NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The feelings of frustration and disappointment were written all over the faces of players in the Tennessee Titans' locker room after their 33-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's season finale canceled their postseason plans.
The suddenness that comes with an unexpected loss in a "win-and-in" game and with players having to pack their bags doesn't usually give way to thoughts of a bright future. But that wasn't the case as Titans players spoke to the media after their exit interviews Monday. Talk of disappointment that the season was over was quickly followed by an optimistic outlook on the future.
"We got better as a team. As a whole, we got better, and we are growing," Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "We're moving forward and are a much more well-rounded team than we were in previous years."
Added quarterback Marcus Mariota: "It'll be nice to get back into the building and be familiar with everything that is going on. When you look at it, we hit stretches where we played really good football."
A big reason for optimism is how head coach Mike Vrabel has established a blue-collar culture within the organization. Players identify with coaches who are genuine and shoot straight. Vrabel came across as authentic right away and connected with the players.
As a former player, Vrabel had a good feel for how to relate to the guys during his rookie year as a head coach. He knew there were tough conversations to be had but leaned on his experience to guide him in the right direction when it came to addressing things with Titans players.
"I have these conversations with the guys a lot. I was a player for 18 years and at a big-time college program and 14 years in the National Football League. So, I'm always going to probably defer until I coach for 18 years, I'm going to defer closer to being a player," Vrabel said. "But, most importantly, try to be honest. Be honest with the players. Be honest with our staff as far as expectations. That's what I tried to, every day -- just try to be honest, give a clear, concise message, to try to help us win every week."
Safety Kevin Byard credited Vrabel for doing a great job of dealing with the adversity and aggressive calls that did and didn't work. Byard looks forward to seeing how Vrabel will grow as a coach from his rookie experience.
To finish with a 9-7 record despite the loss of key players and having faced seven teams that advanced to the playoffs in 2018 is something to build upon. Multiple people within the building feel there's a different level of excitement because of the energy that Vrabel brought with him to the Titans.
"He has a lot of intensity and a lot of energy," Lewan said. "He's a fun guy to be around and makes you be on your toes at all times. I have a lot of respect for that man. As a player, it was unique and interesting to see him grow as coach this year. I'm proud of it."
"He's very hands-on," running back Derrick Henry said. "He cares about his players and wants to make sure we know what we are doing. He's resilient and very important to what we do."
It is no coincidence that Vrabel's staff includes high-energy guys such as defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs, who goes through his own situp and pushup exercise sessions before every game.
The next step will require Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson to upgrade various roster spots -- pass-rusher, interior offensive line, wide receiver and more. It will take a lot of hard work, but that's the message Vrabel wanted to leave with some of the players he met with during exit interviews.
"My hope is that everyone on our team and our coaching staff, starting with me, would work harder now that we have a job than we would when we didn't have one when we were trying to get into the NFL," Vrabel explained. "I think that's the goal, and hopefully the message for all of us is, 'Can we work harder now that we have a job than when we did when we didn't have one?'"