Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 18, 2023

Give Vrabel credit for giving coach chance

Tennessee Titans assistant head coach Terrell Williams got his chance to be acting head coach during Saturday’s preseaon opener against the Bears in Chicago. - Photo by Melissa Tamez | AP

Years from now, the Titans 2023 preseason opening loss in Chicago won’t be much more than a footnote to those who didn’t know what happened.

But perhaps because of Terrell Williams, Mike Vrabel and the Titans organization, Saturday’s 23-17 loss at Soldier Field will be remembered for starting a new and needed trend in the NFL. What took place beyond the score was Vrabel and the Titans organization putting talk into action.

For years, the NFL has had the Rooney Rule, designed to help get more minority coaches opportunities to be head coaches. Some progress has been made with several Black head coaches getting interviews and jobs.

Still, the rule’s intent and result haven’t always matched. The Titans themselves were accused of just checking the Rooney Rule boxes when they hired interim coach Mike Mularkey to be head coach in 2016.

Mularkey alleged in a podcast a couple of years after he had been fired in Tennessee that he felt bad that the Titans’ interview with Ray Horton was done to fulfill the Rooney Rule obligation because the organization had already informed him he would be promoted from interim coach to head coach.

Vrabel announced in the days leading up to the preseason opener against the Bears that longtime defensive line coach Williams would run the team as the acting head coach, something Vrabel said repeatedly was an opportunity the coaching veteran, who has never had a head coaching interview, deserved.

“It was a lot of fun. I think it was enjoyable. The most important thing was it was well-deserved. It was something that I absolutely should have done,” Vrabel said in his Sunday press conference. “It was cool just to see him communicate. He does have a relationship with a lot of guys on the offense and watching him sit in those meetings or talk to those players in that capacity was cool.”

Vrabel’s move was more than cool, it was something that other coaches in such a copycat league should look to emulate. There are plenty of assistant coaches around the NFL, minority or not, who either never get the opportunity to test their wares on a sideline, or they are totally overwhelmed once they finally do get the chance to run their own show.

For instance, onlookers from the outside have wondered aloud how Eric Bienemy could have a hand in crafting the NFL’s most dynamic offense in Kansas City, yet has had very few interviews to be a head coach. Bienemy made a lateral move this year to become the Washington Commanders’ offensive coordinator, where he will get the chance to call plays.

What if Andy Reid, who certainly has vouched for Bienemy in the past, had taken the same kind of forward-thinking step Vrabel did for Williams and allowed Bienemy to run the Chiefs in a preseason outing? Would that have made a difference in the way teams look at Bienemy as a head coaching candidate? It certainly couldn’t have hurt.

Williams began coaching in the college ranks in 1998. He moved to the NFL in 2012 and has been a minority intern and all those sorts of things to help advance his career. He said in his Thursday press conference about assuming the reins of the team for the weekend that he does indeed have head coaching aspirations.

Even though it was brief, Williams now has head coaching experience to add to his resume. And it was quite the learning sessions for the veteran coach.

“There are so many things you don’t think about as a position coach that you have to think about as a head football coach,” Williams says. “There’s no experience you can get like this. I don’t care where you go. You can go to these different programs and all of this, there’s no experience like this.

“I’m thankful to Mrs. Amy (Adams Strunk), I’m thankful to Vrabes and to this organization. But more importantly, I’m thankful to these football players who went out and battled for us.”

Williams admits that in some instances he asked questions or leaned on the advice from Vrabel or his staff assistant John Streicher, known around Saint Thomas Sports Park as “Stretch.”

Even where he stood on the sidelines was an adjustment for Williams. Normally, on game days, Williams positions himself near the line of scrimmage as he devotes his attention to Jeffery Simmons, Teair Tart and the rest of the Tennessee defensive front. But Saturday, it was Williams conferring with officials on things like when to take timeouts, whether to accept or decline a penalty and on one occasion throw a challenge flag.

“Vrabes kept reminding me leading up to this, ‘You’ve got to position yourself behind the official, because they’re coming to you,’” Williams says.

Vrabel made the decision not only because he felt Williams deserved the opportunity, but also because he wanted him to know things that Vrabel himself had no clue about when he took the reins of the Titans in 2018.

Vrabel certainly doesn’t give off the vibe that he wants any credit for this idea, even though it was his creation. He doesn’t seem to believe he’s the second coming of Branch Rickey here. But even he must see the value in the move – especially if it catches on throughout the NFL.

“One thing I can’t concern myself with is what other people think or say. My intent was to do what was best for T (Terrell Williams) in this situation. It wasn’t to send any sort of message,” Vrabel says. “This wasn’t anything – I did what I thought was best for him and for us at this particular time, that’s what I wanted to do. It’s well-deserved. It’s earned.

“And again, even like (Thursday), we had him go through, just talk to the officials about the officials meeting that happens 90 minutes before the game. I didn’t know what the hell to do the first time we met with the officials and asked for the punt card. I’m like, ‘Where the hell is the punt card?’ I mean, something as little as that. Just making sure that we give application to things that we’re trying to coach and to teach and develop each one of our coaches and players here.”

For Williams, it was an opportunity he was grateful for and handled well, something he also credits to Vrabel.

“I was prepared because I have Mike. I asked him a bunch of questions leading up to this, like, ‘Hey what do we do in this situation? Stretch texted me and said, ‘Hey, T, remember this if this comes up.’ This was the easy part, the football part, getting to this day and actually coaching the game,” Williams says. “It was the stuff leading up to it, making sure everybody is on time and that sort of thing.

“Normally, I’m worried about a group of defensive linemen. Now I’m worried about the entire football team,” Williams continues. “But when you’re put in that situation, that’s what you do. The day went good. I think our players responded good. I loved the way we worked on the sideline. We had some presnap penalties, some things we talked about not doing. But overall, I think the overall operations was great.”