LOS ANGELES – Rodney Harrison remembers Mike Vrabel as a teammate.
A smart, persistent, intense, hard-working teammate.
During their playing days together with the New England Patriots, Harrison shared defensive meeting rooms and practice fields with Vrabel on a daily basis. They won Super Bowl rings together.
Even then, Harrison thought one day Vrabel would be a great head coach.
"Mike was a very smart, and he worked extremely hard, not just on the physical part of his body, but really the mental part of the game, and that is what really separated Mike from everyone else," Harrison, an analyst with NBC Sports said of the Titans head coach on Tuesday, leading up to Super Bowl LVI. "Mike was so smart, and you almost felt like he was the smartest guy in the room.
"We would give him a hard time because he would just keep asking questions, keep answering something before the coach would even give the answer. I knew that Mike would be a heck of a head coach. I thought he would be eventually the head coach at Ohio State. But Mike has done a phenomenal job (with the Titans) and the players love him, and he understands the players because he played, he has empathy for them, but at the same time he holds then accountable and doesn't allow them to make excuses."
Vrabel, who on Tuesday was awarded a contract extension with the team, guided the Titans to a record of 12-5 during the 2021 regular season, and his team captured the AFC's No.1 seed for the first time since the 2008 season. The 12 wins in the regular season were the most for the franchise since 2008, when the Titans finished 13-3.
Vrabel is up for the 2021 NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press here at NFL Honors on Thursday. Last month, Vrabel was named Coach of the Year by the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA).
Vrabel's Titans won the AFC South for the second straight season in 2021, when the organization made its third consecutive postseason appearance in his four seasons as head coach. His team lost in the playoffs during a year when the Titans used 91 players during the 2021 season, an NFL record for a non-strike season.
"Mike did a fantastic job," former Colts coach Tony Dungy, also with NBC Sports, said of Vrabel here at Super Bowl LVI. "You lose your biggest weapon (half the year in Derrick Henry), and you still end up with the No.1 seed and the best record in the AFC. That tells you how well-rounded they are how tough-minded they are as a team.
"I thought he did a phenomenal job of changing things up, keeping the expectations high even after losing Derrick. I thought he did a fantastic job and it doesn't surprise me at all with his mentality over his playing career and coaching career."
Vrabel's overall record since taking over as coach of the Titans is 44-27, including regular season and playoffs.
In 2021, Vrabel tied Jack Pardee for the most total wins by a head coach in his first four seasons with the organization. In Pardee's first four seasons as head coach from 1990 through 1993, the Oilers were 43-26, including playoffs. Of all Titans/Oilers head coaches with at least four seasons with the franchise, Vrabel's career winning percentage ranks the highest.
While coaching the AFC squad at the Pro Bowl last week, other NFL players raved about Vrabel, from his coaching style to his success.
"I'm so glad you asked me about coach Vrabel, man," Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said of Vrabel. "Ever since I've been playing against him for four years, I had the utmost respect for him, and it wasn't even how he coached. It was more so how he talked to his players, how he interacts with his guys. When his guys are on the turf hurt, he's the first one out there to check up on them, and that, as a player, that's what you want to see from a coach.
"Now being out here (at the Pro Bowl) with him, seeing how he carries himself, seeing how he has fun with his guys, I have nothing but respect for coach Vrabel, man, and he's a hell of a coach. That's why they're having the success they're having over there in Tennessee."
Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner echoed Leonard's comments.
"I can see why the guys love playing for him," Buckner said. "You can tell he is a players' coach – obviously he is a former player, so he can definitely relate with to the guys. I can see why his team reacts a certain way to his coaching because you can tell he's a real personable guy."
Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater, also teammates with Vrabel in New England, said he's not surprised with his success.
"I am not surprised as all," Slater said of Vrabel. "He is a tremendous leader, and his respect and knowledge of the game is fantastic.
"Looking up to guys like him when I was a rookie, I learned how to be a pro. I learned how to respect the game, I learned how to do things the right way. And I don't think that I am here without a guy like Mike Vrabel."
Harrison, a safety with the Patriots who played six seasons with Vrabel, said he believes Vrabel and the Titans will be contender again in 2022.
"What you are going to see is they are gong to add a couple more players this offseason, and they are going to continue to get better," Harrison said. "At the running back position, you add a little but more depth just in case something happens to Derrick Henry, but overall (Mike) has come in and done a really great job.
"You see Jeffery Simmons playing at a high level, Denico Autry, Harold Landry – those guys are playing at a high level, man, and a big part of it is because of the influence of Mike Vrabel."