NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel stood at the locker room entrance at Nissan Stadium waiting to congratulate his team after a 28-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8. Titans general manager Ran Carthon was in the mix of players and coaches.
The two Titans figureheads smiled and shook hands before exchanging words. The Titans had just secured their third consecutive home win, bringing their record to 3-4. They seemed to have found their future quarterback in rookie Will Levis, who became the third quarterback in NFL history to throw four touchdown passes in his first start.
But that jolt of positivity was short lived, as the Titans would lose their next three games before a Week 12 win over the Carolina Panthers, who boast the league's worst record at 1-11. Tennessee (4-8) fell to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, 31-28 in overtime, and are in last place in the AFC South for the first time under Vrabel.
No one in the Titans' building envisioned the team sinking so far this season. The losing, the onslaught of injuries (highlighted by four players going to the locker room Sunday, which included running back Derrick Henry and defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons), and the underperformance of players like free agent left tackle Andre Dillard have caused frustration. Still, Vrabel and Carthon have leaned on each other in Carthon's first year on the job.
"It's not easy," Vrabel said of he and Carthon working through the losses. "We're just trying to get it right. I'm not sure that we haven't had a conflict or anything. We've got to disagree and then you just try to figure it out, get it right and do what's best for the team."
There have also been rumors of Vrabel potentially returning to the New England Patriots organization, which recently inducted him into the team's Hall of Fame for his contributions during his playing days. Coach Bill Belichick's status has been a hot-button topic given the Patriots' 2-10 record this season.
That has sparked some speculation that Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls while playing in New England from 2001 to 2008, could be a target of Patriots owner Robert Kraft if Belichick doesn't return in 2024 for a 25th season. Like Belichick, Vrabel is still under contract for the 2024 season.
Still, multiple team sources in Nashville have said the Titans intend to retain Vrabel as their coach, and Carthon and the personnel department have been working with their head coach to find players who fit his system, style of play and culture that he has instilled since arriving in 2018.
"One of the first things we do in the morning is either me going to his office or [Vrabel] comes [to my office]," Carthon told ESPN. "We check in and kind of see what's going on throughout the day."
THE COLLABORATIVE EFFORT that Titans controlling owner Amy Adams-Strunk wanted when she hired Carthon hasn't produced the desired results yet. Both Vrabel and Carthon have taken steps to make it work.
They are in constant communication with Adams-Strunk down to the most minute details, like who's traveling to away games and who isn't.
"I'm not an ego person, so I don't care about control, who has the final say," Carthon said. "That creates dissension. Miss Amy trusts us to do our job."
The work started when Carthon first set foot inside Saint Thomas Sports Park. He was hired to help to get the team back to the standard that Vrabel had set: playoff appearances from 2019 to 2021 and back-to-back division championships in the final two. They also had the overall No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2021 and fell just shy of reaching the Super Bowl in 2019, losing in the conference championship game.
"One of the first things you think about when you think of the Tennessee Titans is Mike Vrabel," Carthon said. "I needed to learn what it's going to take to play for a Mike Vrabel-coached team."
Having spent time helping construct the San Francisco 49ers' roster as the director of pro personnel from 2017 to 2020 and then director of player personnel from 2021 to 2022, Carthon saw first-hand how general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan worked together with the scouts.
The way the scouts learned exactly what Shanahan wanted resonated with Carthon. He wanted to bring that process to Tennessee so he had coaches produce teaching tape using their terminology to get everyone on the same page.
"There's always going to be that level of figuring out what it's going to take to play in a new system," Carthon said. "So it's a learning process."
Carthon, along with assistant general managers Anthony Robinson and Chad Brinker, put extra time in to get familiar with Vrabel's coaching staff and what they want from players.
"I've actually really enjoyed working with Ran, Anthony and Chad," Vrabel said. "We've added some good people that have been from different places."
The conversations between the scouting staff and coaches went on in meeting rooms throughout the building starting in the spring.
"That's what it takes for collaboration," Carthon said. "It was good to be able to walk down the hall and ask [the special teams coaches] about rules on special teams [to get] clarification."
