NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Spontaneous would not be the best word to describe most NFL practices.
But only a couple weeks into his first year of offseason training, Titans coach Mike Vrabel is already instilling an air of unpredictability into his team's sessions.
In most practices, coordinators and assistants script out specific plans for sessions well in advance, giving players on both sides of the line of scrimmage an idea of what will be on the menu that day.
For example, the Titans might decide to concentrate on red-zone plays during one practice period.
In that scenario, offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur would script 10 or 12 plays to run -- different ones based on where the team is on the field, what the down and distance is, and which personnel grouping he has in place.
Offensive assistant coaches and players would be given the script to study, and then the players would be walked through the 10-12 plays before actually running through them in practice. Defensive players would be given the same script as well, so that they could prepare specifically for certain situations at full speed.
The reverse scenario holds true in more defense-oriented sessions, with defensive coordinator Dean Pees scripting a set of plays and giving it to LaFleur – allowing the offense to prepare for specific situations.
It's a case of learning through situational study and repetition. But Vrabel – who spent 14 years as a player himself – knows the format can also get monotonous at times.
"You know, as a player sometimes, you get tired of doing individual drills and group drills, and drills and drills," Vrabel said.
So from time to time during Titans OTAs, Vrabel has instituted unscripted sessions, which gives coordinators and players far less time to prepare for what they're facing.
On Wednesday, for instance, Vrabel said he used that approach when the Titans worked on third-down situations. When the ball was placed at the line of scrimmage, Vrabel yelled out a certain down and distance, forcing coordinators to think on their toes as they adjusted their personnel.
The scenario more closely resembles what happens on game days, so it might be especially beneficial to LaFleur, who is entering his first season as a play-caller.
"Nothing is scripted," Vrabel said. "So it's not like they can walk through it beforehand. They don't know what (I'm) calling and they don't see what (the other coordinator) is calling."
Players, too, have to be more situationally aware, as opposed to getting any sort of advance preparation for what's coming.
"I think the players just get out there and it's them (on their own) – which is what the game is," Vrabel said. "We have to hope they take the individual drills to the team setting, and that they can have some carryover and start to use some of those techniques that we're teaching them."
Vrabel said he thought players enjoyed Wednesday's unscripted third-down session, even if the results weren't always as ideal as the coaches might have wanted.
"It wasn't perfect," Vrabel said. "But these practices aren't perfect. Games aren't going to be perfect.
"It's a good way to create some energy … because the guys that love football, they're going to go out there and play. That's the guys you've got to figure out. You've got 11 guys. So they make a call. You make the call work. You communicate and the players are going to be the ones that make it go."
Vrabel said he planned another unscripted session for Friday's practice, impressive considering he's only coached the Titans for a handful of 11-on-11 practices so far. Some new coaches might have held off on unscripted drills until training camp, but Vrabel instead has the team diving into them already – a good sign of progress.
It stands to reason, after all, that the more often a team learns to deal with unpredictability, the more predictable the chances it responds the right way.
-- Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
The Titans take the field for Wednesday's organized team activities (OTA) at Saint Thomas Sports Park. (Photos: Donn Jones, Nate Bain)