The Tennessee Titans began the season with a solid looking win at Kansas City in week 1, outscoring the Chiefs (26-10), and looking like the better team.
Since then, as a 13 point underdog the Chiefs lost at super team Denver by a touchdown, getting got stopped 2 yards shy of tying the game with 18 seconds left; mowed down Miami 35-14 in the heat; demolished New England 41-14 on Monday Night Football; and lost in a close battle last weekend at three time defending NFC Champion San Francisco, 22-17.
The Titans, meanwhile, fell apart – losing 26-10 to Dallas at home and then getting thrashed 33-7 and 41-17 in consecutive road games at Cincinnati and Indianapolis – before returning home to face the Cleveland Browns in week five. Where, in turn, they worked up to a commanding 28-3 lead by shortly before the half. And ultimately lost the game. By a single point. 29-28. In the process they gave up the largest road comeback win in NFL history.
Under perennial solid defensive coordinator and first year head coach Mike Pettine, the Browns have not only played with intensity, they seem to like – or at least be good at – coming back from deficits.
Entering the 2014 season, Pittsburgh Steeler QB Ben Rothlisberger’s lifetime record against the Browns was an astounding 17-1. Cleveland opened this season at home against Pittsburgh, and true to form, found themselves being demolished 27-3 by halftime. And it wasn’t due to a horde of ill timed penalties and strange turnovers and the like, but Pittsburgh dominance.
Yet the Browns came out in the second half and made up the entire deficit, tying the game 27-27, before losing by a field goal on the last play of the game. (This weekend, week 6, they host the Rothlissteelersbergers, and might be able to finally put a small dent in that now near incredible 18-1 record “Big Ben”has against them. [Update: They did, demolishing them in perhaps the Steelers worst game of the year])
In week two the Browns drove 85 yards from their 4 to kick a 29 field goal with 6 seconds remaining, to pull out a 2 point win (26-24) as underdogs against the New Orleans Saints.
In week 3 the game also came down to the Wire, as early in the 4th quarter against division opponent Baltimore, the Browns hit the upright on a 50 yard field goal try, then had a 36 yard try blocked, then gave up a field goal from the 3 with 5 minutes remaining, and lost at the end to another short field goal, 23-21.
With the 29-28 win in week 5 at Tennessee after their bye, the total combined win or loss margin in the four Browns games, in an NFL season of blowouts, has been 8 points; or 2 per game.
How did the Titans blow a 25 point lead?
While Tennessee outplayed the Browns in the first half, they had three very fortunate penalties – two keeping drives alive and a third creating a 3rd and short, that changed point outcomes dramatically.
The first was a 29 yard pass interference with 6:13 left in the 1st quarter, on 3rd and 8 on a ball that likely would have fallen incomplete, negating an assured punt from the Cleveland 47, and instead putting Tennessee at the Cleveland 18 where the Titans went on to score the TD. Apart from the 18 tough yards they did gain, it was a pure 7 point addition.
The next came with 14:54 left in the 2nd quarter where an offsides made it 3rd and 2 from the 11 instead of 3rd and 7 from the 16. And Tennessee scored a TD on the next play.
The third came at 4:04 left in the 2nd quarter, where an incomplete on a 3rd and 7 from outside the Cleveland 21 was turned from a 4th down field goal try for the Titans into a 1st and 10 at the Cleveland 11 on a defensive holding call (which was declined) and a roughing the passer call. Tennessee went on to score a TD, amounting to another four point swing.
The Browns scored a late first half TD to close the gap to 28-10. But – what’s remarkable – despite getting stopped on two of two 4th down try attempts in the second half (including one at the Titans 4 yard line), the Browns still went on to win.
The second half was one of the most fascinating halves of football yet played this season. It even even featured a somewhat unusual, yet spot on correct, late game strategy call by the Titans after a remarkably ill played 3rd down completion failed to net the Titans a 1st down in what would otherwise have likely won the game for the Titans.
This is how Tennessee lost:
After the injury to quarterback Jake Locker late in the 1st half, Backup QB Charlie Whitehurst played the duration of the game. He was largely accurate with his throws, but at times looked indecisive; and his lack of mobility, in stark contrast with Locker, made a large different down the stretch.
Second, although it was a hard fought football game by both teams, Cleveland simply outplayed Tennessee in the second half, bottling up the Titans on defense – holding them scoreless for the remainder of the game – and moving the ball well on offense.
But while the Titans had benefited from penalties in the first half, it was the Browns who did so in the second. Big time. Cleveland came into the came without having turned the ball over yet this season, and turned the ball over 3 times in the second half alone.
