A year and a half ago, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said he would cut off his own penis if it meant his team would win the Super Bowl. This postseason, he wasn’t even willing to gamble with a handful of fourth downs. Vrabel’s Titans were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday with a 20-13 wild-card loss to the Ravens, and Tennessee’s questionable decision-making was a major reason why.
The biggest miscue—and the one that may have given the entire game away—occurred with 10:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Titans, who were trailing by four points, had driven down to the Ravens’ 40-yard line. After a pair of incomplete passes from Ryan Tannehill, they faced a fourth-and-2 and were in the NFL’s no-man’s-land. It was too far to kick a field goal, and a punt could have easily resulted in a touchback, which would have netted the team just a paltry 20 yards of field position. The obvious decision—especially when needing a touchdown—was to go for it. But the Titans punted, and Baltimore called for a fair catch at the 15, for a flip of just 25 yards.
Given the stakes, this was the worst punt decision of the season. One analytics model—from The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin—said the decision cost the Titans 7.9 percentage points in win probability. Another—from Edj Sports—had that number at 14 percentage points.
---> BAL (17) @ TEN (13) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 10, 2021
TEN has 4th & 2 at the BAL 40
Recommendation (VERY STRONG): Go for it (+7.9 WP)
Actual play: B.Kern punts 25 yards to BLT 15, Center-M.Overton, fair catch by D.Duvernay. pic.twitter.com/jOnBdWPgVp
This was the first time since at least 1994 that a team punted on fourth-and-2 from the 40 in a playoff game while down by one score in the fourth quarter, per Pro Football Reference. That’s a rather specific scenario, but given how much more aggressive the NFL has become on fourth downs in recent years, it’s still a stunning decision. Jon Bois’s surrender index—a cheeky way to measure the cowardice of punts—put this decision in the 99.92nd percentile of cowardice for all punts since 2009. It’s in the 100th percentile for most cowardly punts this season.
“Just decided to punt,” Vrabel explained after the game. “We were playing well defensively, thought we would get a punt inside the 10 and be able to play the field position game.”
This wasn’t even the only terrible punt decision by the Titans in this game. Two drives before, with Tennessee down seven and facing a fourth-and-2 from their own 44-yard line, Vrabel also decided to punt. That choice cost the Titans 3.1 percentage points in win probability, per Baldwin’s model.
But even after those two punts, the Titans weren’t done shooting themselves in the foot. Following a questionable offensive pass interference call on the Ravens, Tennessee got the ball back with 4:13 left in the game and down seven points. The Titans had all three timeouts and plenty of time to engineer a dramatic, game-tying drive. Instead, Tennessee’s offense was lethargic. Three of their first four plays were rushes, and the fourth was a dump-off pass to Derrick Henry that gained 6 yards. That all kept the clock moving, and by the time the two-minute warning sounded, Tennessee had moved just 16 yards (to their own 37-yard line).
Still, the Titans would have had time to find the end zone, but Tannehill threw an uncharacteristic interception (intended target Kalif Raymond fell down) and that all but sealed the win for Baltimore:
At points, it felt like this game was ripe for the Titans’ taking. They got off to a fast start when the officials missed blatant offensive pass interference on A.J. Brown’s first-quarter touchdown, then pushed the lead to 10-0 shortly after—a deficit that Lamar Jackson had never overcome in his NFL career. In the fourth quarter, a questionable offensive pass interference call against the Ravens robbed Baltimore of the chance to deliver the knockout blow, and the Titans stayed within striking distance.
The punts weren’t the only problem, of course. The Ravens defense shut down Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher, holding him to 40 yards on 18 carries. And Tannehill threw for just 165 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on 26 pass attempts. Tennessee scored 10 points in the first quarter, then three points for the rest of the game as Baltimore’s defense allowed Jackson and Co. to engineer a rare comeback. Even with that poor performance, though, the Titans would have had a chance—they just punted it away.