One of the things Bill Belichick has been known for over his coaching career has been finding players who can do more than just one thing.
It's wide receivers Troy Brown and Julian Edelman returning punts and doubling as defensive backs; it's defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Dan Klecko lining up in a three-point stance but in the offensive backfield as fullbacks; it's cornerback-turned-punt returner-turned wide receiver Marcus Jones, who last season became the first NFL player in 75 years to score a touchdown in all three phases of the game.
The list of two-way talents extends beyond that, but when it comes to versatility, there was no one quite like Mike Vrabel.
During his eight years with New England (2001-2008), Vrabel was a human Swiss Army Knife. He played inside linebacker, outside linebacker, special teams and occasionally came in on offense as a tight end, where he assembled a truly unique stat line that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been rivaled since: 10 catches for 10 touchdowns.
Vrabel's uncanny can-do-ism made him a fan favorite in Foxborough, not just because it was fun to watch but because it was central to the team's success. His offensive contributions often took center stage – after all, two of his catches came in the Super Bowl. But make no mistake, Vrabel was just as dynamic on defense, recording 11 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 56 sacks and 690 tackles (regular season and post season combined).
The impact Vrabel made on both sides of the ball helped propel the Patriots to unprecedented heights, including an NFL-record 21 consecutive wins (2003-04), a franchise-record 21 consecutive wins at home (2002-05), 10 straight playoff victories (2001-05), and a dynastic run that included three Super Bowl championships in four years (2001, 2003 and 2004).
"Mike's leadership and versatility were principal to one of the most successful eras in franchise history," Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said. "Many Patriots players have made contributions in all three phases of the game, but none more significantly than Mike."
Patriots fans clearly agree with that statement, so much so that this spring they gave Vrabel the ultimate honor by voting him into the team's esteemed Hall of Fame. He becomes the 34th HOF member and joins ex-teammates Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Kevin Faulk, Ty Law, Matt Light, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour as the eighth player to enter the Patriots Hall of Fame as a three-time Super Bowl champion.
"It's an unbelievable honor to be associated with all the people in the hall," said Vrabel. "You don't think it's a big deal until you get called and obviously, I'm very honored and I feel very blessed."
Few people, including Vrabel, could have ever imagined he'd earn Patriots immortality after signing with the team as a free agent in 2001 following a four-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was used primarily on special teams and as a reserve linebacker. But under Belichick, he blossomed.
Vrabel quickly earned Belichick's respect by seldom making a mental mistake and started 12 of the team's 16 regular season games in 2001. He registered two interceptions, three sacks and established himself as a tough-nosed tackler, playing a key role on a defensive unit that was the backbone of the Patriots first Super Bowl title team.
That defense boasted a litany of defensive stars: Law, McGinest, Seymour and Bruschi, just to name a few. But at the time, they were led on offense by a still-unproven second-year quarterback, sixth-round pick Tom Brady, and had their share of doubters.
The Patriots came into Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams as 14-point underdogs; only the N.Y. Jets (at +18) faced bigger odds when they took on the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That was just fine with many of the players, including Vrabel, who knew a thing or two about being overlooked and underestimated.
In fact, Vrabel may have taken it so personally that he acted on it by having a hand in arguably the most seminal play in Patriots team history.
The Rams – known as the "Greatest Show on Turf"– began mounting a drive midway through the second quarter in hopes of building on their already 3-0 lead. But the pendulum swung the other way when Vrabel blitzed off the edge and made a B-line straight to QB Kurt Warner.
The heavy rush forced the NFL MVP to throw an errant pass that sailed softly through the air and into the waiting arms of Law, who returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. It gave the Patriots the lead and – more importantly – a boost of confidence. Yes, they could beat the Rams, whom they had lost to by seven points at home 10 weeks earlier. Yes, they could stop or at least slow down Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and the rest of St. Louis' high-scoring stampede. Yes, they could shock the world and become the first Patriot team to hoist the Lombardi trophy. All of it, because of Vrabel and Law, now seemed possible.
