NASHVILLE – After a season and a half – the last two weeks, especially – Mike Vrabel’s guiding philosophy is abundantly clear.
Make no mistake: He is not trying to figure it out as he goes. He most certainly is not flying by the seat of his pants. The second-year Tennessee Titans head coach has a deeply rooted ideology that influences his decisions in critical moments. Of course, there are times it also has people scratching their heads, as was the case Sunday when he called for a fake field goal with just under four minutes to play.
It's simple really. Vrabel looks for a moment in each game that he thinks can ensure victory. Then he tries to seize it.
Consider the latest example. The Titans led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by four and had a chance to attempt a 46-yard field goal, which would have extended the lead to seven. To many, that was a no-brainer – put your team ahead by a touchdown and dare the Buccaneers to get to the end zone against one of the NFL’s better defenses.
Vrabel saw it differently. To his way of thinking, that was a chance to keep the ball, continue all the way to the end zone and push the advantage to 11 points, which at that point would have been virtually insurmountable. He did not want to give Jameis Winston and Co. any chance to even think about overtime.
It was the same thing a week earlier when he elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 against the Los Angeles Chargers rather than try to protect a three-point lead by punting and pinning them deep in their own end. It’s also why he went for two rather than kick a game-tying PAT with 31 seconds to play against the Chargers last year in London. There are plenty of other examples in the 24 games he has coached as well.
To reiterate: If possible, Vrabel would rather not wait until the end of the game to check the scoreboard. He wants to be able to declare victory – in his own head, at least – as soon as possible, whenever that might be in a given contest.
He makes no secret of it either. Almost every time he is asked about a seemingly dubious decision, he begins with the assertion that “we were trying to win the game” or something of the like. Sunday was no different.
“We want to go win the football game,” was how he started his explanation of the fake field goal, which didn’t work, by the way.
It’s not wrong. It’s not ground-breaking. It’s just different.
For years, Jeff Fisher considered it his job to give his team the best possible chance to win at every moment. He was loath to ever consider letting one play settle the issue. Fans eventually grew restless and uncomfortable with his conservative approach, but it was difficult to argue with his record in close games. From 1999-2008 (a stretch that included six playoff appearances) the Titans won 60 percent of those decided by three points or fewer (24 out of 40) and 63 percent decided by seven points or fewer (44 of 70). In their Super Bowl season of 1999, they were 5-1 in games decided by no more than three points.
Vrabel, thus far, is just 4-3 when the final margin is three points or less, 6-5 when it is seven or less. Not bad. But not the kind of thing that sets your team apart in a relentlessly competitive league. For example, the winning margin in half of Sunday’s 12 afternoon contests was no more than a touchdown.
That’s not to say it won’t – or can’t – get better. Bill Belichick has a reputation for the same type of approach and things have worked out pretty well for him. And it’s no secret that Vrabel has his job because those in charge of the Titans want as much of New England’s thinking as possible in their organization.
The Vrabel way did not work the last two weeks, but it worked out. The Titans failed to convert in what their coach considered the critical moments. As a result, some serious drama ensued before they finally walked off victorious.
Rest assured, that won’t alter his mindset. He’ll keep looking for chances to put away opponents and making the bold calls he thinks will do the trick.
Remember back in April when he challenged his team to go from “good to great” and snap a string of three straight 9-7 seasons? Ever since, fans and media have looked for signs that they are on their way. Now we know where to look.
When his team finally starts to make the most of those moments Vrabel sees as so critical, everyone will know it is on its way. Plus, it will start making his calls look good.