Tom Brady Makes Me Feel Young; Mike Vrabel Makes Me Feel Old

Football season is upon us, and while I am now older than the average NFL player, I take solace in the fact that my team’s starting quarterback was in the league when I was in 5th grade. Sure, my hairline is receding a little, but I can’t be that close to death if a 40 year old quarterback can have his team still in the Super Bowl in the final minute, aggressively fighting mortality like Tom Cruise but more handsome and Nicholas Flamel but with more plausible less plausible equally implausible forms of alchemy in the eyes of mere muggles.

Brady is a strange dude. You have to be to strive for the level of greatness that he consistently achieves–which makes LeBron James the person all the more impressive, but I digress–and I have a feeling it will not end well with Brady and the Patriots, and given the way the Patriots were for much of their history, I am trying to savor what they have for as long as I can. As successful as the Kraft family has been since buying the team, it is so much easier to be a successful owner when you hire the greatest coach of all time and draft the greatest quarterback of all time, even if nobody thought of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in those terms when they arrived. When Belichick is gone and Brady is gone, in fifteen years or so, let’s see whether or not Jonathan Kraft is a punchline in NFL social media (or whatever the kids are using and calling it then) the way Mark Davis is now. It probably won’t be that bad, but it might be that bad.

The good thing in bracing myself for the post-Belichick and Brady Era is that I am old enough (just barely) to have begun my career as a football fan not expecting the Pats to do much of anything, and I have always had a general interest in the game of football that extended beyond local laundry. And because they are approaching two full decades of dominance, there are a lot of former Patriots in important roles across the NFL. Former backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo–as it currently stands–is the Lord and Savior of the San Francisco 49ers, the Patriots of the 80s and 90s, who briefly recaptured the magic before banishing their coach to an exile in Ann Arbor and kicking the quarterback he believed in to the curb for refusing to stand in the name of his own beliefs, and then fell further than they had ever fallen before, having more head coaches in a four year span than the Pittsburgh Steelers have had since Bob Woodward first reported on the indiscretions of a president (if I said I had not been thinking of the way things would turn out for the Patriots in terms of how the 49ers have struggled this century, I would be lying shamelessly enough to work in the White House in 2018).

Former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is now the head coach of the Detroit Lions, but I would not be surprised if that experiment ends before Belichick and Brady are done in New England. All the Patriots needed to win the Super Bowl this past February was ONE defensive stop against a journeyman backup QB, and Matt Patricia’s defense made Nick Foles look like Drew Brees. Belichick’s assistants do not have the best track record as head coaches, but few left on more disappointing terms than the state of the Patriots’ defense in 2017. Also, Patricia took a job in a division that has Aaron Rodgers, a loaded Minnesota team that just made Kirk Cousins the highest paid quarterback in NFL history, and and up-and-coming Chicago Bears team that accelerated their rebuild by trading for Raiders defensive stud Khalil Mack. Through no fault of Patricia’s other than taking the job, the Lions are expected to be the fourth best team in the NFC North and the deck is stacked against his long term viability as a head coach in this league.

The Patriots’ Week 1 opponent is the Houston Texans, with many former Patriots including head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and special teams coordinator Brad Seely. O’Brien left his position as offensive coordinator in New England following the second Giants Super Bowl loss to be the desperately needed change of culture at Penn State, and took the Houston job a couple years later. He became a head coach for his reputation working with quarterbacks, but in the years between coaching Tom Brady and drafting DeShaun Watson, he has had quite the uninspiring QB carousel. This may be the year the Texans put it all together, but the AFC South is a real toss up. I can see scenarios in which any of the four teams win the division if things break the right way, and one of them is now led by yet another former Patriot.

Mike Vrabel’s rise through the coaching ranks to head coach of the Tennessee Titans caught me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. The Patriots roster of the early Belichick years were full of guys described as coaches on the field, many of whom were expected to go into coaching. But for an organization notorious for keeping the media at arm’s length, they sure have produced a lot of broadcasters. Troy Brown, Randy Moss, Jermaine Wiggins, Damien Woody, Matt Light, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Rodney Harrison were enough to throw me off the scent. Vrabel was always different, though. The former 3rd round draft pick for the Steelers signed with the Patriots in 2001, and Bill Belichick unlocked new ways to use him. 

Known for his versatility, Vrabel played inside and outside linebacker, and occasionally played tight end in goal line situations. All of his career receptions were touchdowns, and Brady even went to him in the Super Bowl, symbolically making an alliance between offense and defense, between Ohio State and Michigan, for the Patriots to win. I was not surprised when Vrabel joined the coaching staff of his alma mater Ohio State in 2011 after retiring from playing, nor was I surprised when he joined O’Brien’s staff in Houston in 2014 and became defensive coordinator last season. Vrabel is 43, and it is surprising that a guy who had a longer than average playing career already got a head coaching gig in the NFL, when the recent trend for young head coaches to be guys like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay who never played in the league and got reps in as coordinators from an earlier age. For that reason, it caught me off guard that a guy who caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl from Tom Brady is now an NFL coach, while Brady is still performing at a high level.

As long as Brady is still playing in the NFL (and Zdeno Chara is still lacing up his skates in the NHL, and Bartolo Colon is still pitching somewhere), I will still feel young. But Mike Vrabel, one of my favorite players from my youth, now being a head coach is not helping any. It certainly changes the way I look at football, but it’s not a bad thing.

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