NASHVILLE – Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher remembers a young Mike Vrabel, the one who began his NFL career playing in Pittsburgh as a determined, scrappy, and smart player.
Cowher watched Vrabel fight, scratch and claw to establish himself in the NFL, where he'd ultimately win three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots.
More than 20 years later, Cowher is seeing Vrabel's Titans fight like him.
After a 2-4 start to the season, the Titans are set to play in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday against the Chiefs for the right to go to Super Bowl LIV.
"I think the Titans are a team that kind of takes on the reflection of their head coach," said Cowher, who spent some time in Nashville this week with Vrabel, a third-round draft pick out of Ohio State who played for the Steelers from 1997-2000 before spending eight seasons with the Patriots (2001-08) and two more with the Chiefs (2009-2010). "They are going to be a physical football team, they are going to play tough, they are going to play smart and they are not going to beat themselves."
Cowher, now an analyst with CBS, raved about Vrabel, who is in his second season as head coach of the Titans. Cowher led the Steelers to a win in Super Bowl XL, and he was named the NFL's coach of the year on numerous occasions. He'll enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the 2020 class.
Cowher believes Vrabel will have the Titans ready to play on Sunday in Kansas City.
"Mike Vrabel will make every game personal," Cowher said. "I see a lot of myself in a young Mike Vrabel. He is very competitive. He is very respectful of the game, but he looks at each opportunity as an opportunity to prove something that people don't think you can do, and he'll create that narrative. He wants to make that game personal, and in doing so it's not out of disrespect, it's out of respect and it's also out of a confidence he has in his players. He'll take them into the bunker hole with him. He is one of them. And I think a lot of times you see with players, it resonates with them. It resonates with them when they know it is just as important to you as it should be to them.
"(The Titans) are tough, they're physical, they're smart, and they don't beat themselves. And that's a lot of Mike Vrabel."
In his first season as head coach, Vrabel guided the Titans to a 9-7 mark, but that team missed the playoffs.
In 2019, the Titans started slow, but the team won 7 of their last 10 regular season games to clinch a playoff spot. In January, the Titans have playoff wins over the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and the AFC's No.1 seed, the Baltimore Ravens.
Cowher believes Vrabel's experience as a player in Pittsburgh, and later under head coach Bill Belichick with the Patriots, helped prepare him for where he is today.
But experiences at other places helped as well, Cowher said.
"In his first four years (with the Steelers), you could see he was just a cerebral player and he could play multiple positions. He understood more than what his responsibilities were, and he always asked questions to make himself better," Cowher said of Vrabel. "He developed as a player and was really productive, and the coaching experience he got – under Urban Meyer (at Ohio State) and with Bill O'Brien (at Houston), it was a really nice transition for him. It's not like he went from playing to be a head coach. I think as each game has gone by, he has gotten a better feel for his players, and they get a better feel for him. And he's gotten a better feel for his coaches as well."
Cowher believes the quarterback change – going from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill – was one of the big keys for the Titans this season. Tannehill took over when the team was just 2-4. While leading the NFL in passer rating, Tannehill guided the Titans to a 7-3 mark down the stretch, and he's been solid in the playoffs as well. In the Divisional Round win over the Ravens, Tannehill threw for two touchdowns and ran for another.
Derrick Henry, who led the NFL in rushing during the regular season and has been a force in the playoffs, has been a key cog himself, Cowher said.
Henry has accumulated 377 rushing yards on 64 attempts through two postseason games, setting a new single-game franchise record in consecutive weeks. His pace of 188.5 rushing yards per game is the best in a single postseason in NFL history for players with at least two games played.
"I think No. 1, the move that Mike made to go to Ryan Tannehill gave a spark to the team, and I think he didn't do it too late – they were still able to then salvage a slow start. And they continued to get better each and every week," Cowher said. "Certainly the emergence of Derrick Henry in this playoff run has been the key to a lot of it.
"The one thing about big backs like Derrick, is once big backs start running in December and January, the guys in the secondary don't want to see him break that first line of scrimmage. Derrick is not one of those guys you're looking forward to running into especially in Kansas City where it's going to be 23 degrees. I remember how people felt about (Steelers running back) Jerome Bettis, and late in the game guys start bouncing off of you. Big backs in December and January, when they are healthy and running like Derrick is running, if you can keep the game close, he is a nice closer."
On the defensive side of the ball, Cowher said the Titans will have to rise to the challenge once again against a Chiefs offense that ranked 2nd in the AFC in yards per game (379.2) and points per game (28.2) in 2019. The Chiefs beat the Texans 51-31 in the AFC Divisional Round.
The Titans held the Patriots to just 13 points in the Wild Card Round and held the Ravens to just 12 points in the Divisional Round.
"On the defensive front, I can't give enough credit to DaQuan Jones and Jurrell Casey and Jeffery Simmons, and linebacker Rashaan Evans," Cowher said. "Those guys last week, they were really good, and those guys have played really, really well. That entire defense has played really well.
"Now this is a different animal they're playing this week compared to last week. You are now talking about going against a team that passes it really well. I think it's going to take the Titans creating turnovers and making plays, whether it's a blocked field goal or a returned fumble. Those are the things the Titans thrive on, and they pressure you into making mistakes. If the game is close in the second half, I know the best closer they've got is Derrick Henry, and he has proven to be very effective the last couple of weeks."