New England's defense continued to dominate and Brady's 14-yard TD pass to David Patten just before halftime gave the Pats a 14-3 advantage. The Rams stormed back in the fourth quarter to tie the game, but with 81 seconds to go, Brady led a 53-yard drive that set up Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard game-winning field goal. The ball sailed through the uprights just as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and moments later, red, white and blue confetti reigned down from the Louisiana Superdome.
"A game like this makes you trust in all those corny-sounding clichés," Vrabel said afterward. "On paper you may not look as talented or as fast or as strong as your opponent, but if you get guys to buy into a system and fight to the bitter end, you can accomplish incredible things."
Few words have proven as prophetic as those. Although the roster changed from year to year, the Patriots team-first ethos remained intact and was the guiding force behind their overwhelming success as they began piling up more wins, more division titles, more conference crowns and more Super Bowl rings.
It didn't matter who played where or when as long as the team won – and no one took that philosophy to heart more than Vrabel, who added a new wrinkle to his game as a receiver. Many imagine that Vrabel secretly fashioned himself as pass catcher and petitioned for that role by badgering the coaching staff to let him play offense. And if he did, who could've blamed him? Everyone wants to score a touchdown. But the truth is, QB Drew Bledsoe and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis were the real advocates.
"I used to warm up with Drew [in 2001], just go out a couple of hours before the game, goof around and run routes," said Vrabel. "I didn't want to sit at my locker if I got there early, so I wanted to do something. And I said, well, you know, I'll go out and catch balls for the quarterback. So I would mess around with Drew and then I think he might've said to Charlie, 'Hey, this guy could probably actually do something.'" Four games into the 2002 season, Vrabel got his chance. The Patriots were in a goal-to-go situation against San Diego when in strolled a sixfoot- four, 250-pound linebacker, who promptly lined up on the line of scrimmage, ran a crossing route and caught a game-tying 1-yard TD from Brady. In doing so, Vrabel became the first Patriots defender to catch a touchdown pass since linebacker John Tanner in 1974.
The Patriots lost the game, 21-14, but gained valuable insight into a new offensive weapon for years to come.
"It was as if he'd been playing tight end all along," Weis said. "He was physical. He was athletic. He could really catch the ball. He wasn't a stiff out there. He wasn't some glorified lineman playing tight end. We had confidence in him." To the point where Vrabel began making more and more cameos as a touchdown target, including the most meaningful one of his career, which came the following season in the waning moments of Super Bowl XXXVIII. A defensive dogfight for the better part of three quarters, the Patriots and Panthers came to life in a fourth quarter filled with offensive fireworks as they combined for 37 points.
We take a look at some rare pictures of Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who will be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Saturday, October 21, 2023.
Carolina took its first lead, 22-21, with just under seven minutes to go, but Brady rallied the Patriots with his signature composure and precision passing. As New England moved within striking distance, Vrabel came into the huddle and heard Brady call out the play: 1-36-Y Cross Z-Flag. It was music to Vrabel's ears, as he ran a shallow crossing route (similar to the one he ran against San Diego) and palmed the 1-yard pass, giving New England the lead with just 2:51 remaining. With the clutch catch, Vrabel became the first defensive player to score a Super Bowl touchdown on offense since William "The Refrigerator" Perry did so for the Chicago Bears against the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It was all most people could talk about, but in true Mike Vrabel form and fashion, he delivered just as much (if not more) on defense, finishing with six tackles and two sacks, the latter of which occurred when he stripped Jake Delhomme of the ball, resulting in a fumble that led to a Patriots touchdown in the second quarter. Vrabel's all-purpose playmaking, coupled with another last-second Vinatieri kick, helped the Patriots claim a 32-29 win and their second Super Bowl title in three years.
