Salk: The case for Mike Vrabel as Seattle Seahawks’ next coach
Jan 18, 2024, 12:33 AM | Updated: 8:59 am
(Justin Ford/Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh is the best candidate to replace Pete Carroll and coach the Seattle Seahawks. Or at least he would be if he was actually a candidate. As of now, there is no evidence that he is under consideration nor that he would consider taking the job. It’s unfortunate but hopefully that changes.
In the meantime, we’ve heard about eight interview requests for assistants from throughout the league by the Seahawks, and another rumored to be likely. All nine of those reports involve current offensive or defensive coordinators, which makes sense given that the Seahawks need to request permission to interview anyone currently employed by an NFL team.
There are some interesting names on the list, but none intrigue me more for the Seattle Seahawks than one of the league’s current free agents: Mike Vrabel.
(I’ll take some time to explain why Vrabel interests me, but please make sure you read the caveat at the end of the column before you go because it is just as important as the argument, if not more.)
Ask any former player, ex-coach, or reputable pundit what quality is most important in a head coach, and nearly all of them start their answer with “leadership.” You can hire coordinators for the X’s and O’s, but the head coach needs to have confidence, relatability and an “it” factor that is hard to define but easy to recognize.
Former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselback told us this week on Brock and Salk that anyone can call the same five plays. Former Hawks linebacker K.J. Wright went right to leadership and culture as the first quality he wanted. The MMQB senior NFL reporter Albert Breer said “culture” was at the top of his list. And at his press conference Tuesday, Seahawks general manager John Schneider referenced team chair Jody Allen’s desire to continue a culture of positivity as a primary objective.
Pete Carroll’s greatest strength was in the way his personality permeated the entire organization. From the music at practice to the flashy new uniforms soon after he arrived to the basketball hoop and scoreboard in the meeting room, everything was born from the very core of his being. Like many unique styles, his is often imitated, never duplicated. And asking the next coach to simply continue down the same road is asking for trouble.
Say what you want about Vrabel’s teams in Tennessee, but they were always confident in their identity. They wanted to be physical, well-balanced, and dominant on the line of scrimmage. They wanted to wear you down. They weren’t always successful, whether because of personnel deficiencies or because the best quarterback of his tenure was the eminently mediocre Ryan Tannehill, but they had a defined personality.
Like with Pete’s Seahawks, that identity stemmed directly from Vrabel, who exudes the combination of toughness and effort which defined his NFL playing career. And oh, by the way, that combination is exactly the style of football that I’d like to see return to Seattle, and it’s the same style that has Baltimore and San Francisco resting at home with their automatic invitation to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Vrabel also brings one quality that seems to be gaining in importance: relatability to the players. Gone are the days (both in football and in business) where top-down adherence to direction is the accepted norm. Players today don’t just follow directions because they are given – they need to know who is directing and why they should follow along. With all the extra distractions, they also need to be engaged like never before.
As a former player with, as Breer noted, “pelts on the wall,” Vrabel fits into a category that includes Detroit’s Dan Campbell and Houston’s DeMeco Ryans, both head coaches who are semi-recent ex-players that seem to understand how to reach the modern athlete, and are having tremendous success with traditionally moribund franchises.
Vrabel’s teams play hard and don’t quit. He has experience leading a franchise. He has learned from Bill Belichick but wasn’t among the many failed coaches from the Belichick tree – important because many of those hoodie wannabes tried the same top-down dictatorial approach that worked for their mentor but didn’t have the ability to pull it off. And according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Vrabel has a strong relationship with Schneider, an imperative for sustained success.
As for his record, it is actually pretty good for a recently fired coach. Vrabel was 54-45 in Tennessee with two wins in three playoff appearances. His teams were above .500 four of six years and never finished with fewer than six wins. And even in his worst season (this past one), his team finished with a win to keep Jacksonville out of the playoffs, beat the Dolphins in December, and outplayed the Seahawks, as well.
So there is my argument for Vrabel. It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t as strong as the case for Harbaugh. But he brings some unique qualities, certainly has a leadership quality that is proven, and his first day with Geno Smith would be the best option he’s had at quarterback after a career of coaxing acceptability out of Ryan Tannehill, Malik Willis and Will Levis.
But let me get to my caveat.
Like many of you, I don’t know a whole lot about the coordinators interviewing for their first head job. We can go through their résumés, the quarterbacks they’ve mentored, the schemes they’ve devised and the creativity they’ve shown. Their history of recent successes likely makes them worthy of consideration. But those recent success stories should not be the primary reason to hire them.
Running an NFL team is a completely different job from coordinating an offense or defense. You have to lead an entire organization, and that building must take on your characteristics. You become not only the internal leader but the primary spokesperson and representative of the franchise. Your every move is studied and you need to be able to put coaches, players and everyone else in the best positions to succeed.
If one of these young, less familiar coordinators is hired, I will likely be ecstatic. But not because of their scheme or their genius. If they are able to shine through, overcome their inexperience, drown out the crowded field of candidates, and shine through with their presence, they will likely be in the unicorn camp that includes the likes of Rams coach Sean McVay and others who seemingly came from nowhere to prominence in the same way.
John Schneider has one of the hardest and coolest jobs in America in the next few weeks. His next big decision will shape the Seattle Seahawks franchise for years to come.
More on Vrabel and Seattle Seahawks’ coach search
• Breer: What Vrabel, Quinn, Harbaugh would bring to Seattle Seahawks
• Schlereth: What could motivate Seahawks to get offensive-minded coach
• Why K.J. Wright thinks Seahawks should hire Dan Quinn
• What GM John Schneider said about finding next coach
• Seahawks Coach Search: Bump’s easy, smart and fun picks
• Seattle Seahawks Candidates: Vrabel and others who could succeed Carroll