© George Walker IV / Tennessean.com / USA TODAY Sports
You know that GEICO ad with the four young adults in the horror movie?
“Why don’t we jump in that running car?”
“Are you crazy? Let’s hide behind the chain saws.”
My wife thinks Mike Vrabel looks like the guy in the barn, smirking and shaking his head as the rubes fall into his trap.
Vrabel starred in the Bills’ own horror show Monday night, as the Titans beat the Bills 34-31.
I like Vrabel. He was the kind of player Sean McDermott loves: tough, versatile, team guy. I like how none of the coaches in the Belichick tree have had success as a head coach, but a player in that tree – Vrabel – coaches the team no one wants to play. At the heart of Belichick’s approach, and at the heart of Vrabel’s approach, is that football starts with, and is always about, one-on-one physical toughness. Every day, every play. Simple, straight-forward toughness. If you don’t bring it, you don’t play.
So, one thing is a certainty: when it’s fourth and one with the game on the line, what you’re going to get from Vrabel is incredible toughness. Vrabel’s team is not, absolutely is not, going to get outmuscled on the line of scrimmage. His teams do not get beat on the most basic play in all of football. You might beat him some other way, but Vrabel will not let his team get beat straight up the middle.
The Bills passed up a possible game-tying field goal to go for it on fourth and one, and they never had a chance. The offensive line was overpowered, Josh Allen lost his footing, and the game was over.
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Did McDermott make the wrong decision in going for it? No. I’m sure the analytics say the Bills had a better chance of winning the game right there than winning if they went to overtime. Did he and Brian Daboll call the wrong play? No. Wait, if Vrabel’s Titans are so absolutely tough up the middle, shouldn’t the Bills have attacked differently? Well, yes, I suppose, but Sean McDermott lives in the Belichick-Vrabel school, and he wants HIS team to be one of those teams. Fourth and one, game on the line, the Bills are going to be as tough as they come, right up the middle. McDermott is not going to back down, he’s not going to run misdirection, he’s not going to throw. On Monday night, McDermott challenged his team to be as tough as they come, and they just weren’t.
Vrabel is in at least one way the luckiest coach in the NFL. No, he hasn’t won a Super Bowl, and no, he doesn’t have the most gifted quarterback in the league. What he has is a running back who thrives on toughness, a running back with straight-ahead strength and speed unparalleled in the NFL since Jim Brown. For Vrabel, it’s heaven – build a powerful offensive line and give Derrick Henry the ball, play after play. Pound the opponent with toughness, and pound them again. The Bills weren’t tough enough to stand up to the pounding. By the fourth quarter, it was clear – the Titans’ offense would not be stopped. McDermott had no choice. Overtime meant facing that offense again; he had to go for it.
The Bills are the better team. Their mistakes lost the game. They failed often in the red zone. Critical penalties cost them at least two touchdowns. Spencer Brown was atrocious in the first half.
© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Worst of all, Josh Allen played like he has forgotten the lessons of the last three years. The game wasn’t lost on the Bills’ last possession. It was lost on the second-last possession, when the Bills had a chance to put the game out of reach. Leading 31-27 with nine minutes left, the Bills got one first down, and then Allen went haywire. On first down, he stood in the pocket way too long, looking deep, looking deep, ignoring his outlet receiver in the right flat with plenty of open field in front of him. Sack. On second and 17, he locked on Sanders going deep, waited and waited, and then threw into double coverage. On third down, he led Kumerow out of bounds way up field. Allen completely abandoned the smart passing game he displayed all last season and that had allowed the Bills to control this game. Instead of taking the throws the defense was giving him, he went after low-probability explosive plays. The Bills punted, the Titans drove for a touchdown, and the Bills died on fourth and one from two with time running out.
The Bills weren’t going to overpower the Titans, but they could have outscored them. They should have.
McDermott’s teams often have struggled at this time of the season. They team isn’t a finished product yet, and it will get better. But it needs to continue to pile up wins. They need to be 6-2 at the midway (sort of) point, and then they need to win consistently from there. There’s plenty of work to do. It’s an early bye, and the Bills probably would prefer to go back on the field next week to get back to winning. Instead, they have to wait, digest the loss, and get better.
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