Texans' Mike Vrabel interviews for Lions' job

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Mike Vrabel

Allen Park — After interviewing the internal candidates on Tuesday, the Detroit Lions met with their first external option for the team’s head coaching vacancy Wednesday, hosting Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.

And even though it’s been a decade since they’ve worked together, Lions general manager Bob Quinn knows Vrabel well. While Quinn served in various scouting roles for the New England Patriots from 2001-08, Vrabel was playing a key role on defense, special teams and as a situational tight end for the franchise that won three Super Bowls during the stretch.

Given this is Quinn’s first time going through a coaching search, he acknowledges that familiarity could give a candidate an advantage.

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“It could factor in, for sure, it could,” Quinn said. “But that’s why the interview process is what it is. You spend time with people you may not know, and you get to know them, and maybe they change your opinion on them one way or the other. But it’s a factor.”

A quick glance at Vrabel’s coaching resume isn’t going to wow anyone. Since wrapping up his 14-year playing career, he’s been coaching seven seasons. The transition surprised no one, especially former coach Bill Belichick.

“We talked about that several times during his career,” Belichick said last January. “Mike does a tremendous job. As a player, he was very astute. Not only had a great understanding of his position and techniques and knowledge on how to play his spot and the corresponding positions, but also from an overall standpoint, he had a very good grasp of the overall defensive concepts and offensive concepts and how they would attack us in different fronts or different pre-snap looks.”

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Vrabel, 42, broke into coaching at his alma mater, Ohio State, leading the team’s linebackers and defensive line. He then took a job with Houston in 2014, reuniting with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.

Vrabel coached the Texans linebackers for three years, arguably the team’s best position group, before being promoted to defensive coordinator prior to the 2017 season. Statistically, it didn’t go well. After losing several key starters, including J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Brian Cushing, the Texans finished last in scoring defense.

That’s a question he’ll need to satisfactorily answer during the interview process, but it won’t exclude him from earning the job.

“Of all the guys in this pool, the one I’d say who has the chance to be the best head coach is Vrabel,” one current NFL head coach with no ties to Vrabel told Sports Illustrated this week. “It’s his presence, and the people he’s been around and learned from.”

And while Xs and Os matter, so much more goes into being a head coach. It’s the ability to get the most out of your players, to instill toughness, to inspire and lead. That’s always been Vrabel’s calling card.

Plus, don’t let the stats fool you into thinking Vrabel doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

"He had a real passion for not only knowing his position, but understanding the total game," Belichick said. "He was always very good on things like being able to anticipate what the offense was going to do, hearing a call and that call coming up later. Maybe not in that game, but the next year when we played them, a guy like (Peyton) Manning making a check at the line of scrimmage, things like that.

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“I mean, he had a lot of those little things that you never see on film, but somehow he knew them or he figured them out or anticipated them,” Belichick said. “He made a lot of instinctive plays or plays based on experience or just knowledge. And Mike was really tough. He was a tough football player. So I'm sure that comes across in his coaching as well. I don't think he babies them. I don't think they're sitting around eating marshmallows. That's not really his style."

After meeting with Vrabel, the Lions will continue the interview cycle with Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and Packers linebacker coach Winston Moss on Thursday and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia sometime this weekend.