With brutal honesty and tough talk, Mike Vrabel plans to win big with Titans

With brutal honesty and tough talk, Mike Vrabel plans to win big with Titans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Vrabel kicks his feet up on his desk and leans back in his chair. He still looks like an NFL linebacker, but he has the Tennessee Titans’ big office now. He’s breaking it in his way.

A melodious country music playlist, ranging from Garth Brooks to Blake Shelton, plays slightly softer than speaking voice in his office. Vrabel’s Boston College-bound son, Tyler, makes a tepid entrance. He’s up at the Titans facility at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday for a workout with Titans strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson.

Vrabel switches into dad mode.

“You don’t seem too excited about this. You tired? Couldn’t go to bed last night,” Vrabel says before giving his son speed-training instructions. “Go work out. I’ll come find you. See you, brother.”

Tyler, a high school senior who has his dad matched in body measurables (6-foot-4, 260 pounds), exits. Vrabel smiles proudly, “He’s big, huh? They’re doing a great job with him.”

It has been only a month, but Vrabel is already at home here.

Vrabel, 42, has a unique and challenging job. He’s a first-time head coach tasked with being the ground-level CEO for the Titans, an up-and-coming playoff team that isn’t broken, has a strong locker room and a franchise quarterback.

“Everybody is going tell us to win the f—ing Super Bowl and it’s f—ing February,” Vrabel said. “We all have to manage expectations, positively and negatively.”

There were grumbles from NFL assistant coaches at the Senior Bowl, expressing frustration that Vrabel was able to reach the head coach mantle so quickly.

It’s no secret that Vrabel’s 14-year NFL playing career, in which he won three Super Bowls and embodied the Patriots Way, helped expedite his path. His relationship with Titans general manager Jon Robinson, a former Patriots scout, worked in his favor, too.

But Vrabel isn’t about to apologize for his connections. He says he believes he’s ready for the job. Those who know Vrabel well say his presence, intelligence, ability to relate to players and unrelenting competitiveness will make him successful and worth the risk for the Titans.

“I love his passion for the game, his passion for players. Mike is one of the smartest guys that I’ve ever met. That’s why I’m here,” said Titans defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs, who coached alongside Vrabel at Ohio State for two years. “Mike understood players better than anybody I’ve ever coached with. He has a great handle on how to teach and communicate. There are people you encounter in your life that have that ‘it’ factor. He’s one of those guys.”

Presence, confrontations, brutal honesty

The Eddie George-Vrabel Ohio State practice battles were legendary. From 1993 to ’95, they competed at everything from wind sprints to 10-yard shuttles.

George recalls many practices having Vrabel as his blitz-pickup responsibility. Vrabel was trying to knock him into next week. It was physical and they let each other know who won each battle.

“His motor was nonstop. He was hell off the edge. He was one of the great defensive players to come through Ohio State,” said George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner and leading rusher in Titans/Oilers franchise history. “Mike doesn’t back down from a challenge. He’s not afraid of being confrontational. He would call you out in a heartbeat — coaches, teammates. It didn’t matter.”

Vrabel figured he wasn’t the fastest, strongest or best player, but he could be the toughest. He learned that from his dad, Chuck, a longtime Ohio high school basketball coach.

“He embodied that Patriots culture. He’s a natural leader,” said 49ers general manager John Lynch, who briefly was a teammate of Vrabel’s during training camp with the Patriots in 2008. “Just because he was a great player doesn’t mean he’s going to be a great coach. But it’s important to Mike. He’s reflected that with the way he works. Knowing Mike and what he stands for, I think they found a good one.”

Former Patriots and Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork said Vrabel was Houston’s best coach. Two others who played for Vrabel said he demands a lot, but he gets it from a player’s perspective.

“He’s willing to put his arm around you,” George said. “He’s not so insensitive that he forgets you’re a human being.”

That brings us back to Vrabel’s presence, sort of a fluffy buzzword.

“I don’t know what it is or means. I don’t try to pretend, I don’t try to be fake,” Vrabel interjected as if he had heard the word “presence” one too many times. “I can be an a–h— Monday-Saturday. I let them play on Sunday. That 3 1/2 hours is your time.”

University of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Vrabel’s best friend and former Ohio State teammate, predicts people might struggle adjusting to Vrabel’s brutally honest approach to football and life.

“Some people would say it’s brash. Some people would say it’s arrogant,” Fickell said. “No, this is the standard he’s going to set. He’s going to set it for himself, and he’s going to hold people to it.”

