Mike Munchak is clear about the fact that he is not a dictator when it comes to what happens during a game.
“I’m asking for the guys’ input,” the Tennessee Titans’ first-year coach said Monday. “I’m not the lone wolf out there trying to make all these decisions. As the game’s progressing, we’re kind of discussing some of the options because I don’t want to go into a situation blind either if there’s something I’m missing.”
Still, there’s no doubt that he has the final word and it was his say-so that led directly to the Titans’ only touchdowns in their 23-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Munchak’s decision with just more than three minutes to play to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2 resulted in the game-winning touchdown. Likewise, his authorization to use an unorthodox kickoff return resulted in a 100-yard score that put Tennessee on top for the first time.
Neither call was out of character with what has taken place throughout the season.
Without the benefit of any experience as a head coach before he was named Jeff Fisher’s successor, Munchak has been consistently aggressive. The Titans now have attempted 10 fourth-down plays (an average of one per game) and have converted eight for the highest success rate in the league.
“You have to be smart with that, I know that,” Munchak said. “You don’t just go out on fourth down going for it no matter what. There’s a lot of thinking going into it even though it might not seem that way.
“A lot of times I know what play [offensive coordinator] Chris [Palmer] is going to call on offense and if I really like it I’d rather go for it. That’s one thing. It’s also what’s going on in the game at that time.”
There was 3:08 remaining Sunday, and Tennessee trailed by four, 17-13, when Munchak elected to go for it for the second time. Late in the first quarter — also on fourth-and-2 — quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception.
In this case, Hasselbeck bought time in the pocket and found Damian Williams in the back of the end zone and the Titans led 20-17.
“That kind of gave me two chances to win the game,” Munchak said. “If the first one didn’t work, I’d still have a shot at it. That’s how I looked at it. … . So that was my first chance.
“The worst-case scenario was if we don’t make the play, then if we hold them and we get the ball back at midfield or the 40-yard line and we have timeouts to play with. … I don’t want to give up the chance to win right there, in my opinion.”
Tennessee fell behind 3-0 fewer than seven minutes into the game after Tampa Bay drove 67 yards in 11 plays before it settled for a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Marc Mariani fielded the ball at the goal line and started up the left side. At the 16, he handed off to rookie Tommie Campbell, who was moving right. Campbell raced untouched the remaining 84 yards and promptly put the Titans on top.
“I’m responsible because if it doesn’t work, I’m responsible too,” Munchak said. “… Then for something like that, I tell them, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it. Let’s do it’ anytime we run a fake or do something [unusual].
“Once we got into that situation, once they got the field goal we talked about it on the headsets and I said, ‘Yeah, definitely. Let’s do it right here.’”
With the victory, the Titans improved to 6-5 and remained in the hunt for a playoff appearance.
They ended the weekend as one of nine AFC teams with a winning record. Half of their fourth-down conversions have come in victories.
“A lot of times when it comes up fourth-and-short, you wish you would just go for it,” tight end Jared Cook said. “It’s coach Munchak and coach Palmer’s play-calling that will determine that final decision, but I’ll always go for it on fourth-and-short.
“When we make big plays like [on Sunday], you can just feel the momentum.”
Munchak understands there are risks involved with going for it on fourth down, particularly when a team is in field goal range, as was the case against the Buccaneers. It is a risk he is not afraid to take.
“A lot of times it’s one of those things where, ‘If we could put seven on here, that could change this game dramatically,’” Munchak said. “So a lot of times to me it’s worth [risking] three points to change the game dramatically. … It’s that kind of thinking a little bit.”