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    Why Titans fired Mike Vrabel, a story of festering slights and a lack of communication

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Poor communication, misinterpreted statements and misunderstandings all helped bring Mike Vrabel’s six-year Tennessee Titans tenure to a surprising end this week.

    A culmination of events led to his firing. That included Vrabel suggesting during the offseason hiring of general manager Ran Carthon that Carthon was not ready for the job, and owner Amy Adams Strunk disagreeing with that opinion. Strunk eventually came to believe her faith in Vrabel was not being reciprocated, and was also unhappy about Vrabel’s visit to New England in October to be enshrined in the Patriots’ Hall of Fame, nearly a dozen prominent people inside and outside the organization told The Athletic on the condition of anonymity.

    Vrabel was 56-48, including 2-3 in the playoffs, in six seasons, reaching the AFC title game in his second season and winning NFL Coach of the Year in 2021. He also went just 13-21 the past two seasons, losing 18 of his last 24 games. Strunk said in a statement that the Titans would “benefit from the fresh approach and perspective of a new coaching staff.”

    Here’s what multiple team and league sources said to explain why things ended for Vrabel in Nashville:

    The Titans wanted to make this season about evolving and modernizing their process behind the scenes. Building a roster with an increased reliance on analytics has been a big part of that. Vrabel wasn’t resistant to using analytics on the field — he and his coaching staff believed they used data-based decision-making as much as anyone and often get credit around the league for being one of the top situational football teams in the NFL. However, the coaches never felt informed on how the new personnel department was using analytics in its process, a team source said.

    Titans ownership embraced Carthon’s vision — informed by his time with the San Francisco 49ers, one of the best-run organizations in the NFL — and organizational framework, with assistant GMs Chad Brinker and Anthony Robinson in support. The question was whether Vrabel would be OK with the change in approach.

    The Titans considered moving on from Vrabel after last season for a fresh start, according to a team source, but Strunk still believed Vrabel was a great coach and worth keeping. The hope was that an arranged marriage between Carthon and Vrabel would work because both men had shown a willingness to adapt. Vrabel was hoping Ryan Cowden — then the Titans’ VP of player personnel and now the New York Giants executive advisor to the GM — would replace Robinson. But Vrabel was never told it would be Cowden.

    Cowden ran the entire 2023 draft board but was fired immediately after the draft. He has consistently drawn general manager interest from other NFL teams and was close to getting the Steelers GM job last year.

    During the hiring process to replace GM Jon Robinson, who was fired by Strunk late last season, Vrabel made two comments to Strunk that created friction between them, three team or league sources said. Vrabel wanted full control over the roster, saying that he’d earned it, and Strunk pointedly disagreed. Strunk has carried a belief over the years that head coaches shouldn’t have full control, pointing to the way things went for the Titans in the later years of Jeff Fisher’s tenure, and watching from afar the issues that transpired for the Patriots with Bill Belichick and Bill O’Brien with the Texans.

    When Carthon was close to getting the job, Vrabel told Strunk he liked Carthon but didn’t feel he was ready to become an NFL general manager. Vrabel’s suggestion: The Titans hire Carthon as the assistant GM, a promotion from his position as No. 3 in the 49ers’ pecking order. Strunk did not take kindly to this suggestion, and team sources believe her and Vrabel’s relationship took a hit as a result of that conversation.

    Until late this season, Strunk (center) and Vrabel had a warm, collaborative relationship that had Vrabel as arguably the most prominent face of the Titans organization. (George Walker IV / USA Today)

    Vrabel spent the Titans’ bye week in Foxboro, Mass., as a guest of owner Robert Kraft to be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Vrabel had won three Super Bowls as a player with New England, and in a speech to the crowd before an Oct. 23 Patriots win against the Bills, Vrabel said: “I don’t want you to take this organization for granted. I’ve been a lot of places, this is a special place with great leadership, great fans, great direction, and great coaching. Enjoy it. It’s not like this everywhere.”

    The speech raised some eyebrows in Tennessee. When he returned to Nashville, Vrabel was asked by reporters during a press conference if his comments were directed at the Titans organization. He said: “(The Patriots) have won six Super Bowls in 20 years, that’s what I was alluding to. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s just a lot of success. … The amount of success that they had there, the whole message was, just for myself and the former players and everything, just to not take things for granted.”

    The whole event did not sit well with Strunk, a team source said. She and Vrabel never talked about it, but she let it fester.

    In the aftermath of that visit, various reports emerged about the relationship between Vrabel and Carthon. Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal, who has covered the Patriots for several years, wrote a story citing that relationship as a reason Vrabel “could be looking for a way to force his way out of Tennessee.” The Boston Globe reported that Patriots owner Robert Kraft considered Vrabel his “home run choice” to succeed Belichick.

    Vrabel did not address any of this with Carthon or Strunk. That lack of communication increased the tension between them, though the relationship between Vrabel and Carthon remained amicable. Those close to Vrabel said the head coach’s approach to it all was, “Why do I need to address inaccurate information and false reports?” Carthon also told people he “wasn’t listening to the noise, that it was all a waste of time.”

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    High-level Titans sources told The Athletic in November that the team’s long-term plan was to retain Vrabel as coach. After Vrabel’s firing, a team source said that was true then because Strunk strongly believed in Vrabel at the time — and because she wanted Vrabel to have a clear understanding of how she felt about him and how badly she wanted him to be the coach for years to come. Strunk did not get the sense that Vrabel felt the same way, and the communication between them got worse from there.

    Strunk left the Week 14 game in Miami against the Dolphins early, believing they were going to lose after falling behind 27-13 with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter. Vrabel called for a two-point conversion after a late touchdown pass, and the Titans eventually won 28-27 on Derrick Henry’s touchdown run. Even though the Titans won, a member of the team’s analytics staff didn’t think Vrabel should have gone for two on that late touchdown.

    Strunk was thrilled the Titans pulled it off, but one week later the Titans lost to the Texans in overtime, and the owner was visibly angry about that loss. That’s when several members of the Titans staff believed she had made up her mind: She wanted to move on from Vrabel. She consulted with some others in NFL circles about the decision, but ultimately the decision was all hers — with no input from Carthon.

    The Titans ended the season Sunday with a 28-20 win against the Jaguars, which eliminated Jacksonville from the playoffs. For nearly 48 hours, coaches and players wondered if Vrabel was safe in his job. It was an agonizing time for families in particular. As more time passed without hearing anything, many believed he was coming back. Henry told The Athletic the team didn’t know that Vrabel being fired was even a possibility.

    At 11 a.m. CT Tuesday, Vrabel joined Strunk and team president Burke Nihill for a meeting that lasted two minutes. They told Vrabel that they appreciated his time with the Titans but that they were moving in a new direction. He was fired. There was never any discussion between the organization and Vrabel about trading him to coach another team or of a restructuring of power for him to remain with the Titans. Vrabel is expected to be a hot commodity for other NFL job openings — including in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Washington and New England.

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    (Photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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