Fickell saw people grapple with Vrabel’s tough method of leadership like when he wasn’t voted a captain at Ohio State.

“Mike was the best leader we had on the team. But it wasn’t a popular thing,” said Fickell, who also gave Vrabel his first coaching job at Ohio State. “He says things that people don’t want to hear. Some people didn’t like it. He found out at an early age that he didn’t care.”

Vrabel went on to become a multiyear captain and all-pro player with the Patriots.

“[Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick was brutally honest. [Ohio State head coach] Urban Meyer taught me to be brutally honest,” Vrabel said. “He was clear, clean, concise and direct. Sooner or later, you got to be honest. It might as well be sooner. In the end, players and people want to know you’re not bulls—-ing them.”

‘Vrabel was the smartest’

Vrabel doesn’t have much patience when it comes to his family. He used to get angry when Tyler’s high school football coaches repeatedly called out his last name as if he were his dad.

“He’s got a f—ing name,” Vrabel told the coaches. “I swear to God if you yell Tyler, he’ll turn around.”

Vrabel was trying to protect his son from the unnecessary expectations. He figures it’s not easy playing the same sport as your famous former NFL star dad. Tyler plays offensive line, which Mike hopes will make things easier. His younger son, Carter, plays baseball. His wife, Jen, loves sports and plays gatekeeper in determining who enters their lives.

Sitting on the back wall of Vrabel’s office are a collection of children books. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of 2nd & 7, a foundation Vrabel and his friend Ryan Miller started to promote childhood reading comprehension in Ohio. It started buying books for second-graders and reading to them. Then, Vrabel and Miller decided to write books. Vrabel has plans to expand the program to Nashville by this fall.

Education was important for Vrabel, an only child, with a mother and father who both were school principals.

Vrabel wanted to play football long enough so his kids could experience it. Tyler and Carter have memories of carrying Tom Brady’s pads off the practice field and playing catch with former Patriots linebackers Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi.

Once Vrabel retired from the NFL in 2011 at 36, he accepted a job from Fickell to be the defensive line coach at Ohio State the next day. He didn’t plan to leave Columbus, Ohio. He built a home there that “I thought they would bury me in.”

Vrabel loved recruiting and he was good at it — proving Meyer’s initial doubts wrong — but he grew tired of spending his springs in the homes of 17-year-olds while hearing Jen describe the awesome sports moments he missed with his own teenager and preteen.

“Some people would say it’s brash. Some people would say it’s arrogant. No, this is the standard he’s going to set. He’s going to set it for himself, and he’s going to hold people to it.”

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell on Vrabel

So, his coaching dream moved to Houston as linebackers coach from 2014 to ’16 followed by one season as defensive coordinator in 2017, and now Tennessee, where his family has a front-row seat. Vrabel thought back to when the Titans told him he’d be their head coach.

“I’ve won a Super Bowl. I’ve been on the podium with my son when he was 3 years old. Caught a TD in the Super Bowl. Strip sacks in the Super Bowl,” Vrabel said. “To me, it’s right up there with all those moments and probably a little higher.”

This opportunity is special because Vrabel wanted to be a coach before he was a player. Those who know Vrabel well laugh when they see people miscategorize him as a “football meathead.”

“Vrabes was always the guy who saw more than just what was on the handout. He would understand ‘why,’ ” said Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst. “All of us were smart players, but I always thought Vrabel was the smartest. Before I went to a coach with a question, I would check with Vrabes first.”

Bruschi remembers Vrabel as the only guy who could naturally joke about him coming back from a stroke while still matching his intensity on the field.

“Toughness and humor, a lot of guys can’t mix the two,” Bruschi said. “Vrabes mastered that.”

Managing expectations

The Vrabel-Fickell college dorm consisted of drinking, little sleep and wrestling until 2 a.m.

Fickell was a wrestler, but Vrabel wanted to win. So, they fought and fought, often drawing blood and bruises.

“I whooped his ass. He would never admit it. But he would never stop. You would have to knock him out,” Fickell said. “He’s probably the most competitive son of a b—- I’ve ever met. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, recruiting, playing cards for money, shooting baskets or in some business endeavor. He’s in it to win.”

That competitiveness is part of what attracted Robinson to Vrabel. Robinson wasn’t satisfied with being a “decent” team, and he says he believes Vrabel can push them toward “great.”

The Titans went 9-7 in 2016 and 2017, and last season won their first playoff game since 2003. Marcus Mariota is the present and future. This team isn’t broken. But it’s a lot harder to go from decent to great, with further to fall than to climb. The realistic goal is a championship.

