NASHVILLE, Tenn. — During a mid-August practice on a brutally-hot Nashville evening in 2018, then-first-year Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel appeared to be wasting the time of his players, assistant coaches and the reporters who were in attendance.
The practice, which was held at Nissan Stadium and attended by 7,000 Titans fans, featured slow-motion Hail Marys, squib kickoffs, punting and intentional safeties. It was unquestionably the most unentertaining event to ever take place on that field, and it seemed pointless.
Afterward, Vrabel was, understandably, questioned about the purpose of the event.
“It gives you a great opportunity to look at the scoreboard and understand the situation,” Vrabel said.
“This was about time for us to put the installation away and try to get these special situations covered.”
Vrabel’s situational awareness practice soon became a running joke among reporters covering the Titans, and it seemed like the event would eventually become a distant memory.
Then, in 2019, he did it again.
More punts rolling dead. More intentional safeties. More confusion from spectators.
“I know that you guys love these situation practices,” Vrabel said afterward with extraordinary levels of sarcasm. Some of the reporters present chuckled.
In the 2020 regular season, though, Vrabel had the last laugh about his situational practices, and it was a loud one.
PREPARED FOR CLOSE GAMES
#Titans HC Mike Vrabel: We are not going to apologize for winning 11 games in the National Football League
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) January 4, 2021
Say what you want about Vrabel’s weird situational practices, but one thing is undeniable: they work.
The Titans were, perhaps, the NFL’s most consistent team during the 2020 regular season at winning close games. Of the nine one-score games the Titans played in 2020, they won seven.
What made the Titans so good in tight games?
“It comes down to the players; they believe they’re going to win in those situations,” defensive play-caller Shane Bowen said.
“We go into every game in this league thinking it’s going to be close, because most of them are. Those end of game situations, the two-minute and four-minute, that’s what you’ve got to practice and where you have to be your best.”
There’s certainly something to be said for the fact that, despite having the NFL’s worst pass rush and third-down defense, the Titans almost always get the job done in late-game situations.
This was Mike Vrabel at his best. No point in not at least trying something, here. Worst case scenario is a pick that serves as a de facto punt. “Fast and aggressive” gave the #Titans the W. https://t.co/1MhnkEBehP
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) January 4, 2021
Even with an explosive offense on the other side of the ball, winning seven one-possession games with such a terrible defense is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s a testament to Vrabel’s ability to prepare his team to perform in unique scenarios.
“That stuff starts in the offseason with many conversations that Vrabel and I have,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said. “Vrabel does a good job of putting us in those situations in camp, and you try to practice them as much as you can.
“You get to those situations on Sunday and you’ve talked about them, you’ve repped through them, and Vrabel does a heck of a job with that situational stuff. We’ve been there and we’ve repped it, so it’s not just by chance and you’re wishing and hoping.”
Those efforts go far beyond just the annual Training Camp practice.
“I think it’s also critical to continue them as the season goes on, so that it doesn’t wane,” Vrabel said. “You try to continue to show them clips. They happen every week, whether it be four-minute, two-minute situations that come up.”
All of that work translates into both confidence and comfort for players when they take the field in the fourth quarter, when many of the Titans’ regular-season games were won.
“You definitely feel prepared, you’re ready for the situation,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Whether you’re on offense or defense, guys are locked in, understanding exactly what the time on the clock is, what we’re trying to do.
“Vrabel does a great job with it.”
Some teams who win games despite major flaws seem to have some kind of undefinable “winning” quality. That’s not the case for the Titans, though.
The quality that allows them to win is easily definable. They win close games because of Vrabel and his attention to detail.
What seemed two years ago to be a time-wasting effort by a rookie head coach has proven to be a major difference-maker for a division champion.
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today