After one particularly big win during the Patriots’ run early last decade, Bill Belichick warned his players about the media love they were about to receive.
“They’re going to come in here and blow smoke up your ass,” Belichick said according to Michael Holley’s excellent document on the era Patriot Reign. “They’re going to give you b–w jobs, tell you how great you are, they’re going to pile it on thick.”
Belichick finished his talk, looked at his players, and noticed Mike Vrabel’s hand was in the air.
“Yeah, Mike,” Belichick said.
“What was that you were saying about b–w jobs?”
The team died laughing. By all accounts, that moment is Vrabel in a nutshell. He was quick enough to make the joke, and knew he was respected enough by Belichick to pull it off. Vrabel had great instincts on the field and in the classroom; he knew Belichick got a kick out of him.
(As Tom Curran points out in a great piece on CSNNE.com, Vrabel was a world class smart ass.)
There were better Patriots during the team’s three-championship run, but perhaps no player other than Tom Brady embodied the era better. Vrabel was versatile, which Belichick prizes. The new Ohio State linebackers coach lined up at outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and famously at tight end. He could stop the run as well as he could cover.
He was known for his athleticism and leadership. He played with an edge, yet was perhaps defined by his intelligence. Holley wrote how coaches were continually surprised at the amazing recall Vrabel had of formations and tendencies of opponents.
“During his Patriots career, there was no player more respected for his football intellect and revered for his leadership by his teammates than Mike,” Belichick said in a statement Monday. “He was elected a team captain by his peers and is a player who I think everyone knew was destined to become a coach after his NFL playing career was over.
“Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached. He has a tremendous feel for people, players, coaches and what his team needs regardless of the situation. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player. I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners.”
Drafted by the Steelers, but barely used until he got to New England, Vrabel will ultimately be remembered as one of the catalysts to New England’s title run.
“He is a champion in every sense of the word and I’m confident all of these qualities will make him a great coach,” Chiefs G.M. Scott Pioli said Monday. “I cannot overstate my respect for him as a person and a football player. If there were a Hall of Champions, Mike Vrabel would be a first ballot selection. ”
Vrabel won’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but that’s not the point. Those Patriot teams weren’t about the stars. Heck, Brady is the only surefire Hall of Fame player from the run. (Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Ty Law, and Rodney Harrison will have arguments.)
Vrabel stuck out, even on a team greater than the sum of its parts. On this day, he deserves a little smoke blown up his ass.