“You can look at the Rams. Yeah, they had a QB, but they weren’t a playoff team,” Vrabel said. “This is a very unique situation.

“We’re going to have to manage expectations. We talk about winning the division, something that we haven’t done since 2008 here, hosting a playoff game, then seeing what happens.”

Before winning, Vrabel will have to teach his culture and sell his program. Many Titans players loved former head coach Mike Mularkey.

“His biggest challenge is going to be winning that locker room over,” George said. “You have to be careful with friction at the beginning. It can be a distraction.”

Vrabel’s experiences as a player — being an underachieving draft pick, a backup, a special-teams player, a captain, an all-pro player, a champion, a traded player and a grizzled veteran trying to hold on — will help him relate to his players.

His coaching experiences — swimming in his first year from player to coach, bombing his initial interview with Meyer in 2012, and becoming a hot coaching candidate over the past two years — have shaped him, too.

Vrabel’s dad taught him the importance of teamwork and toughness. Meyer taught him the importance of teaching a player. Belichick taught him the importance of preparation. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher taught him the importance of special teams. Vrabel will take from them and add his own style.

“I’m going to treat each individual player exactly how they treat the team,” Vrabel said. “If they treat the team or teammates like s—, I’m going to have a tough time having a relationship with that player and that player probably won’t be here very long.”

Vrabel’s first training camp might make some players puke. He’s that type of coach. But winning could make everything better.

One month in, Vrabel looks content with the challenge, comfortable in his new home and confident in his ability to make it work. One thing is certain: He’ll do it his way.

Report: Saints' Jordan recovering after surgery

Report: Saints' Jordan recovering after surgery

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan recently underwent a minor surgery on his left foot but shouldn’t miss any offseason workouts, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Jordan, a 2017 Pro Bowler, had the elective surgery earlier this month. He is expected to recover within six weeks, a source told The Times-Picayune.

He has been using a scooter at public events this week.

The 28-year-old Jordan did not appear to be affected by a foot injury during the season. He appeared in all 16 games for the seventh straight season while also playing in both of the Saints’ playoff games as well as the Pro Bowl. He had a career-high 13 sacks while forcing two fumbles and snagging an interception in the regular season.

New Mexico State baseball posts historically lopsided NCAA D1 victory

Baseball is a wonderful game, but it can also be an unforgiving game when it matches up two teams that are no match at all.

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Unfortunately for Mississippi Valley State University, that was the case on Friday at Presley Askew Field in Las Cruces, N.M. In what will go down as the fourth most lopsided game in NCAA Division I baseball history, New Mexico State took home a 39-0 victory.

Someone really should have thrown in the towel. No team at any level deserves to be dismantled to that extent. To Mississippi Valley’s credit though, the team never did quit. They’ll be back out there again on Saturday too against the same New Mexico State team. This time it’s scheduled to be a doubleheader.

One can’t blame the players at New Mexico State either. They’re there to play the game, and they undoubtedly had a bad taste in their mouth after losing 12-0 to Texas Tech on Tuesday. The Aggies record on the season is 3-2, and they’ve amazingly scored a combined 76 runs in those wins.

A view of Presley Askew Field, home of the New Mexico State Aggies. (New Mexico State University)

In addition to being the fourth largest margin of victory in NCAA D1 history — Nebraska holds the largest with a 50-3 win against Chicago State in 1999 — New Mexico State also set a school and conference record with its 39 runs.

New Mexico State scored in each of the eight innings it batted, including putting up an 11-spot in the first. Every other inning, with the exception of the seventh, resulted in at least three runs.

Designated hitter Noah Haupt led the way with six hits — including two of the team’s four home runs — and 10 runners batted in. On the hill, Kyle Bradish was also unfairly good, firing six innings of two-hit ball. He struck out 12.

For Mississippi Valley State’s sake, here’s hoping the experience is a little better on Saturday.

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Yahoo Sports Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter!

Cubs' Ian Happ: In contention for leadoff role

Happ is auditioning for the Cubs‘ leadoff spot, Carrie Muskat of MLB.com reports.

Happ hit leadoff in the Cubs’ Cactus League opener against the Brewers on Friday. Manager Joe Maddon cautioned against reading too much into a spring lineup, but said that Happ, Kyle Schwarber, and Albert Almora are among those in contention for the the leadoff role. Happ led off eight times for the Cubs in 2017, though his .328 on-base percentage is somewhat low for a table-setter. If he were to win the job and bat in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, his run total would jump up, but that would be offset by a drop in RBI, so the net effect won’t be huge.

