Defenses are known for setting tones, so it’s only right two head coaches who come from that side of the ball have set that precedent.
But for the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, the “standard” goes beyond defense. Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill both used that word when describing their coaches, who have produced two of the highest-scoring offenses in the NFL since 2020.
Not bad for defensive guys.
Bills coach Sean McDermott and Titans coach Mike Vrabel, both defensive coordinators prior to being hired as head coaches, have bucked a 10-year trend that has leaned toward hiring coaches with offensive backgrounds. Their teams meet on Monday night at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo in the first game of a Monday Night Football doubleheader (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+).
“I messaged him about a week ago, just saying how much I appreciate him and love him and how he’s handled the situation here and allowing guys to be guys,” Allen said of McDermott. “Early on, it was setting that foundation and that standard, and really trying to put us on the direct trajectory of where we want it to be. And that’s the playoff-caliber mindset.”
The Bills named McDermott head coach in 2017, while the Titans tabbed Vrabel the following year. They have been two of the most successful hires of the past 10 seasons. Vrabel has won 62% of his games (41-25), ranking fourth among hires since 2013, while McDermott is fifth at 61% (50-32). They’re doing this in an environment where coaches from offensive backgrounds get nearly twice the opportunities to be head coaches. Of the NFL’s 70 head-coaching hires since the start of 2013 season, 46 (or 66%) have come from an offensive background, compared to 24 with a defensive background.
“Because [of] the offensive guru-type label that’s out there, a lot of people want that new young guru off of a [Los Angeles Rams coach] Sean McVay-type staff or something like that,” McDermott said of offensive coaches getting more opportunities. “I think that’s what a lot of people probably look for.”
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has had a similar experience. He has interviewed for many head-coaching openings after his stint as Minnesota Vikings head coach from 2011 to 2013. Frazier said owners and GMs told him they were looking for an offensive coach.
“Teams are drafting these young quarterbacks and they want to see them play early,” Frazier told ESPN. “They have the impression that you have to have an offensive coach, former coordinator usually, to kind of guide that young quarterback.
“They feel like that guy’s going to do a better job with their young quarterback than a defensive head coach would.”
Even though Vrabel and McDermott come from defensive backgrounds, their success has been driven by more than strong defenses.
Buffalo averaged 28.4 points per game last season, third in the NFL. In 2020, the Bills’ 31.3 points-per-game average was the second highest in the league. Former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is now the New York Giants coach.
Tennessee’s offense averaged 30.7 points per game (fourth in NFL) in 2020, leading to former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith being hired to coach the Atlanta Falcons. Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur served as Vrabel’s offensive coordinator in 2018.
McDermott found his franchise quarterback when the Bills drafted Allen in 2018, and he has developed into one of the game’s bright young stars. For Vrabel, trading for Tannehill and giving the quarterback a second chance has been a key to Tennessee’s success.
“He has a clear vision and everyone knows what to expect,” Tannehill said of Vrabel. “He sets a standard and holds us to it.”
Despite the undeniable offensive successes, McDermott and Vrabel are still regarded mainly for their “defensive minds.” Those who have played under both coaches note the emphasis on that side of the ball.
“I really think it just comes down to effort, how these guys fly around, and making sure that they can tackle. Those are the three huge instances where I know both of the coaches have harped on that religiously,” said Bills offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, who previously played for the Titans. “Working for an offensive-minded coach, they still believe in that, the defensive coordinator was huge on the same things, but I think it just shows a little bit more when you are a head coach as just over there grilling you and ‘Listen, you got to do this.'”
Having some personal insight helps when going against the grain of hiring offensive-minded coaches. Titans general manager Jon Robinson was in the New England Patriots‘ scouting department while Vrabel was playing linebacker there in the 2000s.
Robinson was impressed with how Vrabel demanded so much from his teammates. Those traits were revisited when Robinson interviewed Vrabel years later.
“Mike has a great presence, excellent leadership skills, excellent knowledge of the game,” Robinson said. “And at the end of the day, we felt like this was the next head coach of the Tennessee Titans.”
Having served only one year as a defensive coordinator, Vrabel could have been perceived as not being ready to be a head coach. Vrabel had seven years of coaching experience and quickly rose through the ranks after retiring in 2010. He joined his alma mater, Ohio State, as the linebackers coach in 2011 before moving on to the defensive line the following season.
Leaving Ohio State wasn’t something Vrabel initially considered. But his wife, Jen, challenged him to go to the NFL. So he interviewed with Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien to be the linebackers coach.
Vrabel held that position for three seasons (2014-2016) before taking over as the defensive coordinator (2017). The Titans hired Vrabel to be their coach the following year.
When it was time to make the jump to head coach, Vrabel relied on past experiences under coaches to help him along.
“I don’t know if you ever really know that you’re ready,” Vrabel said. “I was around great people at Ohio State, around great people in Houston. I had this opportunity and then you kind of just go with the things that you learn and your gut and instincts and then try to adjust along the way.”
Vrabel mentioned ex-Steelers coach Bill Cowher and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick — two coaches from defensive backgrounds — as coaches from whom he learned a lot as a player.
While McDermott didn’t play in the NFL, he was a safety at William & Mary after an illustrious high school wrestling career. His coaching career started at his alma mater before he joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a scouting administrative coordinator in 1998. He became the Eagles’ defensive coordinator in 2009 and later was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers under Ron Rivera after being fired in Philadelphia.
Rivera said he knew McDermott would make a good head coach. Rivera watched McDermott as a young assistant when both men were defensive coaches on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia. Rivera then hired McDermott as his defensive coordinator in Carolina, assigning him the daunting task of running the defense … for a man who knew something about running defenses. Rivera himself was a coordinator in Chicago and San Diego before becoming a head coach.
“I tried not to stand in Sean’s way as much as possible,” Rivera, now the Washington Commanders head coach, said in 2021. “The thing I understand is Sean had one of the worst coaching positions to hold, and that is to be a coordinator for a coach that was a coordinator that had worked with you before. And yet he soldiered through it. He was the right kind of guy. And like I’ve told people before, I can actually tell I’ve never taken anything away from him. He did this and he did a great job. And it doesn’t surprise me he’s having the success that he’s having.”
Along with general manager Brandon Beane, McDermott has built up the Bills organization over the past five years. Players and coaches who have been with McDermott over most of that stretch have noted how he has evolved as a coach.
“He did a good job early on in helping create a culture where players could feel like they could be themselves,” Frazier said of McDermott. “And that was one thing I think both he and I learned with Andy Reid, and it was big on let your personality show. He didn’t put guys in a box, and say, ‘You’ve got to be this way.'”
Now, the two teams will face off in an important early game. For the Titans, starting 0-2 would not bode well for their playoff hopes. No 0-2 teams have made the playoffs since the field expanded to 14 teams in 2020. The Bills, on the other hand, are looking to clinch their first Monday Night Football win in decades after going 2-9 (.182) on Mondays since 2000, the worst record in the NFL.
The two coaches have become familiar with each other after facing off each of the past four seasons, with the two teams splitting the series (2-2). The Titans won their Week 6 matchup last season behind 143 yards from running back Derrick Henry. After coaching against each other so much, there’s a mutual respect.
“Good football coach,” McDermott said of Vrabel. “He’s done a great job, him and Jon [Robinson] together building that team down there in their culture.”
Vrabel said: “There’s a familiarity. I have a lot of respect for Sean, for the program that they have, and for the football team they have. It’s going to be a huge challenge going on the road, and we’re looking forward to it.”