Vrabel Was At The Heart Of Chiefs Turnaround

Posted Jul 11, 2011

Mike Vrabel helped changed the culture of Kansas City's locker room

A pro’s pro.

A clubhouse leader.

A teacher.

Mike Vrabel was all of those and more during his two seasons in Kansas City. He’ll make the perfect assistant coach at Ohio State alongside close friend and former college roommate Luke Fickell.

Vrabel made the end of his 14-year NFL playing career official on Monday. He retires after seeing action in 206 games (140 starts) with Pittsburgh (1997-2000), New England (2001-08) and Kansas City (2009-10). Vrabel leaves the game as a three-time Super Bowl champion, four-time AFC champion and eight-time division champion.

“It’s no coincidence that Mike won championships everywhere he played – from his time at Ohio State to his role in division titles on three NFL teams,” Chiefs GM Scott Pioli said.

"His genuine love for the game, his preparation, his work ethic, leadership and dependability are qualities you want from every player. He is a champion in every sense of the word and I’m confident all of these qualities will make him a great coach.”

Acquired in a 2009 trade alongside Matt Cassel, Vrabel was part of Pioli’s first major transaction as Chiefs General Manager.

Though Vrabel was 34 years old at the time, the trade was about building a foundation for the future. Cassel was targeted as the franchise quarterback with Vrabel brought in to transform the identity of a young locker room that had experienced just 10 wins over the previous three seasons.

Few veterans can still connect with a locker room dominated by 22-26 year olds the way Vrabel did. Most players Vrabel’s age aren’t willing to spend the final years of their career being pushed by younger players while also serving as a mentor.

Vrabel kept his feet on both sides of the fence – one as locker room Yoda and the other as a starting outside linebacker and occasional Red Zone receiving target.

He endured daily “old man” jokes and took plenty of flack for his bizarre styling of facial hair. Vrabel even saw the nameplate over his locker replaced with “Jerry Atricks” midway through the 2010 season.

He never removed it.

But make no mistake. When it came down to learning what it takes to be a successful NFL player, there were no jokes. Vrabel was the center of attention and his teammates were always listening.

The way Vrabel gained respect was simple. Plenty of aging players can pull out a resume of past success, but Vrabel lived it every day.

Vrabel knew just as much as anyone else that the game would eventually pass him by. It was only a matter of time before a younger, quicker, stronger, new generation of football player unseated Vrabel as a starter.

Instead of shying away from competition, Vrabel embraced it.

He worked daily in developing Andy Studebaker, a mid-20s ball of energy that continually pushed the veteran for playing time. At the time of his arrival, Vrabel was the only outside linebacker on the Chiefs roster with any experience at the position. Everyone else was a converted defensive end.

Plenty of patience was required in coming from a perennial contender to a team that was fundamentally starting at ground zero.

Taking the initiative to train his eventual replacement showed Vrabel’s commitment to team, but competing every day to keep his starting position is what earned him respect.

We caught at glimpse at the future of the outside linebacker position when Studebaker signed an in-season contract extension last year. At the same time, Vrabel played 2.5 snaps for every 1.0 his backup appeared.

Vrabel started all 16 games and played in 720 defensive snaps last season – more than any linebacker outside of Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson.

A free agent to-be, Vrabel finally felt it was the proper time to move on. He’s leaves a locker room behind that is dramatically different than when he arrived.

On the field, the Chiefs youngsters are ready for football without Vrabel.

Off the field, it’s debatable.

New clubhouse leaders will emerge, but guys like Vrabel can’t be cloned. He’s a special breed whose absence won’t go unnoticed once football resumes. He did more for the Chiefs’ turnaround than any box score can reveal.

Mike Vrabel will be missed.

“I am extremely appreciative of the teammates, coaches, and great fans who surrounded me during my NFL career, and am honored to have been a part of three tremendous organizations in the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs,” Vrabel said in a statement released Monday.

“I am especially grateful to Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, who not only gave me the opportunity to play for a team that won three Super Bowl championships and an NFL record 21 games in a row, but also taught me invaluable lessons on creating the ultimate team approach.”

Knowing Vrabel, Monday’s announcement isn’t the end of his NFL career. He’s got the makeup to be one heck of pro coach some day.

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