The Tennessee Titans didn’t break any records during their 20-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday but they did make some NFL playoff history.
Down 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, the Titans offense started a series at its own 42-yard line after Ravens kicker Justin Tucker had pushed wide a 52-yard field goal. A few plays later, the Titans moved past midfield and then booked Derrick Henry’s longest run of the day, a first-down gain of eight yards. But two incomplete Ryan Tannehill passes later, Titans coach Mike Vrabel chose to punt the ball.
“... we were playing well defensively,” Vrabel said of the call. “[I] thought we would get a punt inside the 10 and able to play the field position game. It’s just that we were playing against a kicker ... that kicks them from the 40. After that, it becomes a field position battle, and I thought we’d get a stop and hit them inside the 10.”
Per ProFootballReference, Vrabel’s call marked the first time (going back to at least 1994) that a team down a single score had punted facing a fourth-quarter fourth-and-two while positioned in its opponent’s half of the field. Other analytics indicators suggested the punt call was among the most conservative in the NFL in more than a decade and severely hurt the Titans’ probability of winning.
The call puzzled and shocked fans and other onlookers. In his time leading the Titans, Vrabel has — with help from offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is a leading candidate to land a head coaching job in the offseason — regularly made daring calls, including on key fourth-down situations. And after a strong start Sunday, the Titans had struggled to move the ball while quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens had been effective after their first two possessions had resulted in a punt and an interception. Jackson would finish the day with 136 yards rushing and the Ravens put up 401 yards of offense compared to Tennessee’s 209.
After the game, Henry — who would’ve been a prime candidate to be given the ball on a fourth-and-2 attempt — backed his coaches.
“Art always does what’s best for the team and puts us in the best position to win the game,” he said. “He called what he called, and we all believed in it and we came up short. It’s just a team effort.”
The 2020 Titans finished with a 1,000-yard receiver and a 2,000-yard running back and it doesn’t look like A.J. Brown and Henry will be going anywhere else soon. The team’s 3-13 seasons are a long-ago memory and Vrabel has tallied a 29-19 regular-season record, primarily on the back of his powerful offense. Despite his professed faith in his defense Sunday, not calling on that attack to gain those two yards will long feel like a massive missed chance to possible have advanced in this year’s playoffs.