The Titans knocked off the defending champs, 26-23 in overtime, with a bit of aggressiveness straight out of the Eagles’ playbook. On the winning drive, Tennessee marched 75 yards in 16 plays, converting on three different fourth downs along the way. The third of the three will go down as an early signature call of head coach Mike Vrabel’s rookie year, and in the moment, he confused just about everyone.
Down three in OT, facing a fourth-and-2 from the Eagles’ 32 with 1:17 left, Vrabel sent out his field goal unit. It would have been a 50-yarder to tie the game; not a gimme kick, and a miss would have given Philadelphia the win.
Titans offensive players on the sideline, including RB Dion Lewis, were imploring Vrabel to go for it. “Relax,” he told them, “the offense is going back out.”
Indeed, Vrabel revealed afterward that he knew all along how he was going to play this. He knew he was going to call a timeout before the play, so his offense wouldn’t be rushed or panicked, and he knew that he was going to initially send out the FG unit in order to not alert the Eagles that he would be going for it on fourth down.
He didn’t tell his FG unit this, to maintain the verisimilitude. “I was ready to hit the kick,” Ryan Succop said, “and all of a sudden we called timeout.”
Every part of the maneuver worked. When Tennessee’s offense trotted onto the field, Philadelphia was unprepared, and had to use its final timeout. Then, the play itself, a screen pass to Dion Lewis that went for 17 yards.
Three plays later, Marcus Mariota found Corey Davis in the end zone for the win.
Vrabel, speaking to Peter King, acknowledged that he’s picked the brain of Eagles coach Doug Pederson, and one of the things he’s come away with is an appreciation for the sort of aggressiveness that served Pederson so well, especially in the Super Bowl.
“I think people are more conscious of making [risky] decisions like this than ever before,” Vrabel said. “I studied Philadelphia a lot this offseason. Doug is the gold standard when it comes to making bold moves like this. We talked at the owners’ meetings and I’ve called him a few times about things. I’m lucky he’s been approachable about some of the things he does. So I’ve done a few things.”
Bold decisions like Vrabel’s, and that of Colts coach Frank Reich’s even riskier call to go for it on fourth down in his own territory rather than punt and accept a tie (Reich also cited Pederson’s example), feel like they’re becoming more common in the NFL, and that’s absolutely a good thing. Even setting as the pure strategic angle of going for it—teams should, statistically, go for it on fourth down far more often than they do—it’s way more fun.
Teams have been getting smarter about going for it in the last couple of years, and it’s been led by a new guard of coaches, including Pederson, Sean McVay, and now Vrabel and Reich. The thing always standing in the way has been the knowledge that playing it safe is good for job security: gamble and lose, and everyone remembers. But the outcome, good or bad, depends on the players, as Vrabel pointed out yesterday, and the outcome shouldn’t influence the analysis of whether the initial decision was sound or not. The circumstances were different, but if you liked what Vrabel did, you should probably approve of Reich’s call too.
And what of that fear of failure? It’s on ownership to allay coaches’ misgivings about being held responsible for a wise decision that just didn’t work out, something the NFL finally might be coming around to. Vrabel said he wasn’t even thinking about the criticism that would have awaited him had the Titans not converted; it wouldn’t have been anything new. “I get criticized a lot,” he joked.