The regular season has reached its conclusion and the postseason is upon us. As teams battle for the right to play at SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI, the individual award season is close to announcing its arrival. Fierce battles reign supreme all throughout the honors. The race for the league's Most Valuable Player is exciting and includes decorated quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Both Dak Prescott and Joe Burrow are deserving of winning the Comeback Player of the Year honor after both signal-callers battled back from unfortunate 2020 injuries in breathtaking fashion. The race to be named Coach of the Year may be the tightest, however. Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur are largely considered the two favorites. Both coaches ushered their teams to the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences while navigating and overcoming a plethora of injuries and adversity. BetOnline recently updated their odds to heavily favor Vrabel in the race, and we wholeheartedly agree with their assessment. Vrabel has left his imprint and positive impact all over the injury-riddled Titans. The Titans set the NFL record for the most players (91) used in a single season. While some of their larger injury woes have been well documented nationally, the full extent of their injury-related issues can only be fully comprehended by someone who followed the team with great attention to detail. They've started an astounding five different players at left tackle (Taylor Lewan, Dillon Radunz, Kendall Lamm, Bobby Hart, and Ty Sambrailo) and 11 players overall have played meaningful snaps across their offensive line, including the likes of Aaron Brewer and Corey Levin. Only seven of Tennessee's preferred 22 starters made it through the 17-game season unscathed, and the majority of those players live on the defensive side of the ball. Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is joined by center Ben Jones and right tackle David Quessenberry as the lone members of the offense to qualify for that group. They're joined by defensive stars Kevin Byard, Jeffery Simmons, Harold Landry, and Denico Autry as the lone Titans to actually experience the league's new 17-game schedule. Daniel Munyer, Woodrow Hamilton, Mekhi Sargent, Christian DiLauro, Joe Jones, Dylan Cole, and Eli Ankou have suited up for the Titans in 2021. No, you're not being catfished. I promise these are real NFL players. A few long-forgotten veterans such as Adrian Peterson, Buster Skrine, and Bradley McDougald also practiced their trade in Nashville this season (Skrine remains on the roster heading into the postseason). The largest piece of injury-related adversity arrived when superstar running back Derrick Henry suffered a potential season-ending injury on Halloween in a Week 8 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Many analysts wrote off Tennessee's season at that very moment. After all, Henry is undeniably the most important player on the team. A 2,000-yard rusher, Henry's explosive abilities allow the Titans to tick offensively. Tennessee's offense is largely built around their wherewithal to run the ball paired with the opportunities they receive in the play-action game largely as a result of possessing Henry in their backfield. It was understandably a difficult obstacle to overcome. Vrabel simply ushered the Titans to a 6-3 finish in Henry's absence while clinching Tennessee's first 12-win season since 2008, which is ironically also the last time they owned the one-seed in the AFC. Tennessee's injury issues extended far beyond losing Henry. Receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones have missed several contests which overlapped Henry's absence and left Tannehill with Dontrell Hilliard, Cody Hollister, and Dez Fitzpatrick at the skill positions. Overcoming the absences of Henry, Brown, and Jones paired with the constant shuffling of the offensive line undeniably served as Vrabel's largest in-season challenges, but they don't fully represent the magnitude of the injury-related issues that left general manager Jon Robinson scrambling to find solutions. Sophomore running back Darrynton Evans was expected to make an impact as a change-of-pace back to Henry. Evans appeared in one game before suffering a season-ending injury. Former Texas receiver Marcus Johnson experienced an excellent training camp in August and was largely expected to earn a fairly prominent role in their passing offense. Johnson appeared in just a handful of games before a hamstring injury landed him his second (and final) stint on injured reserve. First-round pick Caleb Farley was always a selection made with the future in mind, but the Titans did foresee him playing in more than three games as a rookie. Farley tore his ACL in a Week 6 primetime win over the Buffalo Bills and is now focused on 2022. Cameron Batson, Tommy Hudson, rookie pass-rusher Rashad Weaver, and MyCole Pruitt qualify as other noteworthy role players that currently reside on season-ending injured reserve and won’t make an impact in the postseason. Amani Hooker, Nate Davis, Rodger Saffold, David Long Jr., and Kristian Fulton are five additional crucial starters that were lost for long stretches. I can go on and on. Vrabel simply navigated his team through the difficulties while introducing himself to new players on a weekly basis. A pair of offseason decisions also reflect fondly on Vrabel. Following the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, Vrabel promoted tight ends coach Todd Downing to oversee an explosive offense that was losing an excellent coordinator and play-caller in Smith. Downing has experienced his difficulties, but he's done an admirable job navigating through the injuries and personnel-related challenges. Downing's offense averaged 33 points per game over a four-game midseason stretch that saw the Titans claim impressive victories over the Bills, Chiefs, and Colts. Henry, Brown, and Jones were largely healthy throughout that sample size. It represents what Downing is capable of when he has his preferred skill players at his disposal. The decision made on the defensive side of the ball represents an even bigger win for Vrabel. Despite mounting pressure to relieve Shane Bowen of his duties, Vrabel stood by his long-time assistant and actually promoted him to the role of defensive coordinator. Bowen didn't hold the "DC" title in 2020 but did in fact call the plays for Tennessee defensively. The 2020 iteration of the Titans were an abysmal team defensively that struggled on third downs and couldn't rush the passer if their lives depended on it. Vrabel received a TON of heat for promoting (and retaining) Bowen in the summer. It was the type of bold decision that could have turned ugly quickly had the 2021 iteration of the Titans failed to improve defensively. It was one of the least popular decisions to occur in Nashville in recent memory. Vrabel (and Robinson) signaled that Tennessee's defensive issues were personnel-based, and not coaching-related, hence the decision to retain Bowen. Several 2020 starters such as Adoree’ Jackson, Kenny Vaccaro, Vic Beasley, and Jadeveon Clowney were replaced by the likes of Denico Autry, Bud Dupree, Jackrabbit Jenkins, and Zach Cunningham. It's worked out far better than anyone imagined. The Titans enter the postseason allowing the second-fewest rushing yards per game (84.6). Bowen also oversaw a reworked defense that accumulated a healthy 43 sacks in 17 games. Defensively, the Titans are firing on all cylinders with an eye pointed toward the postseason. It’s a far cry from where they were defensively a year ago. Another successful season has catapulted Vrabel's record as a head coach to 43–26 (.623). The Titans have never finished worse than 9-7 throughout his four-year tenure and Vrabel has served as a calming presence in a league with constant turnover (Vrabel is somehow already the 10th-most-tenured coach). Vrabel's ability to work miracles with a roster that was constantly overturned and reworked represents his greatest coaching achievement yet. Vrabel could care less about individual honors and awards, especially ones with his name on the trophy. His gigantic efforts however should be recognized nonetheless with the 2021 Coach of the Year honor.
- May 09, 2022
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