Or, that is, at least they at first appeared to. For two of the three would be turnovers were negated by penalties, and both would have really hurt the Browns. And the third turnover, on a smart decision by QB Brian Hoyer, very slightly helped the Browns!.
The first of the negated turnovers was remarkable. Trailing 28-13 with 1:48 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin – who otherwise played a solid game – muffed a fair catch on a Titan punt, and it was recovered at the Cleveland 28!
With even a few yards of advancement, and a field goal to go up by 18 points, or 3 scores, 31-13, this likely would have put the game out of reach. (And as the game played out, would have likely changed the outcome on its own.) But Titans rookie Marqueston Huff was pushed out of bounds early in the play, and rather remarkably and very clearly ran straight down the sidelines out of bounds for several yards before finally turning back into the field of play.
Huff was actually the Titan who recovered the muffed punt as well. But unfortunately for him and the Titans not making an effort to return back into the field of play after being pushed out of bounds during a punt is an automatic unsportsmanlike penalty on the play itself, good for a replay of 4th down, and 15 yards awarded to the opponent.
So instead of taking over inside of the Browns 30 yard line very late in the 3rd quarter with a 15 point lead already, the Titans had to re-punt the ball from their own 14 (giving the Browns good field position out at the 41, to boot).
The second Browns turnover that was also penalized out of existence, similarly had a large impact on the game. With 10:03 left to go – and now, in yet another key oddity, trailing now not by 15 but by 13 – the Browns were to line up and run not 1, but 3 straight 2nd and 9 plays from just shy of the midfield line.
On the first of these, a short incomplete left, Brandon Harris was called for defensive pass interference, while Browns Tight End Jordan Cameron was called for offensive holding. The penalties offset, and the Browns repeated the down.
On the second try, Hoyer – who had gone near 170 pass plays without throwing an interception – expecting receiver Andrew Hawkins to stay put, didn’t compensate in time as Hawkins instead darted right, leaving cornerback Jason McCourty free to make a diving pick; then pick himself – up off the turf, that is – and return the ball all the way down to the Browns 1 yard line, where the Titans would have had a 1st and goal from the 1, already up by 13 points.
But it was not to be. Perhaps, for some, the NFL is somewhat ruining the game by constraining defensive backs too much. And this game was more than filled with its share of defensive coverage penalties, as this play churned out yet another one, as Brandon Harris was again called – this time for illegal contact – and the play was nullified.
Instead of starting out 5 yards upfield with a new first down however, the down was re played, as after the turnover, Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, and Titan outside linebacker Derrick Morgan were both called for unnecessary roughness – Morgan was in fact ejected from the game – and the penalties offset; nullifying the 5 yard and automatic first down result from the illegal contact, and causing a replay of the down.
The third Brown turnover of the game – the only one that counted, and thus their first official turnover of the season – actually benefited the Browns slightly; or at least did so versus an incomplete pass. On 3rd and 10 with little chance of making the first down, under heavy pressure, Hoyer reared up and threw deep downfield into single coverage. Safety Michael Griffin had a better shot at the ball than receiver Andrew Hawkins, and Griffin intercepted the ball, being touched down at the 22 yard line.
Had the ball fallen incomplete, the Browns would have punted on 4th and 10 from their own 33 yard line. The interception caused the same end result, and netted them a total of 45 yards of field position on the play, a little more than the Browns, on average, could have expected from a punt.
But perhaps the most relevant series of the game is what happened on the Cleveland drive prior to the one that ended in Hoyer”s first official “pick,” and the Browns first turnover, of the young season.
With still 12:54 to play, the Browns had driven 55 yards down to the Titans 4 yard line. (This is the drive that was gifted to Cleveland after Travis Benjamin muffed and lost the punt to one Marqueston Huff, who had also improvidently gallivanted down the sidelines out of bounds, drawing the unsportsmanlike penalty, offsetting the muff, moving the Titans even further backward, and causing a re kick.)
with 19:14 total left to play, and also still trailing 28-13, the Browns decided to for the first down conversion on 4th and 3 from the Titans 22.
It was an admirable call because teams in the NFL repeatedly err on the side of giving up possession of the ball far too easily on 4th down. Here, however, it was a closer call strategically than it may seem given the particular score gap remaining in the game.
The reason the call was made was likely because the Browns were “within 2 scores.” But a 15 point “two score gap” deficit is misleading. In the event the Browns were to the score the necessary two TDs to close the gap, they would still only win about 1/4 of the time.