Flash forward a year and Vrabel was back on offense again in the Super Bowl. With New England facing a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Vrabel lined up on the left side and was in a one-on-one matchup with defensive end Jevon Kearse, but "the freak" couldn't stop him. Vrabel used a burst of speed to get off the line, and fought off a hold by Kearse (who was flagged on the play) before tipping Brady's pass into the air and coming down with it as he fell in the end zone. "I got dragged down by Kearse, but was lucky enough to catch it," Vrabel said. "He was holding on for dear life."
The third-quarter score helped New England edge Philly 24-21 and capture their third Super Bowl titles in four years. In addition to securing another ring on his finger, Vrabel became the subject of more trivia as the only defensive player in the history of the NFL to catch two touchdown passes in the Super Bowl. He also had a sack in the game, dropping Donovan McNabb for a 16-yard loss in a drive that ended with an interception by Rodney Harrison. Days later, the cover of Sports Illustrated read "Down Pat" and featured Vrabel and Harrison celebrating with outstretched arms and stadium-sized smiles. If he wasn't already before, Vrabel was now a household name. So how did a career backup transform himself into not just a starter, but such an unlikely hero on both offense and defense? "I tried to prove that I belonged there," said Vrabel. "I think every day and every week, I wanted to try to be there, to be productive and know as many positions as I could." Three Super Bowls in four years could easily cause complacency, but Vrabel was never satisfied with his past success. In 2005, he moved to inside linebacker after playing on the outside his first four seasons and led the team with 108 tackles (40 more than the next closest player). In 2007, he recorded a career-best 12.5 sacks and helped lead the Patriots to a perfect 16-0 regular season, earning a Pro Bowl nod and NFL First-Team All-Pro honors.
And of course, he kept on scoring touchdowns as an ever-reliable red zone receiver.
"He was very good at evading defenders and getting off the line of scrimmage," Brady said of Vrabel. "He's very quick and used his hands well. Vrabes was a machine."
Vrabel played the final two seasons (2009-10) of his 14- year NFL career with Kansas City, where he added two more touchdown catches to his offensive oeuvre. All told, he amassed 13 TDs – 12 catches, and an interception return for a score against Carolina in 2005, in addition to his 850 career tackles, 66 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and 11 picks.
Versatility, thy name was Vrabel. Longtime Patriots beat writer Tom Curran recently compiled a list of the top 50 players in the Belichick era. He listed Vrabel as No. 6 overall. "There were Patriots players faster than Mike Vrabel. There were stronger Patriots and quicker Patriots. Some had softer hands or superior hand-eye coordination. A few could probably jump higher. But no Patriot in the almost 20 years I've covered the team was as far above average in each of those physical categories than Mike Vrabel," wrote Curran.
"He was like a decathlete, able to cross disciplines and excel in all of them."
Following his playing career, Vrabel returned to Ohio State, his alma mater, as an assistant coach, spending three years with the Buckeyes (2011-13). He parlayed that into his first NFL coaching stint, as linebackers coach for the Houston Texans (2014-16) before being promoted to defensive coordinator the following year. In 2018, the Tennessee Titans hired Vrabel as their head coach. He's compiled some big wins since then, including a playoff victory over the Patriots in 2019. Though he's the enemy on those days when the Pats and Titans clash, Vrabel – a member of New England's All- 2000s Team, 50th Anniversary Team, and All-Dynasty Team – will forever be remembered as a career Patriot.
"During his Patriots career, there was no player more respected for his football intellect and revered for his leadership by his teammates than Mike," said Belichick. "You could just see his overall passion for the game. Whether playing all the positions on offense and defense, he had a great understanding and awareness of the total game and loved to play it. He was a great Patriot."
This past spring, Kraft conducted a video call with Vrabel to tell him the news that he'd been inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Kraft threw a bouquet of "thank yous" at Vrabel way before offering him the highest compliment.
"You were the heart and soul of the greatest period of any team in the history of the NFL," Kraft said.
Indeed he was. On offense, on defense, and everywhere, Mike Vrabel was a peerless performer, a master of all things.