Monday, December 3, 2007
Updated: April 15, 6:40 PM ET
Edge Of Reason
By David Fleming
Titans safety Chris Hope has one of those feelings. With his team clinging to a 13-9, fourth-quarter lead over Oakland on Oct. 28, Hope watches the Raiders break huddle and set up near midfield in an H-2BY2 formation: two receivers standing next to each other, on both sides of the line. Hope is certain he's seen this alignment before in film study, and he knows Oakland usually runs deep crossing routes out of it.
Usually. Usually they run those routes, Hope thinks, as Daunte Culpepper settles under center. But not always. Hope's mind races. The Titans are in man coverage, making them vulnerable to crossing patterns. A deep zone would be better. Should he call for a switch? Maybe. But what if his hunch is wrong? There's less than three minutes to go. The game is on the line and who knows what else; maybe a wild-card spot or even his next contract.
Screw it, thinks Hope, a six-year veteran with a Super Bowl ring from his days as a Steeler. I know I'm right, I'm switching. He nods an affirmation to himself and begins signaling his teammates—by crossing his arms—not to follow the Raiders in man but to stay at home. The ball is snapped. Culpepper drops back. After a few tense moments, the Raiders receivers begin their crossing routes. Bingo. When the pass comes down at the 9-yard line, Hope is in perfect position to step in front of wideout Jerry Porter and pick it off. Game over.
Gutsy? Yes. Clutch? You bet. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hope's gamble was that he felt the freedom to take it in the first place. In fact, his interception perfectly captures just how it is that the Titans are fighting for a playoff spot after starting the season as everyone's pick to dwell in the AFC South's cellar. Whether it's Vince Young's slashing through the heart of a defense, or Jeff Fisher's sticking by running back LenDale White through injuries and weight gains, or defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's selling out on a frenzied blitz, this is a team that dares to take big risks in the pursuit of even bigger rewards. "We have a lot of guys who aren't afraid to step out on that edge," White says. "I don't know if it's us being young or hungry or both."
Actually, the Titans' balls-to-the-walls mind-set comes from a time when they had nothing to lose. In December 2004, Fisher's teamofficially was a mess. Following two straight playoff seasons, Tennessee had fallen to 4—7. With their defense decimated by injuries, the Titans faced a road game against the red-hot Colts offense. After two all-nighters, Fisher and his staff came to a conclusion: We have no chance of winning unless we roll the dice. "We thought, Why not just onside kick it?" says Fisher. "So we did. And we did. And we did."
No, he really did. The Titans tried three onsides in the first quarter, recovering two and jumping out to a 24—17 lead. (For good measure they also tried a fake punt in the third.) In the end, all of Fisher's scheming couldn't keep the Colts from rolling up 567 yards in a 51—24 rout. But at least, Fisher thought afterward, we weren't scared to try absolutely every-thing to win. "We push players beyond their limits and expectations every day," Fisher says. "We ask them to take risks. Sometimes, as coaches, we have to remember to do that with our decisions too."
As the man who calls the Titans' shots on draft day, Fisher has backed up his bold talk by building his offense around a pair of high-risk, high-reward picks. After losing seasons in 2004 and 2005, Fisher wouldn't have been faulted for going the safe route with the third selection in the 2006 draft. Instead, he passed on Matt Leinart for Young, even though many scouts questioned the Texas gunslinger's low Wonderlic score, funky delivery and decision-making. In the next round, White fell to the Titans at No. 45 overall because of concerns over his weight and work habits. Fisher took him, too. As it turned out, the White gambit didn't pay immediate dividends. Dogged by injuries as a rookie, he rushed for only 244 yards. Then he showed up overweight to training camp this summer, setting him back in his battle to beat out vet Chris Brown and 2007 second-rounder Chris Henry for the starting job. But when the season rolled around, White's blunt running style, swagger and improved conditioning won over Fisher. Through the first half, the 235-pound White (yes, that's his fighting weight) led the Titans with 625 rushing yards and 5 TDs. "Late in the game, fourth down, on the goal line, give that ball to me," he says.
Young, meanwhile, operates as if no risk is too great and all things are possible. That mentality often pays great dividends for an offense that, beyond White, lacks elite playmakers. Flash back to the penultimate game last season. The Titans had a fourth-and-two on the Buffalo 36 with 14 ticks to go in the first half. Gusting winds made a field goal all but impossible, so Fisher simply put the ball in Young's hands. At the snap, the rookie sprinted out to the left, and when he couldn't find anyone open he charged back to the right, picked up a convoy of blockers and turned what could have been a sack into a touchdown. How many other quarterbacks could have done that?
Of course, not many QBs make Young's kind of errors, either. Fast forward to this season's Nov. 4 home game against Carolina. Midway through the second quarter, 20 yards from pay dirt, Young throws a misguided pass into the end zone that is easily picked off. The next quarter, the Titans have the ball on the Panthers' 39 when Young throws another off-target pass into the end zone. Another interception.
Heading into the stretch drive, Young has just 4 TDs against 10 picks with a quarterback rating in the low 60s. On many teams, those sorts of numbers would have the coaches thinking QB switch. But the Titans write off Young's blunders as the acceptable (and hopefully correctable) downside to his innovative playmaking. All that offensive coordinator Norm Chow asks of Young after each mistake is that he be able to justify, clearly, why he made his decision. "I don't want Vince to forget that once in a while you gotta put everything aside and pull one out of your backside," says Chow. "If it doesn't work, blow it off and move on."
Think that sounds just a tad cavalier? Maybe, but Chow and the Titans happen to be taking their cues from one of the most brilliant strategists in history. No, not Bill Belichick. We speak of the 18th-century mathematician Daniel Bernoulli. To paraphrase the good Swiss' utility theory, the less you have (and the more you stand to gain), the more risk you're willing to take. Poker players know this phenomenon well: When they're on the short stack, they tend to take more gambits than they normally would. (All in!) In NFL terms, nothing-to-lose teams have greater incentive to roll
the dice than heavy favorites. It's no coincidence that a study by Football Outsiders found that 51 of the 76 surprise onside kicks from 1996 to 2006 were by underdogs, with most coming on the road. Fisher, for his part, has called for five in the past five years. All but one were successful.
Of course, the Titans gain not only from the risks they take but also from the ones their opponents are too afraid to make. In 2002, Cal economist David Romer proved that after teams cross midfield, they generally come out ahead if they go for it on any fourth down with less than five yards to go. That's because fourth-down conversion rates in the NFL are surprisingly high, and the reward of a new set of downs far outweighs the risk of turning the field over. Yet, most coaches play it safe and punt on fourth down far more that Romer's equations say they should. Why? Blame loss aversion, a theory that won Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Kahneman's contention, in a nutshell, is that humans experience the loss of a given resource twice as strongly as they do a gain of equal amount. Which is to say: NFL coaches, like the rest of us, are overly sensitive to getting burned. The potential reward of a risky play (say, a TD for the good guys) pales in comparison to the potential loss (say, a TD for the bad guys) because the consequences of the latter feel more significant. As Chow puts it: "So many people would like to coach in this league. The problem is people become so content when they get these jobs that they don't want to lose them by making the tough decisions or being a risk-taker."
For now, anyway, Fisher & Co. clearly don't have that hang-up. But what happens if they clinch a playoff spot, giving them less to gain and more to lose? Will they suddenly shrink from risk? Fisher vows to have his players embrace that edge whenever it makes sense, no matter how the season turns out. In fact, most of the prep work the Titans put in during the week is aimed at making their reaction to risk calculated and instinctual—as with Hope's pick against the Raiders—rather than emotional. "It's easy to minimize risk," says Schwartz. "What we try to do is manage it."
For instance, if Fisher has seen during film work that an opponent's kick-return unit tends to leave the line early—and he can confirm that tendency during a game—then but only then will he call for a surprise onsides. Chow swears one of these Sundays he'll call for the throwback pass to Young. But he's waiting for the right coverage: man on man, with a corner giving the slot receiver a big cushion.
In the booth on Sundays, Schwartz constantly calculates and recalculates his willingness to take defensive risks, factoring in score, time, down, distance and info from his spotter, who shouts out opposing personnel changes. If it's second-and-long, near midfield, and Schwartz hears that four receivers are coming in, well, uh-oh. The offense is trying to protect with just five blockers, and it's time to blitz. Sure, that call leaves the Titans more vulnerable to a big play. But with bulldog defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth clearing the way for the team's explosive linebackers, the blitz is a gamble the Titans usually win. "When it works, it's the best feeling," says Pro Bowl 'backer Keith Bulluck, who leads the Titans' No. 2-ranked D with four picks."You recognize the opportunity, your Spidey senses tingle, the green light goes off, you pull the lever and … jackpot."
A few days before that Panthers game, Schwartz draws an imaginary 35-yard line on a dry erase board in his office. Compared to the end zone, he says, the Titans often protect the 35-yard line much more aggressively, bringing the full force of blitzes and stunts. He pauses for a moment, knowing that the notion might seem a little, well, nuts. Then he explains. Outside the 35, the risk/reward equation is between zero points (for a defensive stop) and seven (for allowing a touchdown.) But once an offense gets inside the 35-yard line, the point from which most field goal kickers can reliably knock it down, the calculus changes. It's now between three points (for a field goal) and seven points (for a TD). In other words, once an offense crosses the 35-yard threshold, there's less to gain from a big defensive play and so less incentive to take a huge risk. If Bernoulli had been born 300 years later, he'd surely have been a Titans fan.
Against the Panthers, the Titans open a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead despite Young's end zone interceptions. In the waning minutes, Carolina QB David Carr completes an eight-yard pass to bring his team to the Tennessee 41. Surprise: On the next play, Schwartz bets the house on an all-out blitz. The Titans' pressure ransacks the Carolina line, and Haynesworth pounces on Carr for a seven-yard loss, snuffing out the rally.
A few hours after the win, Young strolls underneath the stadium on the way to his car in the player's parking lot. All Sunday long he was reckless with the ball, a step behind with his reads, sloppy with his technique and often five feet off with his throws. But it's easy to tell from his confident gait that he's completely unfazed. "It's all a learning process," he says. "The one thing I don't want to be is the quarterback who's scared to make that throw, that guy who's afraid of risk."
On this team, he has nothing to worry about.