FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick smirked a bit as he remembered old conversations with Mike Vrabel. Asked if Vrabel ever spoke about his desires to coach following his playing career, Belichick responded in such a way that made it seem as though Vrabel may have done more than ask about coaching down the line.
"Yeah, well, at that point, Mike was playing, I was coaching, we were trying to win games," Belichick said. "In passing, and in some of the banter back and forth – that there was always plenty from Mike – we talked about coaching and playing."
The banter. That's what elicited a smile from Vrabel's old head coach and opponent for Week 10. Vrabel was known as one of the sharpest, and funniest, players to reside in Belichick's locker room during the early portion of Belichick's tenure in New England.
Even Vrabel admits that he wasn't afraid to flex his football IQ from time to time.
"One thing was that it was always respect," Vrabel said about his back-and-forths with Belichick. "Certainly I made suggestions, you know. Romeo Crennel used to call that 'professional initiative.' If you've proven you can do your job, then maybe you can make some suggestions. We always chuckled about that.
"He gave us great leadership there as a head coach. Always great ideas . . . Larry Izzo and Wes Welker and I, when we worked together, we would talk about ideas and things we'd learned in New England as players and so that carries on now to some of the stuff that we're trying to do to help our teams."
One of the things Vrabel tried to do to help the Patriots back when he was a player was never leave the practice field. Belichick has spoken multiple times about Vrabel's stamina during the week, and his willingness to jump in on scout team just in order to spend a little more time in the middle of things.
"Players like Pat [Chung], Mike, Rodney [Harrison] – they just never want to come off the field," Belichick said. "So, if they’re out there on defense, they’re out there for every play, and then when the scout team’s out there, they want to go out there and take scout team plays, too, and jump in there on special teams and be on the scout team, kickoff team or punt team or whatever it is. I mean, they just like to go out there and play football.
"They’re, all three of those players, in great condition – like never got tired. At least, they didn’t seem like they ever got tired. You know, go run 50 yards and cover a guy and they’re not tapping out, looking for somebody to come in for them. They run back to the huddle and they’re ready to go on the next play, whatever it is. So, that’s the way Mike was.
"He loved to play on the scout team defense. He’d be their best pass rusher, he’d play middle linebacker, he’d play free safety, strong safety, [Troy] Polamalu, Ed Reed, [Dwight] Freeney. Whoever we were playing, he would love to be those guys against our offense and then he’d take all the snaps on defense. So, all those guys are kind of like that. They bring a lot of good, positive energy to the team by just what they do and how they do it. So, I mean, you can’t put a price on guys like that. They’re great."
Vrabel remembered those moments, impersonating free safeties like Polamalu and Reed, during Wednesday's conference call with Patriots reporters. And he remembered them going well for him.
"You'd have to ask Tom [Brady], but I think I did pretty well," Vrabel said. "There were interceptions back then in practice. Those guys didn't have any responsibilities so it was easy for me to do that. Tom would get mad. He'd know what the card said and he would tell me where I was supposed to be and I told him I was gonna be wherever I wanted to be no matter what the card said.
"There was certainly a bunch of back-and-forth. That's what made going to practice part of the reason you play the game. You play, you compete. You always love the games, but being in the locker room, being on the field, practicing, guys that love football, love to play and practice to play."
Vrabel won't have an opportunity to pick off his old quarterback or suggest coaching points to his old boss this week. But he'll try to be something more than an annoyance on Sunday afternoon when he's staring at both from the opposite sideline in Tennessee.
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