By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — Mike Vrabel never coached on Bill Belichick’s staff, but the former Patriots player sure has learned a lot from his old head coach. Even as an observer from afar.
Vrabel put that knowledge to use on Saturday night, and it played a fairly large role in helping the Titans beat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium in a wild-card playoff meeting.
It came in the fourth quarter, with the Titans hanging on to a 14-13 lead. After Ryan Tannehill fumbled on a third-and-3 near midfield and the Titans recovered for a two-yard loss, the Titans were forced to punt. With 6:33 left on the clock when the play clock started ticking, that punt would have come with a little over 5:53 left in the game.
Instead of punting, though, the Titans intentionally took a delay of game penalty. It pushed them back five yards, but also allowed them to drain an extra 45 seconds off the clock. The rules state that if a penalty occurs with more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, then the clock winds after the penalty.
The Titans lined up for the punt again, and Wesley Woodyard committed a false start penalty — a penalty which appeared to have been intentional.
After the false start, Belichick was shown on the game broadcast shouting at an official that the situation was “[bleeping] bull [bleep].”
Bill Belichick got so mad when he got Bill Belichicked by Mike Vrabel. pic.twitter.com/su5cqa5iqX
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) January 5, 2020
The false start penalty took place with 5:28 left in the game. The Titans lined up to punt once more. The clock ran again.
At that point, Patriots special teamer Justin Bethel was penalized for a neutral zone infraction, a penalty which allowed the Titans to sit back and let an extra 23 seconds tick off the clock before finally punting.
In sum, the Titans were set to punt with about 5:55 left in the game. Instead, the series of penalties allowed them to not snap the ball to punt until just 4:51 remained.
That minute proved to be quite valuable, as the Patriots regained possession for a desperation chance to tie or win the game with just 25 seconds left on the clock. Tom Brady promptly threw a pick-six, effectively ending the contest.
You may recall that this move had been exploited once before this season, and it was done by Bill Belichick. It came on a Monday night game in New Jersey against the Jets, when the Patriots were leading 33-0. An intentional delay of game penalty and an intentional false start penalty allowed the Patriots to postpone their punt from the 10:25 mark of the fourth quarter until the 9:43 mark.
After that game, Belichick nonchalantly noted that it was a simple loophole in the rulebook.
“It was just the way the rules are set up. We were able to, you know, run quite a bit of time off the clock without really having to do anything,” he said that night. “So … it’s probably a loophole that’ll be closed. It probably should be closed. But right now it’s open.”
Bill Belichick continues to rewrite the NFL’s rule book. pic.twitter.com/mIJHsGbbgO
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) October 22, 2019
It was left open, and in the biggest game of the year, Vrabel used it to help beat his old coach.
After the playoff loss, Belichick was not at all excited to discuss the matter further.
“Yeah we’ve talked about this before. It’s the same thing we’ve talked about before. There’s no change,” Belichick said, cutting off the question.
In a follow-up, Belichick was asked if he had any further thoughts to share on the NFL needing to close the loophole.
“No,” Belichick flatly replied.