By Greg Arias
What seemed like a major mistake late in the fourth quarter of the Tennessee Titans 20-17 win over the visiting Houston Texans on Sunday at Nissan Stadium might have been the smartest play of the day.
With the game tied at 17-17 and the Titans driving at the Houston 35 yard line, quarterback Blaine Gabbert dropped back to pass. The ball was deflected back to Gabbert by Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett – much like the Marcus Mariota-to-Marcus Mariota touchdown last year in Kansas City.
Gabbert immediately began to run, though no one will ever mistake him for Mariota as a runner. Texans defenders quickly closed in and looked sure to have him for a big loss back near midfield. Rather than take the sack, Gabbert threw the football forward and out of bounds, left-handed no less, drawing multiple flags from the officials for an illegal forward pass.
The initial reaction of most people was likely “What the heck is he thinking?” That reaction would be totally wrong. As it turns out not only did Gabbert know the rule, he’d been in that exact place before.
“Actually, it was called on me my rookie year,” said Gabbert. “You’re reacting in the game but it worked out in our favor and in that situation, it was kind of a flashback to Marcus (Mariota) in Kansas City catching his own batted ball and running it in.
“There were a lot of guys in my way, so rather than taking a 10-yard sack, losing a down, just throw it away and take a 5-yard penalty and keeping us relatively close in the field position.”
Its magnitude showed up even more when Gabbert found Corey Davis for 18 yards on the very next play to the Texans’ 22. That allowed the Titans to run the ball and some clock to set up Ryan Succop’s game winning 31-yard field goal.
For the game, Gabbert finished 13 of 20 for 117 yards and a touchdown. Steady but certainly not spectacular, he did what the coaching staff asked of him within the game plan. He was smart, cautious and careful with the football, spending most of the day checking down to underneath routes and not forcing the football into coverage.
That performance statistically will not earn him NFL honors, but that play alone might just have saved the Titans their first win of the season, and the first win as the head coach of the Titans for Mike Vrabel.
While Gabbert deserves credit for that heads-up play, so too does Vrabel and his staff.
When it became apparent to them mid-week that Mariota would be unable to play, he and offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur went to work on a different approach to the game plan, one that kept things simple for their backup quarterback, but had enough wrinkles to keep the Texans off balance and allow the Titans to build an early lead and position themselves to get their first win of the season.
It wasn’t pretty, like most of the Titans wins in the last few years, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but it might just have changed the course of the season.
Only time will tell.