NASHVILLE – Mike Vrabel relies heavily on the notion that players win games and coaches lose them.
He stuck to that philosophy Monday, the day after his Tennessee Titans lost 27-24 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the Titans’ first loss of the season.
“It's always going to be when we play well, it will be the players that determine the outcome,” Vrabel said Monday.
The outcome was not what he wanted, but Vrabel did his part to help the Titans win. According to the athletics analytics website EdjSports, he actually enhanced his team’s chances in the matchup between the AFC’s only remaining unbeaten teams with a couple of his fourth quarter decisions.
First, with the Titans behind by 10 points (27-17) with 10:19 to play, Vrabel elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 rather than attempt a short field goal that would have made it a one-score game. The Steelers were called for defensive pass interference on the play, and on the next snap Derrick Henry scored on a 1-yard touchdown run.
EdjSports’ analysis determined that the decision to kick would have meant an 11.9 percent chance for Tennessee to win at that time. The decision to go for it improved the chance for victory to 18.1 percent, a difference of 6.2 percent in the Titans’ favor.
Based on the numbers, no other NFL coach made a single call on Sunday that improved his team’s opportunity for success as much.
The second-best call, according to EdjSports, came from Seattle’s Pete Carroll, who went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Arizona 3 with 6:50 to play and his team ahead by three points. That choice improved the Seahawks’ chances 4.9 percent in a game they ultimately lost.
EdjSports also highlighted Vrabel’s choice to accept an offensive pass interference penalty against the Steelers, which made it third-and-12 from the Tennessee 19 with 2:40 to go rather than fourth-and-1. Safety Amani Hooker intercepted a pass on the next play, which gave the ball to the offense and ultimately led to Stephen Gostkowski’s unsuccessful game-tying field goal attempt with 19 seconds remaining.
“I was talking to [referee] Shawn [Hochuli] there, he told me it was going to be fourth [down], and I said, ‘It's going to be really short,’ and he said, ‘Yep,’” Vrabel said. “I thought that just kind of having watched Pittsburgh and their philosophy that they probably would have gone for it. I felt like at that point in time, backing them up would have been the right thing to do.”
Analytics agreed. From EdjSports’ Week 7 analysis:
The Titans trailed the Steelers by three, and Pittsburgh faced 3rd and 2 at the Tennessee 9-yard line, giving the Titans 14.2% GWC. The Steelers gained one yard setting up 4th and 1, however, there was an offensive pass interference penalty on Pittsburgh. Vrabel chose to accept the penalty, giving Pittsburgh 3rd and 12 on the 19-yard line, increasing Tennessee’s GWC to 22.3%. Had Vrabel declined the penalty, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would have had a decision to make: go for it on 4th and 1 (Titans GWC 10.2%) or kick a field goal (Titans GWC 28.0%). Vrabel must have expected Tomlin to go for it and made the correct call to accept the penalty. The interception on the next play increased the Titans’ GWC by 14.7%.
In his first two seasons as an NFL head coach, Vrabel has taken some heat for his decision-making.
Increasingly, though, he has started to build a reputation as a coach who gets the most out of every game and gives his team every opportunity to win. The NFL even implemented a rule change during the offseason based on his ability to manipulate the clock.
He likes to say that any loss is on the coaches. In this case, it simply is not true.