NASHVILLE — Mike Vrabel counts Romeo Crennel among his mentors, having been coached by him two decades ago and having worked alongside him just a few years back with the Houston Texans.
Crennel — 1-0 as interim head coach of the Texans — sees Vrabel — 4-0 in his third season as head coach of the Tennessee Titans — putting lessons learned as both player and coach into guiding his team through what was the NFL's first COVID-19 outbreak and keeping the club among the league's undefeated ranks.
"He knew what needed to get done to help us win," Crennel said of Vrabel as an NFL linebacker. "I think that he's applying all of those things that he did as a player to his coaching style and to his team, and as you watch his team, you see that they are well coached, you see great effort and you see production."
Vrabel credits Crennel with giving him a very big tip when he joined the New England Patriots in 2001, trying to be perfect in everything after never starting a game in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He said, 'You can't function like that in life or in this game, especially. You can't just let it eat at you because you made the wrong tackle, you did the wrong assignment,'" Vrabel recalled. "It was great."
Vrabel went on to play eight seasons — and win three Super Bowls — with the Patriots before closing his career with two years with the Kansas City Chiefs, retiring after the 2010 season. He then coached three years at Ohio State, his alma mater, before joining the Texans and working as their linebackers coach and ultimately their defensive coordinator.
The Titans certainly have shown the ability to move on, going 15 days between games because of the outbreak that affected 24 people in the organization and 13 players since Sept. 24. The Titans routed the previously undefeated Buffalo Bills 42-16 this past Tuesday, showing no signs of rust.
"We were impressed with what we saw," Crennel said of the Titans, who host the Texans on Sunday. "We know that it'll be a tough battle for us, but our guys, they are excited because we finally won a game and know that going on the road is always tough, and when you face an undefeated team we have to be at our best."
The 73-year-old Crennel became the oldest coach in NFL history to win when the Texans beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 30-14 last weekend in a division matchup, making him 3-1 as an interim coach in his career. The Texans (1-4) are the two-time reigning AFC South champs, but their dismal start cost Bill O'Brien his job four games into his seventh season as coach and first year as general manager.
A win in Nashville would be huge for Houston as it tries to climb back in the division race.
"More than anything about them being an undefeated team, this is a divisional opponent," Texans safety Justin Reid said.
The Titans are resting up after a physical game, 4-0 for only the second time in the history of a franchise that began in 1959 as the Houston Oilers. They got defensive lineman DaQuan Jones and long snapper Beau Brinkley back from the COVID-19 reserve list against Buffalo, and they've activated more players since, including starting defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. Vrabel said they hoped to heal up a bit more by kickoff.
"We have a huge challenge in front of us," said Ryan Tannehill, who is 13-4 as the Titans' starting quarterback.
Crennel and Vrabel aren't the only connection between the teams.
This game will be the first time Tennessee outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has faced the Texans since being traded to the Seattle Seahawks before last season. Houston took Clowney with the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, and he spent his first five NFL seasons with the Texans.
Crennel is more familiar with Clowney than most, having worked as Houston's offensive coordinator for much of Clowney's time with the team, and Crennel knows Clowney will be very motivated.
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson began watching Clowney when he was in college before admiring him as a teammate in his first two NFL seasons. Watson has been sacked 17 times already this season, and Clowney is looking for his first sack of the season.
"He's a problem, for sure," Watson said. "We've got to make sure that we know where he is at all times when he's on the field."
Meanwhile, Titans right tackle Dennis Kelly hasn't had a chance to talk to his brother with Tennessee playing two games in six days this week. That might be best left until after Sunday with Tim Kelly busy as the Texans' offensive coordinator.
The offensive lineman joked about any inside knowledge he might able to provide: "I'm just trying to keep looking back at all the times we've played Madden and some of his play calling tendencies."