NASHVILLE — Long before he found his way to the NFL, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel learned early that life doesn't always go as desired.
Vrabel watched his father handle wins and losses while managing the challenge of injured players as a high school basketball coach in Ohio. He also coped with those himself as an All-America defender at Ohio State and during 14 seasons as an NFL linebacker.
The biggest lesson? Don't worry about the past or try to control the future.
"When the adversity hits, you have a base, a place to be grounded and a focus that the players can all come together," said Vrabel, who is 39-25 (counting playoffs) since taking over in Nashville prior to the 2018 season. "Coaches can figure out what the situation is and try to lead everybody in the right direction."
Vrabel is tapping all those skills in guiding the Titans through an injury-plagued season to an 8-4 record with their open date this week. They are atop the AFC South with a two-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Indianapolis Colts in a bid to repeat as division champs, and only their current two-game skid dropped them to third from first in the conference standings.
With five regular-season games still on their schedule, they remain in favorable position ahead of the playoffs despite using 86 players — the most in the NFL since 1993 — and 49 starters. Tennessee currently has 18 players on injured reserve, including workhorse running back Derrick Henry — the reigning NFL offensive player of the year — starting wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones and starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree.
Still, the Titans are 7-0 against teams that made the playoffs last season, including victories over the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Colts, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints during a five-game winning streak that preceded their back-to-back losses to the Houston Texans and New England Patriots.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan credited Vrabel with keeping every new player on his toes and ready to contribute — a way to meet the need for the next man up to be able to truly step up. Vrabel sets the tone in meetings by starting with what Lewan called the coach's "15-minute comedy sessions" to loosen everyone up.
Daydreaming or simply staring at the lights is impossible when Vrabel has the floor, though, because quiz time follows the jokes.
"Everyone is expected to know the game plan," Lewan said. "He'll call on any guys, guys that are backups, guys that are starters. And he does a great job of making sure everyone's ready and educated on what we're doing that week."
That approach has worked.
The Titans signed Bobby Hart off Buffalo's practice squad on Oct. 20, and Hart was on the field for 42 plays at left tackle in a win over Kansas City four days later. Similarly, linebacker Dylan Cole was signed to the practice squad for the second time this season early last month, then elevated to the active roster for the Nov. 16 game against the Saints. He forced a key fumble on a kickoff to start the third quarter in the 23-21 win.
Houston coach David Culley was the wide receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late 1990s, when Vrabel started his NFL playing career with the team, and he sees a lot of the former linebacker in the Titans.
"He was a very selfless kind of player, the kind of player you want on your football team," Culley said. "His football team is a reflection of him. He was also very tough. It was always about the team, and his football team is a reflection of who he is his — offensively, defensively and special teams."
The Titans see Vrabel as someone who knows well the stress and challenges they deal with off the field, because family time is treated as a treasure. An added attraction to Tennessee's trip last weekend to New England was the chance for Vrabel to visit with his oldest son, a left tackle at Boston College.
Brown, a Pro Bowl selection at wide receiver last season in his second NFL campaign, mentioned how much he appreciates Vrabel when he recently discussed dealing with depression that had him thinking of taking his own life a year ago. Brown said Vrabel listened and tried to help as much as possible, to the point that the receiver considers his coach family.
"I know this is a business, and sometimes you don't want to get emotionally attached or tied with someone because of the business side of it," Brown said. "But I appreciate him so much. People like that, no matter how this business might go, forever I will be a friend of his and he will be a friend of mine."
Mental health is a priority for Vrabel and the Titans, who are always offering help to players and checking in on those recovering from injuries.
"This is a very unforgiving business," Vrabel said. "We are always going to have to put somebody in there. They make us have 48 on game day and 11 on every snap. We are always going to find guys. Sometimes when you are hurt, you feel somewhat distant from the team because there is nothing you can do."
Figuring out who's healthy enough to help the Titans down the stretch is Vrabel's next challenge. Tennessee has only one game remaining against an opponent with a winning record — the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 23 — though the Titans will have to prove they can beat teams with losing records after losses to the New York Jets and Houston.
Jones will be eligible to return if healthy against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 12, Dupree against the Steelers on Dec. 19 and Brown against the 49ers four days later for a Thursday night game. A handful of other Titans also should be healthier after this week's extra rest.
Vrabel isn't looking at the stretch run, though. At least not yet.
"I am very hopeful that it is going to help us," he said of the open date, "and that everybody will be ready to get back to work here and get ready for Jacksonville."