Week 7 NFL insider notes: Titans didn’t need to go for two, benching Blake Bortles was pointless and more

I appreciate a smart, gutsy call as much as the next guy. Heck, I appreciate it more than the next guy.

Anyone who has paid any attention to this space knows how much I believe in the power of playing to win the game and how much I champion a coach going for it on fourth down or trying a two-point conversion whenever it is within reason. I applaud being proactive and aggressive and making a statement and sending a powerful signal to the locker room.

I was all about the reincarnation of Black Jack Del Rio and led the cheers for Riverboat Ron Rivera and loved Frank Reich going for it on fourth-and-2 in his own territory in overtime against the Texans last week even though it didn’t work. But there is a time and a place for everything. And for rookie coach Mike Vrabel and the Tennessee Titans – Sunday morning in London of a potential season-defining game – at a time the lads from Nashville were easily imposing their will on the chaps from California was neither the time nor the place.

And as a result, the Titans’ miracle set of circumstances that led to a 3-1 record and early AFC South lead may all be for naught. That early good will might be spent up, now. That looong flight back from London got a lot longer. Vrabel’s decision was more rash and reckless than anything else, and the play call to attempt a pass from an empty set like that with their quarterback on what could go down as the biggest play of the season made little sense, either.

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“I’m not going to second-guess the play call,” Vrabel said during his unapologetic post-game press conference. That’s fine. Millions of others who watched that game will do it for you. As the late great Dennis Green once said, “We knew who they were, and we let ’em off the hook!”

Bottom line is the Titans didn’t need to do this. This wasn’t a 1-4 team or a winless team just desperate for a win. This wasn’t a team that was clinging, desperate to a game and knowing it didn’t have the manpower to withstand a 10-minute overtime. This wasn’t a team with an injured kicker or injured quarterback who can’t grip a football (the Titans already won that way this season). Nope, it was the Chargers who were under duress and dreading the prospect of overtime, and a looming 12-hour flight or whatever back to L.A., and Vrabel bailed them out.

The Chargers’ offense – without their bell-cow star running back, Melvin Gordon – amounted to a huge passing play to open the game and another to open the second half. That was it. They had just 14 first downs, and the Titans had the ball for almost 10 full minutes more in the game (35:23-24:37). The Titans ran 23 more plays. The Titans were bossing them all over the field in their shoulda-been-game-tying four-minute drill, with Marcus Mariota making huge play after play with his feet and arm.

It didn’t have to end this way. And the ramifications could be sweeping.

Now the Titans are stumbling to their bye, at 3-4. Now, the Titans have dropped back-to-back games, and crucial tiebreakers, to the Ravens and Chargers, who could be prime Wild Card opposition. They responded from an ugly butt-whipping by Baltimore a week ago with a much more stout and physical approach Sunday, but their season is at its nadir, regardless.

If Vrabel really wanted to empower his team, on a day when it was the better team, then take the points, keep that momentum going and keep whipping the Chargers into overtime. No need to get cute there. Don’t over think it. No need to flex. Tie the game first. Win it in OT.

Jaguars’ problem grows

Not sure what he Jags hoped to accomplish by benching Blake Bortles for being himself, replacing him with Cody Kessler, down 20-0. You think this will suddenly make Bortles an NFL starting-caliber QB? You threatening to actually start Kessler so he can show once again that he is not, either?

Sorry, but this problem ain’t getting fixed by the trade deadline, and the decision to extend Bortles is among the most baffling in recent NFL history. This ain’t me being a Monday morning QB. It’s been my position all along and now the chickens have really come home to roost with the Jags’ 2-0 start reduced to a 3-4 record (and 0-2 in the AFC South).

Does someone in Jacksonville really think having Kessler throw picks and absorb strip sacks will somehow have less of an impact on their season slipping away than it will when the former third-overall pick does the same thing? Sorry, Kessler taking over the huddle isn’t providing a lift or a jump start. It’s just kind of sad and pathetic. And stop the narrative that trading for Eli Manning would change anything – that’s not gonna happen, anyway – and unless you think Nick Foles still has any magic left, there aren’t viable options around this late in the season. That ship has sailed.

It’s likely to be more of the same. I documented the extent of Bortles’ issues midweek, so I won’t go too deep here. But in Jacksonville’s last four losses it has not scored a first-half touchdown, and hasn’t reached the end zone until down 20 points or more. Bortles’ first half numbers in those starts: 32-for-60 (53 percent) for 291 yards (4.85 yards per attempt!) with no touchdowns and two picks and a rating of 52.85. That is failure. He’s turned it over 10 times this season already.

And the defense is no longer airtight. And they don’t have a run game. They’ve been outscored, 90-28, the last three weeks. Good luck in the second half of the season.

More notes

  • I would love to get a look at Howie Roseman’s phone bill for next week. The Eagles are in London in Week 8, just before the trade deadline, and they have work to do. No way this GM with this team sits on his hands with Philly at 3-4 in its title defense after blowing a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter on Sunday. He is going to do something – possibly big – to improve his secondary. And I expect at least a nominal move to bolster the offense if possible. The obvious suggestion would be Le’Veon Bell, who could possibly change the entire tenor of this plodding offense. We’ll see, but with his team out of the country next week, maybe trying to swing something before the weekend makes sense …
  • I have a hard time knowing what to expect out of the Lions from week to week, but they are now 3-3 and have definitely improved from week to week and they are only one win behind the Vikings for the division lead as the midpoint of the season approaches … The Bears better start worrying a little bit about their defense. New England is obviously a great team, but to have no Gronk on Sunday and then lose the fulcrum of their game plan, Sonny Michel, very early in the game and to roll up points like they did a week after Miami found plenty of joy against this defense is not a good sign. The Bears cannot throw the ball to beat teams yet – Mitchell Trubisky is raw and shaky and much more comfortable running than throwing the ball downfield (the Tampa game was an anomaly, not a portal of what’s to come), and this defense has to be top notch to compete … Not sure how much, if any, it is related to their recent coordinator change, but the Bucs defense came to play Sunday. Best effort from that unit in quite some time, including a fourth-quarter goal-line stand. It was far from perfect, but a noticeable improvement on their pathetic form from the first six weeks of the season …
  • I love so much of what I see from Sam Darnold. The Jets will take a massive leap forward next season. He makes tight-window throws and knows where to place the ball and will continue to learn from some of these early growing pains … Baker Mayfield lives for the fourth quarter. What a gamer. Cannot overstate how much he has given this franchise a pulse and hope, and he is doing it at a time when the Browns have parted with key skill players on offense … Nobody shakes off an awful first half like Cam Newton. Many of us thought he was going to come back and win the game in Week 6 at Washington; what he did in Philly Sunday more than made up for it … If Deshaun Watson makes it beyond 12 starts this season the Texans will win the AFC South with relative ease.

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