Lombardi: Why Mike Vrabel is the NFL’s Coach of the Year, Week 11 NFL preview

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According to Pro Football Reference, there are 517 men that have held the title of head NFL coach.  Some of been interim, some of only coached one game and some have been around a long, long time.  It’s truly a revered title to wear and a harder job to gain than a United States Senator. Like becoming a U.S. Senator, it takes political capital to gain election and it requires a great media campaign, winning the popular vote along with the owner’s delegates.  Those doing the evaluating of the performance only view the scoreboard and never understand the situation.  Some who gain entrance into this exclusive club do it well, some don’t.  Some get too much respect for their wins and others don’t get enough.  However, winning playoff games are the only thing that matters when the evaluation occurs for the Hall.    

Take Marty Schottenheimer of the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers.  He is one of eight men that has won 200 regular season games — that’s 1.4% of the coaches — placing him in an extremely elite class of coaches.  Five of the other men with 200 and more wins are in the Hall; two are still coaching — Bill Belichick and Andy Reid — and when they retire will be fitted for a gold jacket. Schottenheimer coached 21 seasons, had a 61% winning percentage and today is never mentioned for the Hall of Fame. 

 

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Schottenheimer won without an elite quarterback, from Bernie Kosar to Steve DeBerg, to Elvis Grbac, to a healing Rich Gannon, Tony Banks, a young Drew Brees, Doug Flutie, and an emerging Phillip Rivers.  Gannon and Brees became outstanding players in their careers, but when they were with Schottenheimer, they were still young and developing.  Rivers developed into a star leading the Chargers to a 14-2 record and a first-round loss to the Patriots, which was the last game Schottenheimer ever coached.  Schottenheimer never gains the respect he deserves because he wasn’t great at playoff time.  He struggled to get to the Super Bowl which unfairly blemished his whole career. 

Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans might become the new Marty Schottenheimer, and I don’t mean that as a slight.  The comparison comes as the ultimate compliment.  You might ask, "Why isn’t Vrabel the next Belichick?"  Because Vrabel isn’t winning with an elite quarterback much like Schottenheimer.  In my next book (Football Done Right) I make a strong case for Schottenheimer to be in the Hall and should have gained entrance ahead of Dick Vermeil, Don Coryell and others.  Vrabel has become one of the top three coaches in the NFL and is winning without an elite quarterback or roster.  On Thursday night he was missing several starters, playing his third game in 11 days (one with his defense on the field for 91 plays) and yet dominated the Packers, sending them limping home with a slim chance of being a playoff team.   Vrabel understands what it takes to win, each week, and how he must alter his game plan within the foundation of his team’s strengths to then give his team the best chance to win.  He coaches the coaches; he is complete control of the sidelines, and his team has developed his mental toughness.  And on Thursday night, the Titans were by far the tougher team.  They were not the more talented team — they were just the better coached team and more physical. 

Everyone in my circle of NFL friends is amazed at how the Titans have won games with a roster that is subpar in many areas.  I often will get a message like “How in the hell is Vrabel winning with Dennis Daley at left tackle?"  And my answer is I have no clue.  Their offensive line is missing key starters, from left tackle Taylor Lewan to center Ben Jones.  Their defensive line doesn’t have Harold Landry and Bud Dupree starting, and overall their roster is cluttered with more than 20 players who were either on some other teams’ roster, or a college free agent after the draft.  The Titans carry five receivers on their roster — three were free agents, Robert Woods came over in a trade and Treylon Burks was a first rounder.  Not exactly a group that places the fear of God into their opponents, yet they make plays and move the ball. 

The Titans under Vrabel have an identity, a formula that wins and when the playoffs roll around, that formula is often stressed to the max– much like Schottenheimer.  Vrabel is 2-3 in the playoffs, all his wins coming as a wild-card entry in 2019 when he upset the Patriots in Tom Brady’s last game in Foxboro, then defeated the No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens, before losing to the Chiefs.   He has lost two home playoff games — not because of his coaching, rather the roster inadequacies manifest themselves as the competition becomes tougher.  His team this season will win the AFC South, and then depending on the matchup struggle to get past the first round, as winning in the playoffs usually comes down to having an elite passer — which Ryan Tannehill isn’t. 

Entering last night Vrabel was a 100-1 to win Coach of the Year.  Seriously?  No one, and I mean no one is doing a better job, but the voters only examine the won-loss record and never examine the situation.  It’s a popularity contest — and when you consider that Nolan Ryan never won the Cy Young award during his incredible career, you understand that the voting, in every sports award is slightly inaccurate and never carries detailed analysis. 

Vrabel has my vote for Coach of the Year, but like the Hall of Fame voting, I don’t have one in the coaching selection.    

QB Ratings

Top Five

Picking out five top quarterbacks each week might be the hardest part of my week.  The inconsistencies of the group have been staggering each week, some the fault of the players and some the fault of the talent around them. 

1. Patrick Mahomes. He has been the most consistent player at this position all season and with the addition of wide receiver Kadarius Toney, Mahomes has another skilled player who can win one on one matchups and has run skills after the catch. 

2. Lamar Jackson. Still not perfect in the passing game, but his play-making talent allows the Ravens offense to be more effective. 

3. Tua Tagovailoa. Call me skeptical when he comes to Tua, but his accuracy and timing have been wonderful.  The last three weeks against subpar defenses doesn’t make me a total believer, but his number are impressive and cannot be ignored. 

4. Kirk Cousins.   For all the harsh criticism leveled at Cousins over the years, he is finally making plays in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line to offset those negative comments.  Justin Jefferson helps him a ton—so does Tyreek Hill when it comes to Tua.  You cannot ignore the wins. 

5. Josh Allen. Hard to have him so low but if you removed his play in the fourth quarter the last three weeks, he would be No. 1. 

Bottom Five

28. Mac Jones. Coming off the bye week, the Patriots success moving forward will come down to whether Jones improves and protects the football.

29. Kyler Murray. Missed last week’s game against the Rams and Colt McCoy helped the Cards offense look improved and effective.  The game against the 49ers is a big one of Murray to prove to many that he is worth all that money. 

30. Russell Wilson.  The numbers don’t lie.  He isn’t the same athletically in terms of movement or playmaking skills.  His offensive line has not protected him well and he is missing easy throws. He should play well this week at home against a bad undermanned Raider defense.  If not, then there is no hope and another bad quarterback contract. 

31. Baker Mayfield. Mayfield gets another chance to start and revive his career in Baltimore this weekend.  He needs to show he can make the easy throws and protect the ball—which wasn’t the case in his first five starts for the Panthers. 

32. Davis Mills.  Mills is playing in an old old school west coast offense that is easy to predict and defend, yet that doesn’t excuse him for the poor decisions and bad throws resulting in turnovers.  The Texans had the ball five times in the second half against the Giants all ended in the red zone.  Mills had a costly interception late in the game, which prevented the Texans from stealing the win. 

Power Ratings