Twelve hours later, it still doesn’t make any sense.
Jeff Fisher had a very small chance to help his Titans pull off a miracle comeback win against the Colts last night. With just under three minutes to play, down nine points, his offense was on the field with the Titans holding one time out. With just one timeout left, and needing two scores, the Titans’ path to a win had to involve recovering an onside kick. There wasn’t sufficient time or time-outs remaining for the Titans to kick away after a score. There was no way to tie or take the lead on this possession. The only thing that mattered was getting to a second possession, which would mean an onside kick, which would mean a score of any type.
Over the next two minutes, Kerry Collins chipped away for 50 yards, moving into field-goal range with just under a minute to play, a first-and-10 at the Colts’ 24-yard-line. There was some argument for kicking a field goal right now. After all, the first score was somewhat irrelevant: the Titans’ chance to win the game was wrapped up entirely in their recovering an onside kick. (This cannot be stated enough times, although I will test that theory within this post.) On the other hand, this is a fairly standard situation, and given that the Titans had a timeout in hand, about a minute left and the ball approaching the end zone, there was value in playing for the touchdown and needing only to pick up about 30 yards on the second possession to reach field-goal range.
The Titans ran three first-down plays. The first two produced an exchange of five-yard penalties and ran 13 seconds off the clock. The third was an eight-yard dump to Javon Ringer on which the rookie was tackled in bounds. This forced the Titans to call their final timeout with 32 seconds left.
This dramatically changed the equation. Having lost their final timeout, the risk of running additional plays increased dramatically, as the cost in time would be high should another player be tackled in bounds. In addition, with 32 seconds left and no time outs — and a minimum of eight seconds required for a touchdown play and an onside kick — it was unlikely that the Titans could, on their second possession, produce a viable field-goal attempt starting from their 40 with 24 or fewer seconds remaining. Seeming to recognize this, Fisher actually sent Rob Bironas on to the field during the timeout, then called him back and put his offense back on the field. This was his first, but not his worst, mistake.
On second-and-two, Collins connected with Bo Scaife for eight yards and a clock stoppage. On first-and-goal, Collins hit Justin Gage over the middle just shy of the end zone, and when Gage was tackled at the two, the Titans’ nightmare scenario had kicked in. Collins rushed to the line and clocked the ball with ten seconds remaining.
This is where Fisher basically threw the game. Again: the Titans cannot tie on this possession. They must possess the ball twice to change the outcome. There is, throughout this drive, the idea that you’d rather need a field goal rather than a touchdown on the second possession, and so long as you’re not in fourth-down situations, you should continue to pursue that goal. However, once inside 30 seconds without timeouts, the chance that you can get a field goal with the second possession dwindles rapidly. You need at least one play in a situation where the sidelines will be well-guarded, and as bad as the Colts are defensively, they’re not the Bengals. Once inside 20 seconds, there’s basically no chance to kick a field goal on the second drive. You will have to hope for a touchdown on that second possession, so you may as well get to it.
With ten seconds left, you can do the math. If you kick the field goal from the two, you’re certain to make it — it’s an extra point — and it will take one to two seconds, leaving you time for an onside kick and, if you possess the ball, a Hail Mary. It’s a small chance of winning, but it’s your best chance. If you run a play and score, that will take at least four seconds, and you then run a greater risk of the clock running out during the onside kick. If you run a play and do not score, the game is over, because the clock will run out on either the subsequent play or the onside kick, and you will never get another snap. However, in terms of your chance to win the game, there is no difference between a field goal and a touchdown, because you will be throwing a Hail Mary even if you snag the onside kick!
By running a play with ten seconds left rather than kicking a field goal, Jeff Fisher quit. He made the decision that he would rather lose by two than by six, even if losing by six gave him a tiny chance of winning by one. I have absolutely no idea what would make someone think this way, and if you dare cite some fifth-tier tiebreaker allow me to note that the first tiebreaker is "how many games did you win?"
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My primary expertise is baseball, and heaven knows that the state of MLB managing is pretty poor. Managers don’t understand very basic concepts of resource allocation and the value of events, and they buy into archaic notions long debunked by oceans of data. NFL coaches, though…as a group they combine cowardice and incompetence in a way that your average U.S. Representative has to admire. We see this every single week, but on Thursday night, we saw it boil down to one very clear option: lose by less, or try to win. Fisher chose the former.