Analytics: Vrabel's Fourth-Down Call was Wild Card Weekend's Worse

The numbers show the choice to punt rather than attempt a fourth-and-2 dramatically decreased the Titans' chance to win.
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NASHVILLE – In real time, Mike Vrabel’s decision to punt with just over 10 minutes to play Sunday was not well-received, if the boos from the fans at Nissan Stadium were any indication, that is.

And now that some time has passed? Still not good.

The sports analytics website EdjSports determined it was the worst decision that any NFL head coach made during wild card weekend, and recent history shows it is a choice no NFL head coach has made in the last few years.

To recap: The Titans trailed the Baltimore Ravens 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. Faced with a fourth-and-2 at the Ravens’ 40, the typically aggressive Vrabel elected to punt, which gave the ball back to Baltimore at its own 15.

Tennessee’s defense limited the Ravens to a field goal, which kept the margin within one score (seven points), but the offense failed to score the necessary points in the one possession it had after that call.

“We felt like we’d get a stop, felt like we’d get the ball back and score,” Vrabel said Monday. “They hit a couple plays. We held them to a field goal and had an opportunity there at the end. Went and made a decision and went with it and tried to be as decisive as we could, but we lost the game. There's a lot of those decisions that come up throughout the game.”

The NFL on CBS reported that over the past four seasons there have been 76 times when a team trailed in the fourth quarter and faced a fourth-and-2 between midfield and the opponent’s 35-yard line. In 75 of those cases, the decision was made to go for it. Vrabel was the only one who punted.

According to EdjSports, that choice decreased Tennessee’s already-unfavorable chances to win by 13.7 percent, from 36.6 to 22.9 percent. A perfect punt, one that would have pinned the Ravens at their own 1-yard line, would have given the Titans a 25.4 percent chance at victory while a conversion with a gain of two yards would have improved the possibilities for victory to 42.1 percent.

So, even the minimum required gain would have provided a 16.7 percent better chance at victory than a perfect punt would have. Of course, a failed fourth-down attempt would have lessened the likelihood of victory, but on the risk-reward spectrum that is such a part of sports these days, that is a relative no-brainer.

Based on EdjSports’ data, Vrabel made the seventh biggest fourth-down error of the season and one of three double-digit errors by a coach in the last four postseasons.

It should be noted that the play that immediately preceded the questionable call was one of the most impactful of the weekend as well. On third-and-2, Ryan Tannehill threw incomplete to Jonnu Smith, which immediately reduced Tennessee’s chance for victory by 16 percent.

It is also worth noting that Vrabel elected to punt on another fourth-and-2 during the contest. That one came with 5:16 to play in the third quarter with the Titans behind by seven (17-10) and the ball at their own 44. That, according to EdjSports, was the weekend’s second-worst fourth-down decision and decreased the chances for victory by 6.6 percent.

“You try to get a feel for the game and see how things are going,” Vrabel said. “We've made decisions that have worked out. That was the one we went with. Again, second guess? Yeah, we always second guess everything that we do that doesn't work out. We lost the game. That's our charge is to find out why, and question everything that we do when we don't win. That's no different than any other situation.”

In this case, it seems fair to say that most – if not all – other coaches would have done things differently.