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Somehow, Stephen Gostkowski Isn’t the Scapegoat of Broncos-Titans

Denver head coach Vic Fangio’s questionable clock management took the spotlight as the veteran kicker finally made a kick after missing four attempts

Tennessee Titans v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Tennessee kicker Stephen Gostkowski pulled off a minor miracle in not becoming the scapegoat for the Week 1 Monday Night Football matchup between the Titans and Broncos. The former Patriots kicker somehow missed three consecutive field goal attempts and an extra point, a feat so monstrously improbable that it takes two decimal digits to illustrate:

But not only did the Titans hold on to win, 16-14, but Gostkowski became the hero, booting through a 25-yard field goal with 17 seconds left to give his team the two-point lead. It was then that the spotlight crossed the sideline to Broncos coach Vic Fangio, whose late-game clock management caused Denver to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

As the Titans traveled down the field with a one-point deficit and the game clock dwindling, Fangio was content to let Tennessee run down the clock. With a full three timeouts in his pocket after the two-minute warning, Fangio watched as the Titans ticked 17 seconds off the clock after a completion on first-and-10 with 1:50 to go, then another 46 seconds after a 13-yard Derrick Henry run. After a 4-yard Henry run that put the Titans on Denver’s 12-yard line, it was Tennessee that called a timeout with 31 seconds left. The Titans were able to get the clock all the way down to 0:20 before Gotskowski finally made a field goal to give his team the lead, and the Broncos took the field with all three timeouts … but only 17 seconds with which to use them. The game was all but over.

There would have been little downside for Fangio to use his timeouts once Tennessee got within knocking distance of scoring. At that point, Denver needed to stop the clock to give Drew Lock and the Denver offense as much time as possible to mount a comeback. If the Titans failed to convert, then it would still be simple for the Broncos to burn the remaining seconds off the clock—or punt it and leave Tennessee in a disadvantageous position. Instead, all they managed to do was take two timeouts home with them.

It is remarkable that the Titans’ continued kicking woes are not the main story emerging from the second game in MNF’s double-header. In 2019, the Titans were arguably the most cursed kicking team in NFL history. Last season, Tennessee attempted just 18 field goals and made only eight of them. That 44.4 percent success rate made the Titans the first team to make less than 50 percent of their field goal attempts since 1987. The Titans were so bad, they almost single-handedly caused a regression in the league’s average kicking stats. The Titans went from October 27 all the way to January 19 with just one made field goal. In between those dates, Tennessee was 1-for-6 despite not attempting a field goal in eight of their 11 games in that stretch.

The Titans could not have bought a field goal—and they tried. They rotated through four different kickers last season, but no matter what they tried, they did not find success. Cairo Santos went 0-for-4 in Week 5, costing Tennessee a potential win against Buffalo, and the Titans cut him the next day. They brought in Cody Parkey—he of double-doink fame—and Parkey knocked an extra point off an upright. When preseason starter Ryan Succop healed from an injury, he came back into the lineup … and went 1-for-6 over six weeks until the Titans placed him on injured reserve. Tennessee brought Greg Joseph in off Carolina’s practice squad but didn’t even let him kick. He went four straight games without a field goal attempt until Mike Vrabel mercifully let him boot through a 30-yarder at the beginning of the AFC championship game.

Gostkowski isn’t one of those above guys, though. He came into the night 15th in total field goals made all time (with 374), and fifth in field goal percentage (87.4 percent), though he’ll drop to seventh with his one-of-four performance. And he’s plenty used to high-pressure situations, coming in tied for second all time in postseason field goals (39). But Gostkowski struggled some last season, missing four of 15 extra points (though he was 7-for-8 on field goals) before the Patriots placed him on injured reserve with a hip injury that required offseason surgery. Still, Gostkowski was supposed to solve the Titans’ kicking issues. Instead, on Monday, he only added to them.

Last year, Tennessee didn’t need field goals to win. The Titans fielded the league’s best red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on a whopping 75.2 percent of their red zone possessions. To put that number in perspective, the Ravens were second with a 67.2 percent red zone conversion rate. In short, it’s not likely to be sustainable—the Titans need to be able to make some kicks. To that end, the Titans need Gostkowski to show that he was just kicking off some rust in this game, or they’ll once again be on the kicker carousel.

The Broncos, meanwhile, came into 2019 with high hopes that already appear to be slipping away. Injuries are piling up: Von Miller could miss the entire season, Courtland Sutton missed Week 1, and A.J. Bouye and Philip Lindsay both left this game early. A Week 1 win against a 2019 playoff squad would have set a new tone for a team that is trying to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015. The Broncos nearly got it—they just ran out of time.