Mike Vrabel was one of the best defensive players to come through New England during the Bill Belichick era. But two of his most memorable career highlights came while he was playing tight end, not his primary position of linebacker.
He has Drew Bledsoe to thank for that.
One day after being voted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, Vrabel shared the backstory of his side gig as a red-zone pass-catcher. The idea, he said, was the brainchild of Bledsoe and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
Vrabel said he would run routes for Bledsoe during the 2001 season as a way of killing time before games. The veteran quarterback, he believes, was the one who suggested to Weis that Vrabel could be an asset on that side of the ball.
“I would mess around with Drew,” Vrabel said in a video conference. “Then I think he might have said, ‘Hey, Charlie, this guy could probably actually do something.’ It never materialized (at first), and then maybe the next year, (Weis) might have said, ‘Give this a try, learn the plays.’ “
Weis waited until Week 4 of the 2002 season to call Vrabel’s number. The Patriots plugged him in at tight end early in the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers, and he caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady. New England wound up losing that game, but the seed was planted.
Vrabel went on to catch 12 total touchdown passes over his final nine NFL seasons, including one in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers and another in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Philadelphia Eagles. He ranks tied for seventh all-time in Super Bowl touchdown receptions, and he retired with one of the most efficient receiving stat lines in league history: 16 targets, 12 catches, 16 yards, 12 touchdowns.
The official website for Vrabel’s current team, the Tennessee Titans, ran a retrospective on his tight end exploits in February 2021. Former teammate and fellow Patriots Hall of Famer Willie McGinest recalled him “begging the coaches (in practice) to put him in and let him be the tight end.”
“He was talking about how great his hands were, and he was such a good catcher,” McGinest told TennesseeTitans.com. He didn’t care about the blocking aspect of it when we wanted to run the ball, but when we had our specialty pass plays. … We didn’t know he was going to become the guy who had all these touchdowns … in the playoffs and Super Bowls, but it worked out. He was definitely reliable, and he made the big plays in the big games. So, we couldn’t mess with him after that. He proved his point.”