JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel offered handshakes and high-fives to his players as they exited Nissan Stadium following a victory two weeks ago.
When he saw center Ben Jones limping up the ramp, Vrabel made a beeline for the veteran and grabbed him for an emotional bear hug.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Vrabel said to Jones.
Not as a player or a coach.
Vrabel played 14 seasons as an NFL linebacker — a career that included three Super Bowl titles with New England — and has a level of experience that’s hard to match for players and even rarer for coaches.
So he had a genuine appreciation for what Jones sacrificed by playing through a knee injury and helping the Titans beat rival Indianapolis 19-10 on Oct. 23.
“This is an emotional game, and these guys put a lot into it,” Vrabel said.
Vrabel knows that as well as anyone. He’s one of 10 current head coaches with NFL playing experience, some with considerably more than others.
The list includes four in their second head coaching stints — Dennis Allen (New Orleans), Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay), Doug Pederson (Jacksonville) and Ron Rivera (Washington) — as well as second-year Detroit coach Dan Campbell and first-year Minnesota coach Kevin O’Connell, who has the Vikings (6-1) atop the NFC North.
There's also Indianapolis' Frank Reich and two guys who, like Allen, barely had cups of coffee in the league: Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury and Cincinnati's Zac Taylor.
Only Pederson and Campbell, who are a combined 0-10 in one-score games, have fewer than three wins as the league nears its halfway point.
Although there’s a rich tradition of NFL players becoming successful NFL coaches — Mike Ditka, Jim Harbaugh, Marty Schottenheimer, Don Shula and Dan Reeves, to name a few — there seems to be no direct correlation between the two.
You don't have to have played a down in the NFL to be a great coach (see Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Belichick).
But there’s no doubt it helps having NFL experience, whether it’s organizing practices, managing egos or getting — and keeping — a locker room filled with millionaires on the same page.
Coaches who played at football's highest level often share their experiences in hopes of imparting wisdom on young guys and connecting with veterans on a deeper, maybe more meaningful, level.
“It’s easier to get behind a guy who’s been there, who has the blueprint,” Jaguars running back Travis Etienne said.
Etienne had a front-row seat for Urban Meyer's debacle in Jacksonville in 2021. Jaguars owner Shad Khan hired Meyer out of the television booth in hopes that the three-time collegiate national champion would find raise the ultimate trophy on football’s biggest stage. Meyer failed miserably, getting fired with cause after 11 games and countless missteps.
Khan hired Pederson to replace Meyer, a 180-degree turn in terms of NFL experience. No one would be surprised to see Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper do something similar after firing former Baylor and Temple coach Matt Rhule five games into his third season.
Rhule went 11-27 with the Panthers and became the latest college coach to fail while trying to transition to the big league. Given the tenures of Meyer and Rhule, it could at least provide pause for another NFL team considering the college route.
It's hard to go wrong — on paper, anyway — with giving a former NFL player a chance. While teams might not find another Chuck Noll or Tony Dungy, they seemingly have better odds of landing the next Jack Del Rio or Jeff Fisher than Mike Singletary or Mike Munchak.
The Jaguars are counting on the player-turned-coach formula to work. Pederson was an NFL backup quarterback for 14 seasons before working his way to the top spot in Philadelphia and leading the Eagles to a championship following the 2017 season.
He’s already been praised for bringing a new level of credibility to one of the worst franchises in the league the past two decades. Jacksonville (2-6), which lost 19 games by double digits over the past two seasons, has had a chance down the stretch in every game this year despite being 0-6 in one-score games.
“It’s big when you know your coach has been there, he’s been in your shoes, he’s played at this level,” Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “He handles things the right way.”
The adrenaline-pumping Campbell became somewhat of a cult hero for how he handled himself and his Lions on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in August and September. The former long-haired tight end, who played 11 NFL seasons, stole the season with his viral video clips.
“It doesn’t matter if you have one (butt)cheek and three toes, I will beat your (butt),” Campbell said in one team meeting.
Campbell and Pederson built their staffs almost exclusively with former NFL players. Staff sizes have increased in recent years and assistant salaries continue to rise, enticing ex-NFLers, even some who are financially set for life, to return to the league in different, less glamorous, roles.
Pederson’s staff includes longtime NFL players Brentson Buckner, Mike Caldwell, Bernie Parmalee and Deshea Townsend. Campbell has Aaron Glenn, Mark Brunell, Duce Staley, Hank Fraley and Antwaan Randle El on the payroll.
“I just went into this thing literally saying, ‘Where do I find the best guys? How do I find the best guys? Who are the best guys?’” Campbell said. “I swore I was never going to hire the coach first and the person second. I hired the person first and the coach second.”
Any of them could emerge as head coaching candidates. After all, it's typically easier to sell name recognition to a desperate fan base than play-calling acumen.
That worked for Vrabel, 47, who took over at Tennessee in 2018 and has won the AFC South the past two years.
The way he reacted to Jones' performance last month was the norm for a guy who's spent nearly half his life as part of the NFL and has set the bar relatively high for any future players turned coaches.
“I try not to be fake,” Vrabel said. “I try to be as real and as honest as I can."
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