Analytics aren’t infallible, just as gut reactions aren’t always the way to go. The smartest teams are able to balance both, just as they’re able to balance different schematic approaches based on the situation and the opponent. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel has been one of the NFL’s more successful head coaches since he took the job in 2018 — he’s 29-19 in the regular season, and 2-1 in the postseason, including Tennessee’s shocking 28-12 divisional round upset on January 11, 2020.
364 days later, Vrabel was on the wrong side of that result, as the Ravens took revenge with their 20-13 wild-card win. Like all other NFL coaches, Vrabel has been asked about analytics and how he might like to use them, and in Vrabel’s case, it’s easy to tell that he’s more of a “gut feeling” guy.
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) January 27, 2018
“When those numbers and my instincts are in alignment, then that’s when you use the numbers” is an interesting construct, especially after what Vrabel did in the Titans’ Sunday loss. His decision to punt the ball back to Baltimore in the fourth quarter from his own 40-yard line has been pilloried since it happened, and there are several reasons why.
Baltimore’s previous drive ended with Justin Tucker, the generally automatic kicker, missing a 52-yard field goal attempt with 12:16 left in the game. At that point, the Titans had a Win Probability of 32.45%, per NumberFire. Tennessee took over at its own 42yard line, and started with a Derrick Henry run for no gain. Then, a Ryan Tannehill pass to A.J. Brown for 10 yards. Then, Henry over left tackle for eight yards. Then, two Tannehill incompletions, which set up fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 40-yard line, and the decision was made to have Brett Kern punt — a 25-yarder that pinned the Ravens at their own 15-yard line with 10:00 left in the game.
After that punt, the Titans’ Win Probability had dropped to 21.03%, and that was the highest it would be for the rest of the game. Henry was certainly limited in the game due to the Ravens stacking the box against him — he gained 40 yards on 18 carries with that eight-yarder as his longest — but it still has to be seen as a highly suspect decision, down 17-13 and with the NFL’s best running back on your roster, to give up in that instance.
“There are a lot of things you can second-guess,” Vrabel said after. “We felt confident about being in a one-score game, and this put us in position to do that, and we just weren’t able to pull it out.”
Per Football Outsiders, the Titans ranked 10th in the league this season in percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. In those situations, Tennessee was able to convert 71% of the time. Now, the Ravens did rank second in defensive power success rate, limiting conversions in these situations to 55% — only the Eagles were better at 51%. But if you look at Baltimore’s defensive trends in the second half of the regular season, they fell from second to 24th in run defense DVOA. Getting Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell back on the line certainly helped Baltimore’s run defense in this game, but the percentages still weighed in the Titans’ favor.
So, maybe you can “pull it out” in a one-score game, and maybe there are times when you should at least be aware of the odds before bailing and moving on. Vrabel now has the entire offseason to consider the ramifications.
As Nick Hornby wrote in the novel and movie “High Fidelity…”
“I’ve been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have [expletive] for brains.”
And that’s why analytics are useful. Because no matter the situation, and no matter how smart the shot-caller, sometimes our guts have [expletive] for brains.