The Tennessee Titans pulled off the first major upset of the 2020 NFL Playoffs. And head coach Mike Vrabel did it with a wink to his opposition. Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots were the easy favorite entering the game. Tom Brady didn’t exactly crack under the pressure, but he didn’t have enough time to make the miracle happen.
It wasn’t just random circumstance; it’s a situation that Vrabel forced Belichick into. And the Patriots skipper knew it. He came up with this sneaky trick in the first place.
Bill Belichick’s clock-killing move
A good head coach uses the rules to their advantage. A great one combs the rulebooks like a lawyer, picking out loopholes that officials couldn’t possibly have answers for in the middle of a game. Bill Belichick falls into the latter category. One of his most interesting habits is finding ways to drain the clock.
Earlier this year, the Patriots were up 33-0 over the Jets in the fourth quarter. Rather than playing it safe, Belichick decided to put theory into action. With 11 minutes on the clock and his offense in a fourth-down situation at the 33-yard line, he opted to punt.
He slow rolled it — intentionally. The delay of game penalty was expected. The Jets declined the penalty, leaving the play clock dwindling away. Then, Belichick instructed one of his linemen to trigger an intentional false start. Again, the Jets declined the penalty.
That’s two consecutive penalties that ate away the clock. Because they were for completely different infractions, they stood isolated from the usual unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that discourages this type of clock-eating move. No clock stoppage and 90 seconds eaten up. Pure gamesmanship.
How Mike Vrabel bit this Belichick strategy against the man himself
Belichick tried out his time-eating plan mostly on a lark. He assumed, after seeing the exposed loophole, the NFL would quickly address it. Instead, one of his former players used the strategy in a higher-leverage situation against Belichick himself.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel wasn’t in a blowout situation in his playoff clash with the Patriots. He held to a narrow 14-13 fourth-quarter lead with 6:39 to go. They were fourth and four from the Patriots’ 36-yard line.
Apparently, Vrabel keeps up with his former coach’s tactics. Out came the punt team. The delay of game penalty. The false start penalty. Starting to sound familiar?
Then, Vrabel enjoyed a fortuitous turn of events, when the now-chippy Patriots fell into a neutral zone infraction. By the time Vrabel’s version of Belichick’s plan was done, the clock was down to 4:44.
Belichick knew what this meant as the close game rushed toward its end. He was seen raging at an official over the situation. The Patriots simply ran out of time to pull back ahead and lost the game 20-13.
Vrabel and Belichick’s history together
Vrabel spent a lot of time working with Belichick, which may explain why he so happily mimicked one of his former mentor’s strategies. He spent the middle of his playing career, from 2001-08, as a linebacker with the Patriots. This era earned him 2007 Pro Bowl honors and three Super Bowl rings.
He remembers his time with Belichick fondly: “I enjoyed every minute that I spent in New England,” Vrabel told NBC Sports. “Bill was obviously a big influence on my playing career just to help me improve.”
Clearly, the Patriots great left an impression on the future Titans coach beyond improving his skills on the field. Vrabel learned something about leading an NFL team from the sideline, too.