Mike Vrabel became the 30th player and 34th overall inductee into the Patriots Hall of Fame this week, finally punching his ticket on his seventh time as a finalist. The length of Vrabel's candidacy is little reflection of the player he was nor the important part he played in helping the Patriots secure three titles and five AFC Championship game appearances during his eight-year tenure with the team.
"There's a lot of people to thank," said Vrabel, kicking off his media availability with a nod to New England's media that covered him. "There's a lot of amazing people that made those eight years possible and special and I think we all benefitted from it."
Vrabel joined the Patriots in the 2001 offseason as part of a large free agent class that merged with some of the pieces already in place, especially on defense, to establish the NFL's newest dynasty. After spending four years in Pittsburgh, Vrabel had a chance to compete for a starting job in New England with an established group of impressive linebackers leading the way.
"I think the first thing was being there and knowing what to do, that was something that was important for me going in and learning the defense," said Vrabel. "Ted Johnson was there and Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, and Roman Pfeiffer was a part of that group that signed in 2001, but really Ted and Teddy and Willie were the players that taught me what it was like. I wanted to impress them with how much I knew, and what I was able to do on the field. I was trying to earn their respect by obviously playing well and being able to communicate the defense and talk through things.
"I tried to prove that I belonged there I think every day, every week... I wanted to try to be there and be productive and know as many positions as I could and play special teams and embrace special teams. Learning from guys like Bill [Belichick], learning the history from Ernie [Adams], special teams from Brad Seely, watching Dante Scarnecchia coach, the passion that he put into it. Obviously, the defensive coaches that we had... Dean Pees, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Rob Ryan, Pepper Johnson, all these guys that we got to be associated with. It was fun coming to work, obviously winning makes it fun. It was something that we're all better off for having spent time there."
The team's first championship in 2001 still holds a special place in Vrabel's heart as he recalled how the team overcame a .500 start and then went on to win nine-straight games in capturing Super Bowl 36.
"I think the team got more talented as the years went on," recalled Vrabel. "2004 was probably better than 2003 and 2003 was probably more talented than 2001. I imagine that you'd pick the 2004 team [as the best] but the one that I think everybody's going to embrace is going to be the 2001 team. 5-5 at Thanksgiving and then we win nine games in a row after Thanksgiving. That to me is something that I'll always remember, us coming together and figuring it out, all the new pieces, new players, Tom coming in at quarterback, just the way we were able to find ways to win football games and especially down the stretch and how we played after Thanksgiving."
Vrabel's career was memorable for more than just big defensive plays and championships, as the linebacker emerged as a dangerous red zone target during his Patriots tenure, catching 10 balls, all for touchdowns. That included one each in Super Bowls 38 and 39 and provided a standout statistic that made Vrabel unique among Patriots greats.
"I used to go out before a game a couple hours before, goof around and run routes, I didn't wanna sit at my locker, I got there early, wanted to do something, well let's go out and catch balls from the quarterback," said Vrabel of how he caught the coaches eye as a pass catcher. "So I would mess around with Drew and then I think he might've said, 'Hey,' to Charlie, 'This guy could probably actually do something,' And it never materialized. Then I think maybe the next year, they might've said, 'Hey, give this a try. Learn the plays,' My first touchdown was in San Diego, and we lost. So nobody really talked about it, and then it kind of just materialized from there. But probably Charlie Weis and Drew probably came up with the idea."
We take a look back at the career of Patriots Linebacker Mike Vrabel (2001-2008), who was voted by fans as the 2023 inductee for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Asked to pick a favorite, a smile came over Vrabel's face as he recounted some of the more difficult grabs of the 10.
"Probably the ones in the Super Bowl," said Vrabel. "I think probably the one there was a backline against the Jets that I don't think we've ever thrown. It's like the third progression on the goal line and I was like on the backside and never thought that I would even get the ball and I turned around and it's already left his hand. 'Well I guess he got to his third progression because normally one, two, then throw it away and I turned around and the ball was there. Those are the ones that stand out to me but the Super Bowl one where everything is a fog, in a blur and all of a sudden through a bunch of helmets and hands. Tom managed to find the football and get it through."
Though he's now coaching the Titans and facing the Patriots as a competitor, Vrabel hasn't lost sight of the special things he did in New England and how those experiences helped him get to where he is now, winning NFL Coach of the Year in 2021 and now entering his sixth season at the helm in Tennessee.
"It's very rewarding," said Vrabel. "Certainly set me up for a great future whether that was to be able to transition to Kansas City and help lead or ultimately become a coach. Love coming to work with the players and I think that's something that I'll always miss is what we had in the locker room and always want to re-create what we did there where the players were the ones that were trying to hold each other accountable and not in a negative way but just in a positive way and how you push guys and how you work and how you want to prepare."