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Report: Twins sign Erick Aybar to a minor-league deal

The Twins have reportedly signed free agent shortstop Erick Aybar to a minor-league deal, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune reported Friday. FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman adds that the deal comes with a potential $1.25 million if Aybar reaches the majors, with additional incentives based on plate appearances. He’ll be able to opt out on March 27. The team has yet to confirm the signing.

Aybar, 34, is now four years removed from his career year in 2014. He’s been in a state of steady decline since then, slashing just .234/.300/.348 with seven home runs and 11 stolen bases over 370 plate appearances for the Padres in 2017. His poor performance wasn’t helped by a fractured left foot, either, which cost him almost six weeks on the disabled list.

Still, the Twins see something promising in the veteran infielder, and reportedly intend to use him as another utility option this spring. Per Neal, Aybar will join fellow backup infielders Eduardo Escobar and Ehire Adrianza and may even (temporarily) take over for Miguel Sano at third base if Sano isn’t able to shape up for the role by Opening Day.

Still no contract talks between Dez, Cowboys

Still no contract talks between Dez, Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has yet to have talks with his agent or the organization about a possibly having to take a pay cut to remain with the team in 2018.

When asked on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Friday, Bryant was asked if he would be willing to take a cut in pay to remain with the team.

“That’s a discussion for me, for myself and my agent and Mr. Jones and the Joneses, the Dallas Cowboys,” Bryant said.

Late last season Bryant said he would not take a pay cut. He is set to make $12.5 million in 2018 and counts $16.5 million against the cap. If the Cowboys were to release Bryant, who is the franchise’s all-time leader in touchdown catches, they could save up to $12.5 million against the cap depending on the designation.

If he is designated a post-June 1 cut, then the Cowboys would save $12.5 million against the cap, but he would be on the books in 2019 for $4 million. Without the designation, they would save $8 million and they would be free from a salary-cap perspective in 2019.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones has said the Cowboys will have to look at Bryant’s contract. It is likely they will meet with Bryant’s agent, Kim Miale, next week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

“No one wants to compete and get after it more than Dez,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said at the first Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award dinner. “At the same time, we all know this is a business where everyone has to be accountable. Certainly, everybody knows that. You know, that’s a tough one. Certainly, we’re going to be grinding it out and trying to determine what is in the best interest of our business.”

“Dez understands this is a business. No one thinks more of Dez Bryant than starting at the top, Jerry, and certainly me, his teammates, coach Garrett, Will McClay,” Jones said. “We all have a tremendous amount of respect for Dez. But that’s one of the things we’re going to have to work through as we move into our future.”

On The Fan, Bryant said he played hurt through part of last season. He said in the final month of the season he dealt with tendinitis that impacted his performance but he did not miss a game for the first time since 2014. He finished with 69 receptions for 838 yards and six touchdowns. He was 28th in the league in yards and tied for 24th in catches.

Since signing a five-year, $70 million contract in 2015, Bryant as not recorded a 1,000-yard season. He has battled through foot and knee injuries in 2015 and ’16.

“I don’t even want it to sound like an excuse, but it is the truth,” Bryant said of being compromised by injury. “It’s like one thing that I know — (head athletic trainer Jim Maurer) will tell you — I hate going in that training room. I don’t like going in that training room, especially when I needed to be in that training room.

“But this time around I want to take care of my body. I want to get it all the way right. I want it to be right. I promise you I ain’t having nobody questioning me again. This is what I love and I accept everything that’s coming my way right now. That’s OK. That’s fine. I just want to work. That all I want to do. I want to work. I want to stay out of the way. I want to control what I can control and I want my respect. That’s it.”

Bryant said he could not picture himself playing for another team.

“It don’t seem right,” Bryant said on The Fan. “It wouldn’t be right.”

Bryant grew up a Cowboys fan in Lufkin, Texas. The Cowboys selected him with the 24th overall pick in the 2010 draft.

“Man honestly it means everything to me,” Bryant said of playing in Dallas. “It means everything. I do want to bring this city a championship. We ain’t had one since the ’90s and it really is about that time. That’s where my mind is. And we haven’t done it and I want to be a part of that because I do believe that it can happen and we’ll just have to see.

“Like I said, I’m still working. I’m still grinding. I feel like I’m grinding more than I ever because of me, not because of nobody else. It’s something that I want to do, something I feel like I have to do. I let a lot of things get in the way that shouldn’t have never got in the way. I really didn’t make my mark. I don’t care what nobody is talking about. I could care less. Everybody ain’t with Dez Bryant, they can kiss my ass.”