This is because in order to win they would need to both make a two point conversion just to be able to force a tie, and then win in overtime. Both carry approximately a 50% chance of success. So the Browns chance of achieving both would be .5 x .5, or .25. Thus of the times the Browns scored two TDs, the browns would actually win one quarter (approximately) of those times.
If however they kicked the field goal and made it a 12 point, but still “two score” game, they would win all of the time they scored a net of two more TDs over their opponent.
So the field goal, even though it would keep the game a “two score gap” game, had relevant value here. Also, while it wasn’t a bad place on the field to go for the conversion, with 3 yards to for the 1st down it wasn’t a great place either. If they made the conversion, the Browns would be at the 19 yard line or better. Good, but still facing the toughest yards on the field, and still nearly two full first down lengths from a TD.
The Browns were stopped on their try. The Titans then had yet another 3 and out, then punted, and then had to re kick the punt after they recovered the muffed punt due to the aforementioned staying out of bounds penalty. After the re-kick the Browns, still trailing by that large 15 point margin, drove down to the 4, where they faced another 4th and 3.
This 4th down attempt was a more lopsided Call. And if the earlier call was correct (which it may not have been) kicking a field goal here would have been ridiculous, since making the first down here would all but assure them of the TD. (They would either score on the conversion, or be at the 1 yard line or even closer to the goal line, with four more shots at the TD.)
But Cleveland was stopped on a nice defensive play by nose tackle Sammie Hill, who waited out a Hoyer pump fake and then jumped and knocked down the pass.
So, to recap: The Browns, who once trailed by 25 points in this game, go on to get stopped on two crucial 4th and reasonably short plays – thus turning the ball over on downs without scoring both times – and still came back to win this game.
And it’s what happened a few plays later – much more valuable than a field goal here for the Browns – after the second of these two stops, that made the key difference.
Tennessee, which barely moved the ball in the second half, picked up about 8 yards after the stop of the Browns from the 4, and then punted from their 12 yard line, with 11:08 remaining, still leading by 15.
But the punt was blocked! Recovered in the end zone by Cleveland it would be a full 7 points. Instead it went through the end zone, giving them a Safety, and only 2 points. But that Safety accomplished two critical things simultaneously.
First, it lowered the score gap to 13 points. At this point in the game there was almost no difference between a 13 or 12 point deficit. Two TDs would win it for Cleveland (leaving them, in both cases, vulnerable to a last second field goal by Tennessee if they wound up leaving time on the clock) in either case. But the difference between 12 or 13 points,, and 15 points, as noted above, is huge. And wound up making the difference in the game, as the last TD by the Browns handed them a win, rather than a roughly 25% of then making a two point conversion, and then winning in overtime.
Second, with the Safety, which put points – here, key points – on the board for Cleveland, and unlike if they had kicked a field goal from the 4 yard line instead, the Browns also immediately get the ball back. That is, they both added critical points to make it a two score game for the win, rather than two score game for a “shot at” just a tie. And they got the ball back at the same time.
And this is where Tennessee simply had to step, and was not able to.
Although they came close. On the ensuing Cleveland drive, after about 4 minutes and 50 yards had been passed through, Hoyer scrambled under a heavy rush from linebacker Shaun Phillips. Then, still under duress from Phillips, who was now behind him and closing in rapidly, Hoyer stepped up and hit Travis Benjamin, who in turn made a nice grab in the back of the end zone, making sure to stomp his left foot down in bounds despite forward momentum, to suddenly – with the extra point – make it a mere 6 point game with almost 7 minutes still remaining.
On the play, Hoyer had eluded Phillips, who then turned around and came back downfield toward him as Hoyer quickly stepped up and cocked his arm back to throw, moving the ball forward and releasing the TD throw barely a hair ahead of Phillips arm smashing down through the air. Had Phillips knocked out the ball and the Titans recovered, with a 13 point lead and 1st down with just under 7 minutes to go, the Titans likely still would have pulled this out.
But it’s a game of inches. And here, Hoyer was alert and quick (or lucky) enough to make those inches inure to his team’s benefit, not the Titans.
Now it was surely time for the Titans to step up. But backup QB Whitehurst, who in comparison to the mobile Jake Locker was about as fleet of foot as a dump truck, looked tentative and unsure.
Yet two more extremely notable, if subtle, plays occurred on two rapid ensuing Tennessee possessions. First, after a second down sack, the Titans faced 3rd and 15 and yet another of many 3 and outs for them this half. 6:00 remained before the play was run.
