NASHVILLE — Covering an NFL team teaches you a variety of uncommon lessons. There was one line, though, after the Tennessee Titans (2-2) beat down of the Atlanta Falcons (1-3) on the road Sunday 24-10 that I could not shake.
“The head coach does not always understand logic.”
That line, delivered before the season started by an NFL executive who shall remain nameless, sticks with me on a daily basis. It rang particularly true in Sunday’s game when, holding onto that same 14-point lead Tennessee would finish with, Titans coach Mike Vrabel opted to run a 4th-and-1 shotgun carry for Derrick Henry. They were sitting at Atlanta’s 10. The field goal attempt, if made, would have widened the margin to three scores and served as a dagger to the opposition.
But Vrabel wanted to stay aggressive.
— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) September 29, 2019
“Just trying to be aggressive,” said Vrabel Sunday. “And, again, we were kind of playing with house money there the way the ball had kind of been bouncing around. I thought our defense was playing great, thought we could really end it there and get going offensively. We didn’t make it. We didn’t end up converting.”
Vrabel’s 4th-and-1 call was the only baffling decision in an otherwise stellar performance. The “bouncing around” the coach referenced was a near fumble by quarterback Marcus Mariota that was ruled an incomplete forward pass and an actual fumble by Mariota that he was able to recover himself. Opting to ride the wave of dumb luck is one thing, putting your lead and the game in jeopardy for the sake of aggression is entirely another.
Aggressive not reckless, Mike. Remember?
In Year 2 of his Tennessee Titans (2-2) tenure, Vrabel’s “Good to Great” mantra has started to fade from the limelight. What we know through four games of the 2019 season is that, when it comes to self-awareness, Tennessee’s coach is good but not yet great.
Coaches, executives in the business world, motivational speakers and the like offer these kinds of sayings as a rallying point for the audience they attempt to convey their messages to. For most normal people, though, these things fall on deaf ears. The cliche of “Good to Great” and its ilk serves as little more than a tool the internet uses to beat the mouthpiece uttering it over the head with when they come up with outputs that are…less than.
That’s when the vultures begin to circle.
What Vrabel did in that moment left the door open for the scavengers and for potential disaster. It will not matter to most, because Tennessee’s defense played exceptionally well and strangled the life out of an already sputtering Falcons offense. And, to be fair, these decisions are made split-second and it is incumbent upon the head coach to be decisive in those moments.
Vrabel cannot be accused of over-hesitation but the resolution he finds in those crucial moments can often leave one scratching their head. The job of an NFL head coach is to tilt the probabilities in your team’s favor when your league is so successfully built for talent parity. Vrabel can and has accomplished that feat several times.
But we’ve seen his in-game emotions hinder him on occasion and once again on Sunday.
— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) September 30, 2019
“I think that if given the opportunity, I think probably the proper decision not knowing if you’re going to get it is to go up three scores,” said Vrabel Monday afternoon in his Atlanta recap press conference at Saint Thomas Sports Park. “That’s how it goes, you make a decision that’s decisive. Again, I always think we’re going to get it when we go for it. If I get the chance to do it again like everybody else, just be better and go up three scores. I just wanted to try to put the game away.”
You should believe Vrabel’s genuineness when he expresses his confidence in the Titans’ ability to convert and he should get credit for owning up to it; it is more than most coaches would do even if they know they have erred.
The self-awareness to recognize the mistake and acknowledge it after the fact is what good coaches do. Removing yourself from the emotional rush in the moment and avoiding the misstep altogether is what makes a coach great.
Featured Image: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports.