Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel got away with it. Because his team topped the Atlanta Falcons 24-10 inside the Falcons' Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, his highly questionable decision early in the fourth quarter — he eschewed a chip-shot field-goal attempt in favor of going for a first down on fourth down — that failed miserably ultimately didn't matter.
Not that he necessarily deserved this break. Especially because Vrabel has tried this kind of macho stunt before. Most infamously, the Titans lost to the San Diego Chargers in London last season when Tennessee went for two points while down one after a touchdown with 35 seconds to play. The attempt failed, and at the end of the year the Titans missed the playoffs by a single win.
But back then Vrabel was a first-year head coach who was reportedly attempting to prove to his team that he believed in them. Question the mindset if you want, but the Titans often played better after that, even crushing eventual Super Bowl champion New England.
What happened Sunday was different. Macho is one thing. Madness is another. Let the Titans boost their 14-point lead to 17 points early in the fourth quarter against a confounding Falcons bunch that had scored but 10 points all day, and this game was over. O-V-E-R.
Given that, the decision not to attempt a field goal at that point was madness, the risk so much greater than the reward, especially given the 28 times that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in his NFL career.
Do the math. A 17-point cushion requires three scoring drives to win or force overtime. A 14-point cushion requires two. That's hardly rocket science.
Of course, nothing can drive anyone to madness more than attempting to figure out these underachieving Falcons.
When you believe enough in Ryan to hand him a $150 million contract; when everyone on the planet believes you have the best receiver in the game in Julio Jones; when your other wideouts are Calvin Ridley and the ridiculously versatile Mohamed Sanu, you should be outscoring your opponents 65-10 in each half, rather than being outscored 65-10 in the first half of your three defeats in four games this season.
But that's what's happening. The Falcons have somehow become less than the sum of their highly touted parts, especially on offense. Blame injuries along the offensive line. Blame the occasional head-scratching play calls of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who often seems intent on decoying rather than deploying Jones when it matters most. Blame it on Ryan, who appears far more jittery in the red zone these days than a $150 million QB should be.
Or blame it on head coach Dan Quinn, who seemed a perfect fit for Atlanta when the Falcons nearly won the Super Bowl at the close of his second season in 2016 but now seems to be traveling down the same road of diminishing returns as predecessor Mike Smith.
"You better believe we're going to look at everything," Quinn told the media after this one. "When you're sitting at 1-3, you want to make sure you're finding the answers."
Sad to say — because there remain a lot of positives with Quinn, including his noteworthy charity work in the Big Peach — if Falcons owner Arthur Blank looks closely enough at the frustrating product on the field, the regrettable answer may be to again start over at the top.
Though no one much with the Titans wishes to focus on this, Mike Mularkey made the playoffs in his final season as coach in 2017. Vrabel didn't get back there a year ago, and his team is no cinch to return to the postseason this year. As the CBS talking heads noted Sunday in something of a backhanded compliment to the Titans after they took a 24-7 lead into halftime: "When they're hot, they're hot; when they're not, they're not."
Their point was basically this: You never know which Titans team will show up, and that's not a good thing.
No one in the NFL plays great every week. For proof, check out that New England-Tennessee game from a year ago. The Titans won that one 34-10 inside their Nissan Stadium. The Patriots rebounded to win their sixth league title.
Still, how do you look as powerful as the Titans did in spanking the Browns in Cleveland on the first weekend of this season, look as listless and rudderless as the Titans did in losing 20-7 to the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Sept. 19, then look as animated and focused as they did against the Falcons on Sunday?
Is it coaching? Is it personnel? A little of both?
"If we can continue to get better and ascend, we'll like where we are at the end of the year," Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said after throwing three touchdown passes against Atlanta.
And they no doubt will.
But to help that along, Vrabel might want to begin to dial back his riverboat gambler ways at crucial times.
"We were kind of playing with house money there," he oddly said of his previously mentioned poor choice.
As he should have found out in London a year ago, there's a reason the house usually wins. If the Titans, now 2-2, are to begin a 12-game ascent to the playoffs, Vrabel needs to limit his gambles to those moments when the risk of failure doesn't overwhelm the reward of success.