Behind Enemy Lines: Tom Gower of Total Titans and the Football Outsiders Take Two

With the Thanksgiving weekend upon us, there won't be any Eyes in the Backfield this week, but I did get a chance to chat with our good friend, Tom Gower.

Tom Gower is one of the best analytical minds covering an NFL team. His work on Total Titans is always strong, and you can find him weekly on the Football Outsiders Scramble for the Ball column as well.  Be sure to follow Tom on Twitter too. You can check for my answers to Tom's questions.

As a side note, Tom will be in town for the game with me. If you are interested in meeting him during the game, come by section 614, row 3 and say hi.


CA: Looking back on the first game between these two teams, it feels like a big missed opportunity missed for the Titans. If you could go back and flip just one factor from the first game to change the script in the second, what would it be?

TG: Having Devon Wylie not fumble a kickoff to take away an offensive possession and give the Colts a short field. The first game was very even aside from that, with both teams moving the ball very well at times and on their other drives not having any consistent success moving the chains. This was kind of subsumed by the overwhelmingly narrative way in which the game proceeded, going from 17-3 to 20-17 so quickly.

Figuring out a way to do a better job on Coby Fleener would also be a good thing to do in the rematch. That task will be tougher if safety Michael Griffin is indeed suspended, though I thought strong safety Bernard Pollard was likely the player at fault on his biggest completions. The Titans played without Griffin against the Rams due to injury and dared Kellen Clemens to throw the ball into tight zone windows. I don't think they'd try the same thing against Andrew Luck, but you never know.

CA. Evaluate the play of Fitzpatrick. Can the Titans make the postseason with him as quarterback?

TG: What Ryan Fitzpatrick brings to the offense is similar to, but a slightly different flavor of what Matt Hasselbeck brought to the offense in 2011. Fitzpatrick is at his best operating in the shotgun from spread looks, where he can get the ball out quickly. He does not throw the ball down the field very effectively, but is decently mobile. He's not as good as Luck in this category, nor is he as fast as Locker, but if things break down in the 3- and 5-step game, he'll take off and get what he can instead of improving to make plays. He's normally pretty accurate but can be a little scattershot at times and throw costly interceptions, which is why I think the Titans are happy to have him take off when things break down. He can move the ball acceptably well, but like the Hasselbeck-led team that lost to the winless Colts in 2011 in any given game the offense could bog down.

Looking at their schedule, the Titans have three games that seem fairly winnable-they'll probably be favored at home against Houston and at Jacksonville, and the game against Arizona at home will probably be about a tossup or they'll be a slight underdog. They need to win all three of those-not likely, but possible. They have two tougher games-the one this weekend and the one in Denver, where they're very unlikely to win. Things are looking up after they pulled out what was more or less a tossup game in Oakland last week, but I think they finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs. 


CA: What has surprised you the most about the way the AFC South is playing out?

TG: The Colts are pretty average, maybe a hair better than I thought they'd be. Aside from their inability to run the ball (I thought they'd be slightly better at it), the Titans are basically as good as I thought they'd be. The Jaguars stink, but looking over that roster in the offseason even Jaguars fans agreed the team would stink.

Then there's the Houston Texans.

I did the Texans chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. I thought they were the best team in the division. I thought they'd win the division. I thought that while they might not be as good as they were in 2011 or 2012, being above-average would have been enough to win the division. (My pre-season AFC South standings guess was something like Texans 10-6, Colts 8-8, Titans 7-9, Jaguars 4-12.) I thought they'd be able to finally fix the right side of the offensive line. I thought the defense was likely to be a little above average, like it was last year. I thought Ed Reed had a little bit left in the tank. I thought they were a chance Brian Cushing could stay healthy. Instead, things completely snowballed when the adversity began, basically gift-wrapping the division title and throwing it up in the air screaming "Take it! Take it!" to the non-Jaguars teams.


CA: The Titans will win if…

TG: The Colts make at least one more major mistake or get one less major break than they do. As I wrote last week, the Titans have been a fairly consistent team all year despite the changing perceptions of them thanks to a 3-1 start followed by a 1-5 stretch. They've just gotten breaks in the games they won and haven't in the games they lost. Something as simple as fumble recoveries is enough to decide games. That's what happens when you're mediocre.

So if they fall on an extra loose ball or two or it just so happens that an Andrew Luck interception is returned for a touchdown, while Ryan Fitzpatrick's sack-fumble doesn't turn into points against, that could be the difference in a game the Titans win. With an equal number of mistakes/breaks, I expect the Colts to win.