After 14 NFL seasons, former Patriots LB Mike Vrabel retired on Monday. Here's a look back at his career in New England, where he won three Super Bowl titles and was a key figure during a championship era.
It’s not the numbers he produced that stood out to those who watched a ring-riddled 14-year NFL career that officially ended yesterday. In New England, it’s what the outside linebacker stood for that led the discussion.
“It’s no coincidence that Mike won championships everywhere he played,” said Scott Pioli, who has served as general manager for the Patriots and Chiefs. “If there were a Hall of Champions, Mike Vrabel would be a first-ballot selection.”
Vrabel knew his career was finished once the Chiefs, his team for the past two seasons, lost in the playoffs to the Ravens. Without hesitation, he proudly accepted his dream job yesterday — linebackers coach at his alma mater, Ohio State.
“I just came to the point where I couldn’t train to prepare for an NFL football season,” the 35-year-old Vrabel said at a news conference yesterday to announce his post under new Buckeyes coach and former roommate Luke Fickell. “I’m proud of my career, but I’m more excited now for this opportunity.”
A chorus of voices echoed Pioli’s praise of Vrabel, who also helped build a dynasty in his eight-year Patriots career.
After the Pats signed in 2001 the mostly anonymous former Steelers third-round draft pick, Vrabel became a building block for vaunted defenses, helping the team win three Super Bowls alongside teammates Tedy Bruschi [stats], Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison [stats] and others.
When discussing Vrabel’s career, friends and former bosses noted the statistics, such as the 57 sacks, 505 tackles, and 10 receiving touchdowns. But they harped more on his skills as a teammate and on his character.
“Vrabel was just a consistent player, and you knew what you were going to get out of him,” former Patriots star Lawyer Milloy said. “He played the game within the game. If the edge needed to be set, he was going to set it. Didn’t really look too flashy at first, but just when he got out there, he made plays. Once he got into (coach Bill Belichick’s 3-4) system, he was able to shine.”
Only a Pro Bowler one time, the 6-foot-4, 261-pound Vrabel never had more than 73 tackles in a season. Only once, in 2007, did he eclipse 10 sacks. But his methods, business-like demeanor and defensive role, along with his propensity for bringing out the lighthearted side of Belichick, earned him a leadership role.
“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. “He was elected a team captain by his peers and is a player who everyone knew was destined to become a coach after his NFL playing career was over. I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners.”
Known as a hard-nosed, do-it-all linebacker who could stuff the run and rush the passer, Vrabel exited the Pats in a package deal that also sent quarterback Matt Cassel to the Chiefs. Before he did, he impressed by playing tight end, as well, even catching two touchdowns in Super Bowls.
“The biggest thing that stuck out as a kid is, you watch a guy that’s a linebacker line up at tight end and catch all these touchdown passes,” Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said. “At that age, I didn’t know X’s and O’s, so I just remember him as an NFL player going both ways.”
The memories of Vrabel’s prowess did vary, from creating pressure that led to Ty Law’s fabled interception in Super Bowl XXXVI to simply diagnosing a play before it happened. What did not vary was the respect of those who knew him well.
“Mike Vrabel was a key contributor to the most successful era in Patriots franchise history,” owner Robert Kraft said, “and I will forever be grateful. I am sure this is a dream come true for Mike and will be the start of a long and successful coaching career at Ohio State. I’ll be rooting for him. Mike is a true Patriot.”