But those talks will continue into the offseason, when Carthon still has more work to do to get this team back to a winning situation.
THE TITANS SIGNED Dillard to a three-year deal worth $29 million in hopes of him securing the left tackle spot. They saw a talented player who could benefit from a change of scenery. That plan hasn't worked out as Dillard has since lost his job to 2023 sixth-round pick Jaelyn Duncan.
Duncan, along with Levis, Peter Skoronski, Tyjae Spears, Josh Whyle and Colton Dowell, make up Carthon's first draft class, which is an array of talent that is part of why the Titans lead the NFL in rookie snaps (1,129).
"I like the guys that we drafted," Vrabel said. "Once we get to the offseason, we have a conversation about what our roster is and how we move forward with free agency and the draft."
The Titans acquired draft capital when they made a bold move a week before the Oct. 31 trade deadline by sending team captain Kevin Byard to the Philadelphia Eagles and netting safety Terrell Edmunds plus two draft picks -- 2024 fifth- and sixth-round selections -- in return.
Carthon and Vrabel tag-teamed the situation.
Vrabel was the one who told Byard he'd been traded because of the relationship they'd built over five-plus years. He also was the one who addressed the trade with the media.
Carthon said this time of the year is about the coaches and the players, which is why he stayed in the background after the trade.
This was Carthon's first trade involving a player as a general manager, so he wanted to make sure the terms they agreed to with the Eagles were on the paperwork submitted to the league.
"We had a lot of conversations that made us able to make a tough decision at the time," Vrabel said. "But it's one that we felt was the right decision."
Carthon leaned on Vrabel for advice during the trade deadline with players like Henry, who's a free agent at the end of the season, in the crosshairs of trade rumors. Carthon and Vrabel had to hunker down with the rest of the staff and figure out a game plan with all of the questions surrounding the organization at the time.
"Obviously, you see all that stuff," Henry said two days before the trade deadline. "We had talks, and I feel like everything is going in a positive direction. I'm happy to be a Titan."
The Titans wanted to make sure Henry knew where they stood. They never had any intentions of trading him.
"It was never a situation where we called and shopped anybody," Carthon said. "Once the rumors came out, people called and said, 'Hey is it true? Are you willing?' But we were never in that space."
WITH FIVE GAMES left this season, the Titans find themselves on the verge of finishing with one of the five worst records in the NFL if they don't turn things around, and they are one loss away from finishing below .500 for the second straight season.
Vrabel isn't giving up, though, and he's pushing his team to the end.
"I'm going to try to find a way to continue to get this team to fight like they did today," Vrabel said Sunday.
However, the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Titans as they hit the road to face the Miami Dolphins (9-3), who are tied for the best record in the AFC, in search of their first road win Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Vrabel also announced Monday that Simmons, one of the cornerstones of the franchise, would miss "a couple of weeks" and that punter Ryan Stonehouse, who leads the league in yards per punt (53.1), would have season-ending knee surgery.
Stonehouse was injured Sunday when he was hit before he could boot the ball away. It was the second straight possession that the Colts got to him on fourth down, blocking his punt for a score on the previous drive. As a result of the miscues and a missed extra-point attempt late in the fourth quarter with the game tied, special teams coach Craig Aukerman was fired, Vrabel announced Monday.
The Titans are slated to pick seventh, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, in April's draft and have a 23.7% chance of selecting in the top five and 86.2% chance picking in the top 10. They also currently have the second-most cap space ($91.4 million) in 2024 behind the Patriots ($92.7 million), according to Roster Management System.
Essentially, Carthon will be busy this offseason, and he plans to seek advice from other GMs -- Lynch, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Minnesota Vikings), Martin Mayhew (Detroit Lions), Andrew Berry (Cleveland Browns), Howie Roseman (Eagles) and Chris Grier (Dolphins).
But he knows that no resource will be more valuable than the partnership he continues to build with Vrabel, as he'll continue to go in his office and say, "Hey man, I've never dealt with this. What do you think?"
"You can prepare as much as you want to be a GM," Carthon said, "but you have to use your resources."