When you list off the reasons for the leap made by the Titans offense over the past 19 games — their still ranked 3rd in Offensive DVOA even after a recent rough spell — there are plenty of usual suspects to point to as contributors to that success.
Arthur Smith putting his spin on the foundation left behind by former offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. Ryan Tannehill’s impact stepping in for Marcus Mariota. The Derrick Henry breakout following the now-famous Eddie George pep talk. A.J. Brown’s emergence as the team’s first bonafide stud receiver in over a decade. The addition of Rodger Saffold and the development of Nate Davis settling the guard spots.
All of that makes sense, but are we missing someone in the credit roll call?
That is a question that has been simmering in my mind for about a year now and Dean Pees’ recent comments on the Make Defense Great Again Podcast from Coach Vass Football brought it to a boil.
You can — and should — check out the full episode, which digs into a ton of topics spanning from game planning to defensive philosophy to the reason that Pees preferred not to have corners shadow specific receivers. However, I want to focus on one specific quote from Pees.
The question asked Pees about the difference between game planning alongside a “defense-focused” head coach like Nick Saban, Bill Belichick, and Mike Vrabel and his process under coaches without a defensive coordinating background like John Harbaugh.
You’d really probably be surprised how involved some of those coaches are. It may be less than what you’d think.
Coach Belichick, he was a really great defensive coordinator, but he spent maybe 45 minutes a week with us on defense. [The rest of the time] he spent with Tom Brady, telling Tom Brady “here is what those defenses are doing against you”, which was perfect. He sat with Tom in the meeting room every day, in individual meetings, in unit meetings. I had a defensive unit meeting he was never in.
He did an incredible job of sitting with Tom and telling him “here’s what to look for, here’s what the safety is showing you, here’s what the linebacker is showing you”. What a great tool to have a guy like that with that experience sitting with your quarterback teaching him how to read defenses. That’s why we were so dadgum good.
He spent 90% of his time with Tom Brady and Mike kind of does a little bit of a similar thing here with the Titans in some ways. He spends a lot of time talking to the offense about “here’s what the defense is trying to do to you”.
Pees goes on to mention that Vrabel approved defensive game plans and would sometimes make suggestions about in-game playcalls, but that he mostly allowed Pees to handle the Titans defense.
I think NFL media and fans — and even some owners/front office executives — often severely overrate the idea of specialization. Mike Vrabel, for example, gets pigeon-holed as a defensive coach because of his background and people assume that he cannot help the Titans offense. When the offense excels, it’s because Arthur Smith is doing such a great job and Vrabel is just a happy passenger who happened to hire the right guy.
For years, people thought similar things about Bill Belichick. Known as one of the best defensive minds in the NFL when he earned the head job in New England, Belichick’s offensive coordinators were frequently hired away for head coaching gigs early in his tenure with the Patriots as the offense began to excel.
First, it was Charlie Weis, who coordinated the Patriots offense to their first three Super Bowl victories. He was hired away to take over Notre Dame’s program, but after two mildly successful seasons, he crashed and burned, ultimately finishing with a 35-27 record overall.
Then came Josh McDaniels’ first stint as Patriots offensive playcaller. He guided what is arguably the best offense in NFL history in 2007 and eventually left for the Broncos head coaching job in 2009. After going 8-8 in his first season, he started 3-9 in 2011 and was fired just a year and a half into the job. He then spent a year coordinating the league’s worst offense in St. Louis under Steve Spagnuolo before returning to New England.
After McDaniels left, the Patriots spent two seasons without an official offensive coordinator. Quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien called the plays on offense in 2009 and 2010, but wasn’t given the official title of coordinator until 2011. O’Brien left for the Penn State head coaching job a year later and then moved onto the Texans two years after that. BOB is widely considered the most successful of Belichick’s understudies (though Brian Flores may have some say about that soon), but even O’Brien only won more than 60% of his games three times in his nine years as a head coach and his offense in Houston never cracked the top 10 in points in a single season despite some very talented players passing through during his time.
The revelation provided by Pees about Belichick’s time management during his years in New England should make this much absolutely clear — Bill Belichick was the primary architect and developer of the Patriots dominant offense. His years of work with Tom Brady developed him into the greatest quarterback of all time.
Coaching football requires an understanding of all positions on both sides of the ball. Sure, there are specialists who excel at teaching techniques for certain positions, but part of teaching the technique for an edge rusher, for example, is understanding the approach of an offensive tackle.
In fact, you could argue that someone like Mike Vrabel, who played defense in the NFL for 14 years and has coached in the league for seven years (in addition to another three years as a position coach at Ohio State), has a unique and valuable view of offense after studying and preparing for 13 different styles of offense every year for most of the past two decades with an eye on how to stop them.
Let me be perfectly clear about this… I am not saying that Mike Vrabel is Bill Belichick. However, assuming that Vrabel has had no bearing on the success of the Titans offense simply because he has a defensive background is selling the role of the head coach short in my opinion.