Mike Vrabel typically receives the lion’s share of the credit for the Tennessee Titans‘ recent run of success, but it’s probably time for more members of his staff to garner consideration for head coaching positions.
On the offensive side of the ball, Vrabel underlings Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith have recently landed top jobs around the NFL. Can defensive coordinator Shane Bowen become the next Titans assistant to ascend to a head coaching position?
Shane Bowen Is an Under-the-Radar Head Coaching Candidate
When evaluating NFL coordinators as potential head coach candidates, it’s easy to look at where their respective unit ranks in various efficiency metrics and decide whether they’d make a good head coach based on those numbers alone.
But it only takes a glance at Vrabel’s one-year stint as the Texans’ defensive coordinator to realize that statistical ranks aren’t the deciding factor in whether an assistant is ready to lead an organization.
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Vrabel’s 2017 Houston defense ranked 27th in expected points added per play and 28th in yards per play allowed. They gave up more points than any team in the NFL. And yet, Vrabel has developed into an excellent head coach who’s earned playoff berths in three of his first four seasons in Tennessee.
Bowen started calling the Titans’ defensive plays in 2020, and his debut was just as underwhelming as Vrabel’s. Taking over for Dean Pees, Bowen led a unit that ranked a woeful 29th in defensive DVOA. Bowen’s best effort came in 2021, when he coaxed dynamic performances out of Kevin Byard, Amani Hooker, Jeffery Simmons, and others en route to finishing 12th in DVOA.
This year, it’s been a tale of two half-seasons for Bowen and the Titans’ defense. From Weeks 1-11, Tennessee ranked 12th in defensive DVOA. No team stopped the run better than the Titans during that span, and only the Buffalo Bills scored more than 22 points against them.
However, since Week 12, Tennessee has collapsed on both sides of the ball. The Titans have lost seven straight games and may improbably give away the AFC South title. Bowen’s unit ranks 30th in DVOA over the last six weeks, and they allowed the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Dallas Cowboys to score at least 27 points each.
Injuries have played a crucial role in Tennessee’s downfall. They’ve placed a league-high 34 players on injured reserve, eight more than the second-place Broncos. The Titans currently have 23 players on IR, which also leads the NFL.
Harold Landry, expected to serve as the club’s No. 1 edge rusher after registering 12 sacks in 2021, tore his ACL in training camp. Other key defenders such as linebackers David Long and Zach Cunningham, pass rusher Bud Dupree, and defensive backs Caleb Farley, Elijah Molden, and Terrance Mitchell have all missed time.
Given all those health issues, Bowen has had to unearth role players and figure out how best to deploy them.
Safety Andrew Adams had played fewer than 250 total snaps for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2020-21, but he’s managed 700+ snaps of solid play for the Titans. Former undrafted free agent Joshua Kalu has also stepped in as a spot starter in the defensive backfield.
Journeyman linemen Mario Edwards Jr. and DeMarcus Walker have been forces against the run. And second-round rookie corner Roger McCreary has played more defensive snaps (1,116) than any defender in the entire NFL.
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Bowen hasn’t been fortunate enough to work with a perfect situation in Tennessee, but he’s made things work. Odds are, any team that hires Bowen as a head coach won’t have a star-studded roster, either.
It’s impossible to know how Bowen will handle a locker room or game management situations. We have to refrain from assuming that all of Vrabel’s qualities as a head coach will simply transfer to Bowen.
But Bowen has been one of Vrabel’s key assistants dating back to their time on Ohio State’s staff, and it’s fair to presume that he’s picked up something from Vrabel in terms of relationship- and team-building.
Bowen’s Salary Expectation and Landing Spots
Most first-time NFL head coaches earn between $3.5 and $5 million annually. Bowen doesn’t have a ton of experience or the kind of staggering statistical results to negotiate for an out-of-structure salary, so he would probably take home roughly $4 million per season if hired as an HC.
The Carolina Panthers have already fired their head coach, but Carolina will likely either opt for a bigger name or stick with interim HC Steve Wilks. Likewise, the Arizona Cardinals may fire Kliff Kingsbury when the season ends, but they’re likely to search for more of a headliner than Bowen.
Instead, two rival AFC South teams could make sense as landing spots for Bowen. The Indianapolis Colts will need a new head coach unless they retain Jeff Saturday, and they’ve seen Bowen’s work up close and personal over the past several seasons. Tennessee has beaten Indy in five straight games, and that impressive performance could get Bowen an interview with the Colts.
Elsewhere in the division, the Houston Texans could choose to part ways with Lovie Smith and hire their third head coach in three seasons. Both Smith and 2021 Houston hire David Culley were 60+ years old when they joined the Texans, so Houston could conceivably look for a younger option. At age 36, Bowen certainly fits that bill.
Bowen’s Coaching Experience
Bowen’s coaching career began in 2009 after a cervical disc displacement ended his playing days at Georgia Tech. The former safety stuck as an assistant coach with the Yellow Jackets through 2011, when he joined Ohio State’s staff as a graduate assistant and formed his relationship with Vrabel, then the Buckeyes’ defensive line coach.
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After a three-year stint as Kennesaw State’s linebackers coach, Bowen again linked up with Vrabel, serving as a defensive assistant in Houston from 2016-17. When Vrabel accepted the Titans’ head coaching job, he hired Bowen his outside linebackers coach. Bowen began calling plays after Pees retired before the 2020 campaign, then formally took over as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator in 2021.