It was critical for the Titans to play to win here, not to play not to lose. The trio of announcers, Andrew Catalon, Steve Beuerlein and Steve Tasker – who together did an outstanding job of calling the game and aggressively, but reasonably, offering opinions and insights (Beuerlein played QB for 17 years in the NFL, and Tasker was a near perennial pro bowl special teams player for the Buffalo Bills) also made the same suggestion, noting how when teams play to not lose, they tend to lose more often.
Both teams played well here, and though neither is an marguee NFL franchise name at the moment, it was a very well extremely hard played game by both teams. But the Browns defense had been somewhat porous in the first half, particularly against the run, to which they had been vulnerable in their earlier games as well. And in the second half they really tightened up. IN particular, they closed the gap quickly on passes, making solid tackles and allowing very little additional yardage after the catch even when the ball was caught.
Whether entirely by design, or due predominantly to Whitehurst, the Titans made a remarkably poor decision on that 3rd and 15, from their own 15 yard line. Before having to absolutely get rid of the ball, Whitehurst dumped it off to receiver Nate Washington at the 20. Given where the Browns defense was lined up, and then were on the play at the time the decision was elected to throw the ball to Washington, the chances of making the first down were near zero. Given the way the Browns defense had been playing, the chances were just about zero.
It was pointless to try a play that essentially had no shot at making a 1st down. Tennessee might just as well have forfeited the down completely, and handed the Browns the ball.
There is a lot of miss-conception over football strategy, and teams, and often analysts, tend to be over concerned with “making a big mistake.” Making a big mistake is critical when the harm of the mistake – its chances of occurring times what the actual harm to your teams’s chances of winning if the mistake is made – is greater than the benefit of accomplishing something good – the chances of accomplishing something good, times the actual benefit to your team’s chance of winning if it does occur.
What is often forgotten, to simplify, is that losing the game is the ultimate mistake, and all decisions relate to that. Down by 6, and giving up the ball, the Titans stood a very good chance of losing this game. Sure, a 1st down doesn’t necessarily win them the game. And getting the first down on a 3rd and 15 is not easy. But they control the ball – not their opponent, and so connecting to their own team (via a completion), rather than to their opponent (via an interception) is many many fold more likely.
Misplaced fear of mistakes relative to the pros and cons of a given strategic situation is the single biggest impediment to good strategy decision in the NFL today.
It was a minor play; the Titans were unlikely to get the 1st down anyway; and they likely did not lose the game because of this decision. But in this willingness to dump off a pass that realistically had all but no chance of allowing them – critically – to retain possession of the ball, get a new set of downs, and move the chains – was an apt metaphor, for playing not to win, but, instead, specifically, to “not lose.” And be near frozen by fear of mistake, rather than single minded focus on simply maximizing their chances of winning.
Of course, teams will often say that they made the decision they did in order “to win,” and that it’s easy to take issue with decisions after the fact. But most such calls are clear before the fact, and are not affected by how the play or the game wound up turning out. And such decisions, of which there are a multitude in the NFL, if truly done in order to “win,” and not out of fear, reflect a miss-assessment of the basic strategic situation.
While there is an enormous array of such calls, most far more compelling, interesting, critical, and yet routine than this rather pedestrian call on a late game 3rd and 15, we’ll at least look at a few more in this blog from time to time, during the course of looking at some other games and other NFL situations.
In the meantime, and back to the unheralded but probably most interesting game of the week, the Titans picked up a measly 7 yards, and on 3rd and 8, punted.
Here’s the thing. Tennessee then stopped the Browns! Two quick short passes went incomplete, knocking a total of 9 seconds off of the game clock, and leaving 5:04 left. Then Hoyer, knowing the Browns, with still plenty of time left and two timeouts, were assuredly to punt after an incomplete pass, threw that deep ball under pressure that was picked off by Michael Griffin for the Browns first turnover of the season (and thus one not nullified by a Titans penalty!), netting them a nice 45 yard on the play versus a simple incomplete, had neither defender or receiver managed to catch the ball. (And they would have managed a nice 45 yard gain had Hawkins managed to come up with the ball somehow.)
If it wasn’t crunch time for the Titans offense before, it was crunch time now, because barring that last drive, the Titans defense had barely stopped the Browns all second half. (And the two times they did, on 4th downs, the Browns could have easily elected to kick very makeable field goals instead). And their offense had barely moved the ball. Yet move it now and score, or move it and run out enough of the clock to leave the Browns insufficient time for a reasonable TD drive opportunity, and the game was theirs.
