Mike Vrabel tapping assistant Terrell Williams to lead the Titans on Saturday is key moment in NFL coaching

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Mike Vrabel handed the head coaching keys to the Tennessee Titans to assistant coach Terrell Williams. And just like that, the ignition was turned on an experiment that could eventually change the scope of opportunities in NFL coaching staffs.

The move came a little over three days after Vrabel announced he would step aside for the Titans’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears on Saturday, opening the door for his defensive line coach (who also carries the assistant head coaching title) to take over the full scope of head coaching operations of the franchise. That meant addressing the media Thursday in the typical head coaching news conference, before stepping into the team’s meeting afterward and setting the table for the matchup.

Lineups will be set. Playing time will be calculated. Game officials will be met. A pregame speech will be prepared. And when the game kicks off, there’s a solid chance that an important part of coaching development in this league may change. That’s a dangerous assumption in an NFL that can sometimes be stubborn to innovation and progress, but that’s what this moment between Vrabel and Williams could represent to the wider scope of the league.

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For decades, the NFL has struggled to find measurable and consistent ways to develop an authentic head coaching toolkit for assistant coaches, especially minority assistants, who often spend their careers in position-specific roles and have almost no shot at a coaching job without coordinator experience. This could help change that in a very tangible way. Or at the very least, unlock a new stream of digestible performance data when it comes to identifying future head coaching candidates who are not perched in a coordinator spot. That’s what Vrabel may have unlocked here, with a 14-word declaration that speaks volumes about his coaching culture.

As he put it Thursday morning: “My intention is to allow Terrell to operate and function as the head coach.”

Assistant Terrell Williams will act as the Titans’ head coach for Saturday’s preseason game against the Chicago Bears. (Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)

Not somewhat like a head coach. Not sometimes like a head coach. No, this is a full monty experience for Williams, from Thursday afternoon through the postgame wrap-up Saturday. It means when someone asks Williams about his layers of coaching experience, he will now have a 48-hour window of immense importance. Not only for potential future suitors, but also for Vrabel’s base of knowledge and Williams’ own self-scouting.

As one team executive said about the move Thursday, “There is some hope that this is something that inspires other teams to consider a similar approach.”

Again, you never want to assume something will ripple in the NFL. But there’s hope in other organizations that this might. As one high-ranking AFC executive said to Yahoo Sports on Thursday, “It says a lot about Mike as a coach — and it didn’t go unnoticed here.”

In the past, this kind of opportunity would be so limited in scope or so opaque that it was difficult to truly understand what duties a head coach had actually performed in a given opportunity. Perhaps they called some plays for a few quarters or weighed in on the playing time of specific groups on the depth chart. Maybe they were given an opportunity to talk to the team before a game or wear the head coaching headset for a quarter. But outside of extenuating circumstances that removed a coach from their team on game day — such as the pandemic absence of Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski against the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021 — we haven’t seen a head coach purposely turn over an entire operation for the sake of growth.

In short, this isn’t going to be like most of the fractional opportunities we’ve seen in the past from head coaches.

“What [Vrabel] is doing here is more than a game day,” Williams said Thursday. “I’m taking over really [at] 5 o’clock today. It will be my first meeting with the football team, and then that’ll carry on into tomorrow. I already met with the officials. There have been some examples of coaches that have given play callers [opportunities like] ‘OK, you can call this half or you can call this game,’ or ‘Hey, you’re the head coach when we get to the field.’ But this is completely different. I don’t know of any teams that are doing what we’re doing here right now, where you’re taking over, you’re meeting with the media, you’re doing all of these different things.

“That’s why I say Mike Vrabel deserves a lot of credit. … [W]hat you don’t see is what he’s able to do for us as coaches and for our families. A lot of guys have been promoted. A lot of guys have gotten jobs from here. I’ll do anything for Mike Vrabel — before [becoming] assistant head coach and before being put in this position, because there’s really one reason and I know that this guy cares about my family. And trust me, for a guy like me, that means a whole hell of a lot.”

For the expanse of his career, the 49-year-old Williams has been a defensive line coach at multiple stops and levels in football, starting at Fort Scott Community College (Kan.) in 1998, then moving his way up the coaching ladder through another five college programs, including stops in the HBCU, Division I-AA and eventually, jobs at Purdue and Texas A&M. In 2012, he broke into the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, before moving on to the Miami Dolphins and then joining Vrabel’s staff in 2018. Over the past 26 years, you’d be hard pressed to find a résumé more reflective of the kind of persistence that delivered Williams to the Titans’ assistant head coaching position or the opportunity he’s embracing this weekend.

In many ways, this is precisely the kind of coach who makes this moment special across the league. Not only because there are so many other positional assistants who have gone through a similar grind, but also because Williams is known and respected by so many of his peers. That reality was reflected in the reaction of the NFL community outside the Titans when Vrabel made the move earlier this week.

“I probably had 200 text messages from different people when it was first announced,” Williams said. “But I’m so locked in on trying to get [Jeffery] Simmons not to jump offsides — that’s really what my job has been up until this point. And now I’m focused more on the football team. I’ll talk to some more guys and I said this before, I think we have guys on this staff that I hope in the future get the same opportunity. I mean, Shane [Bowen] and Timmy [Tim Kelly] and Ryan Crow and [Scott] Booker and all the guys on offense — Rob Moore. I hope they all get the same opportunity.”

“You have all these different programs [to develop coaches],” Williams said. “I came up through the minority coaching internship deal [in] 1999 [with the] Jacksonville Jaguars, the [Seattle] Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys. And so I was a product of that. But I’m not sitting here today because of that. I’m sitting there because of how hard I’ve worked and my value to the team.”

From the outside looking in, that value will be recognized beyond the Titans on Saturday. How much further it travels for other NFL assistants — both in practice and purpose — remains to be seen. But some eyes are definitely turning toward Vrabel and the Titans this week, and the positive attention is well-deserved.

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