Vra­bel hire stirs ques­tions, but Ti­tans coach is ready

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A lit­tle more than seven years since re­tir­ing from a dis­tin­guished ca­reer as an NFL line­backer and, well, essen­tially launch­ing a new ca­reer in the coach­ing ranks on the same day, Mike Vra­bel has the op­por­tu­nity that some peo­ple spend a pro­fes­sional life­time seek­ing.

Vra­bel is the rookie head coach of the Ti­tans. It seems like yes­ter­day he was demon­strat­ing some sweet ver­sa­til­ity by catch­ing touch­down passes from Tom Brady in goal-line pack­ages for the Pa­tri­ots.

Now he’s poised to open the Ti­tans’ off­sea­son pro­gram Mon­day as the man in charge, with just three years of col­lege coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and four years as an NFL as­sis­tant.

No won­der there was grum­bling in coach­ing cir­cles when Vra­bel, 42, re­placed Mike Mu­larkey, awk­wardly dumped af­ter tak­ing the Ti­tans to the sec­ond round of the play­offs.

“I’ve heard that,” Vra­bel said dur­ing the re­cent NFL meet­ings. “I’m cu­ri­ous. I don’t know.”

Fair or not, Vra­bel’s high-profile gig with the Ti­tans be­gins against a back­drop painted in priv­i­lege and po­ten­tial.

Sure, his train­ing as a player for 14 sea­sons in the NFL, bol­stered by prime years un­der Bill Belichick, mat­ters im­mensely. Belichick con­sid­ers Vra­bel one of the tough­est play­ers he’s ever coached, and there was no dis­put­ing his pres­ence as a re­spected team cap­tain. One of his for­mer Pa­tri­ots team­mates, Richard Sey­mour, text-mes­saged Fri­day from Spain: “Vra­bel is my guy!”

And there’s this from for­mer all-pro cor­ner­back Ty Law: “You can tell there are some guys who are just cut out to be­come coaches, and that was Mike. He was al­ways a great stu­dent. He wasn’t the big­gest, fastest or strong­est, but he got it done with great prepa­ra­tion and was even able to play mul­ti­ple po­si­tions. So it doesn’t sur­prise me at all to see where he’s at now.”

Still, it’s also fair to ques­tion whether Vra­bel would have as­cended to a top job so soon if not for Ti­tans gen­eral man­ager Jon Robin­son, an­other ex-Pa­triot, who worked in Belichick’s front of­fice.

Con­nec­tions mat­ter in a league where there are vary­ing ways of be­com­ing a head coach — and such a tra­di­tional de­bate about fair op­por­tu­nity that there’s a Rooney Rule.

Con­sider the path that Steve Wilks took in land­ing this year as the first-year Car­di­nals coach. No, Wilks didn’t play 14 sea­sons in the league. Like Vra­bel, he served just one year as a co­or­di­na­tor. He also coached at eight col­leges and had three stops on the NFL level.

Vra­bel co­or­di­nated the in­jury-de­pleted Tex­ans de­fense last sea­son af­ter three sea­sons as lineback­ers coach. Be­fore that, he was a po­si­tion coach at his alma mater, Ohio State … first hired by his for­mer team­mate and room­mate, Luke Fick­ell, be­fore be­ing re­hired the next year by Ur­ban Meyer.

“I’ve had a lot of great men­tors,” Vra­bel said. “One thing they told me is that, ‘You’re a lot bet­ter coach com­ing in than you are leav­ing.’ ”

The Ti­tans, who signed Vra­bel to a five-year con­tract, clearly hope they have caught a ris­ing star.

Look at how the Rams cashed in on po­ten­tial af­ter last year mak­ing Sean McVay the youngest coach in mod­ern NFL his­tory. McVay, 32, led the Rams to a divi­sion ti­tle and was named coach of the year. A lit­tle more than a decade ago, the Steel­ers gam­bled sim­i­larly on untested Mike Tom­lin, who, like Vra­bel, had been an NFL co­or­di­na­tor for just one year.

In his sec­ond sea­son, Tom­lin (seven jobs, six stops be­fore Pitts­burgh) be­came the youngest coach to win a Su­per Bowl.

“Vra­bel’s go­ing to be fine,” Raiders coach Jon Gru­den said. “His pedi­gree is good. His up­bring­ing with Belichick, Romeo (Cren­nel) and coach (Bill) O’Brien is go­ing to fast-track him. He’s a dif­fer­ence­maker.”

Gru­den was 35 when hired as Raiders coach the first time but by then had eight stops on his ré­sumé, in­clud­ing three sea­sons as the Ea­gles of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor. He con­tends that Vra­bel will eas­ily grasp “all the pe­riph­eral things” in­volved in his tran­si­tion.

“He’ll be a quick study,” Gru­den in­sisted.

Vra­bel knew dur­ing his play­ing ca­reer that he would pur­sue a coach­ing ca­reer, although he wasn’t sure if that would hap­pen at the NFL level. He con­sid­ers him­self lucky to have had coaches im­pact his life as a player and a per­son and was drawn to the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing sim­i­lar in­flu­ence.

“Be­sides,” he wise­cracked, “I wasn’t cut out to do any­thing else.”

It should help that Vra­bel can re­late as an ex-player and as a coach with re­cent time on the col­lege level. For all of his in­sight into X’s and O’s, he also has a sense of how to con­nect with Mil­len­ni­als.

“They’re al­ways on their phones,” he said. “But if you want to get a hold of them, you’d bet­ter text them. Call­ing is not the thing.”

It’s strik­ing that John Wooten is also bullish on Vra­bel’s po­ten­tial. The chair­man of the Fritz Pol­lard Al­liance that mon­i­tors mi­nor­ity hir­ing in the NFL was dis­ap­pointed that NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell and Co. didn’t agree with his group’s con­clu­sion that the Raiders vi­o­lated the Rooney Rule dur­ing the process of hir­ing Gru­den. Yet Wooten has no beef with the Ti­tans for their process — or their ultimate se­lec­tion of Vra­bel.

“I think he’s go­ing to be a heck of a coach,” Wooten said.

Wooten said he’s con­vinced of such, know­ing Belichick’s im­print, which he likens to the man­ner in which leg­endary coaches Paul Brown and Bill Walsh passed on their philoso­phies.

“Ev­ery­body who has worked with Vra­bel,” Wooten added, “swear that he’s ready.”

Vra­bel chuck­led when told of the pos­i­tive ex­pec­ta­tions that con­trast the early skep­ti­cism.

“As long as the play­ers are ex­cited,” he said, “then I’m ex­cited.”

BRIAN SPURLOCK/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Mike Vra­bel has just three years of col­lege coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and four as an NFL as­sis­tant.

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