It was not to be. And once again, it came down to a matter of near inches. And a poor play by the Titans that, all preceding mistakes aside, likely cost them the game.
The Titans, burning little time in the process by throwing on all three downs (two of them incomplete, stopping the clock on both occasions) picked up a rare second half 1st down, on three plays, and reloaded to try and do it again. They ultimately failed.
A run lost a short yard, then another run netted them 5, bringing up 3rd and 7, with 3:12 remaining on the clock after the Browns stopped it with their second timeout. And on this play, the game, as a practical matter, very nearly hinged.
The Titans were at their 37. A first down would put them at least at the 43. They’d have three more plays to advance the ball a little more, and from this spot on the field a punt could be angled high, giving the coverage team plenty of time, and was very unlikely to be returned.
But if they got the first down but went out of bounds in the process – thereby stopping the game clock until the next snap of the ball in the last five minutes of the game – and then ran three plays and punted, the Browns – with one timeout remaining, enough time to kill another down before the 2:00 warning clocked off, and the two minute warning itself – would still have just enough time for a decent enough “two minute drill type of drive.”
The Titans passed, did go out of bounds, and stopped the clock, but officially picked up the 1st down, although the play appeared to be short, as it appeared that tight end Delaney Walker apparently didn’t try, or was unable, to attempt to move the ball upfield as he ran toward the sideline 1st down marker; and ran out of bounds with the ball on his inside hip – facing back toward the line of scrimmage, and away from the 1st down mark.
This left the Browns with an extremely interesting decision. Use their last timeout – without which they would not longer be able to stop the clock and would thus not get the ball back with reasonable time to mount a scoring TD drive if they did manage to get the ball back, or save it, and allow the 1st down call to stand, when replays showed that it should be 4th down for Tennessee, instead of a new 1st down for the Titans.
The Browns challenged the spot. And won. This both saved them their last timeout. And it brought up 4th down. With plenty of time left. or still just over 3 minutes.
This left the Titans in an interesting situation. They hadn’t been able to move the ball mos of the 2nd half. But they only faced a half of a yard to go. On the other hand, the Browns had moved the ball well on them, and now, with nothing to lose an the game on the line, would effectively have four plays for each set of downs, instead of the three that normally occurs as a practical matter when teams usually punt on 4th down.
If they go for it and get stopped, the Browns would have excellent field position, but would still have to march nearly half a field in order to score the winning TD (and with less yardage to travel to the end zone, and three minutes still left to play, make sure to either run out most of the clock, or stop the Titans from kicking a last moment field goal after, and in the event, that they do score the TD). And if the Titans made the 1st down, the game would, barring a fluke, as a practical matter be all but over.
The Titans made what was lopsidedly the correct call – by making the Browns have to both stop them (which has a low probability of occurring on a 4th and very short) and then if they do still score (and make sure that score holds up by not leaving time left or stopping Tennessee.)
Unfortunately, on a quarterback sneak, the Titan offensive line got very little forward push (if any) and Whitehurst appeared to stand far too upright. Ultimately Whitehurst, still technically “not down” because of being atop a heap of writhing bottles, fully extended himself and writhed and squiggled to a “1st down.” But the play had already been whistled dead, as his forward progress had been well stopped. And the Titans came up short. It’s speculation, but if Locker had been in, with his exceptional running ability, mobility, and athleticism, they may have made the 1st down even without any real offensive line push. (But if Locker had been in, although it is hard to say, with his scrambling ability, the game might now have come down to this in the first place.)
The Browns went on to score the last TD, managing the clock fairly well as they started to get close, in order to both leave themselves sufficient time, but at the same time not leave Tennessee too much if they scored quickly. But they wound up leaving Tennessee just over a minute anyway.
Unlike for a TD drive starting after a kickoff (unless the kickoff leads to a very big return), a minute is plenty of time for a winning field goal drive, where the trailing team, from it’s own 20 or 30, only needs to get to around the opponents’ 30 (or sometimes 35), about a 40 or 50 yard drive instead of a 70 or 80 yard drive. And a field goal here at the last moment, as is so common in these situations in NFL games, would still allow Tennessee to win up pulling out the win after all, 30-28 (and end their second half scoring drought). And Tennessee did manage to get out to about midfield.
But that was about it, as the Browns wound up holding on, and winning 29-28; pulling off the biggest road comeback win in NFL history, during a rather remarkable and complex second half of NFL football, in an otherwise largely unheralded game between two non marquee and recent non playoff team names.