the process with one win the final two games.
“I mean, he does it every week,’’ safety Kevin Byard says. “He does a great job of keeping us focused on the task at hand, the game at hand, not concerned about the next game here. Just trying to keep our minds focused.
“Obviously, he’s relaying that to leaders on the team - myself, Tanney (Ryan Tannehill), Jeff (Jeffery Simmons), and all the other guys to make sure that we’re keeping guys locked in on the present moment.
“I mean, maybe it’s a Bill Belichick thing, whatever you call it, but honestly focus on that day, that meeting, that practice. I think that’s the only way you can be successful in this league is if you focus on the right now.”
After the win over the 49ers under those dire conditions, Vrabel in his sarcastic way, basically laid it out this way for the naysayers, who doubted him and his team.
“We had the funeral for the Titans. You know, it was yesterday or today. But we’re not dead yet,” he said.
And for that, Vrabel is the right Coach of the Year choice in the NFL in 2021.
Terry McCormick also publishes TitanInsider.com