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JEFF FISHER'S TITANS WERE ON THE VERGE OF BECOMING IRRELEVANT. THEN THE RISK-LOVING COACH MADE SOME RADICAL CHOICES- STARTING WITH LENDALE WHITE AND VINCE YOUNG

TITANS SAFETY CHRIS HOPE HAS ONE OF THOSE FEELINGS. With his team clinging to a 13-9, fourth-quarter lead over Oakland on Oct. 28, Hope watches the Raiders break huddle and set up near midfield in an H-2BY2 formation: two receivers standing next to each other, on both sides of the line. Hope is certain he's seen this alignment before in film study, and he knows Oakland usually runs deep crossing routes out of it.

Usually. Usually they run those routes, Hope thinks, as Daunte Culpepper settles under center. But not always. Hope's mind races. The Titans are in man coverage, making them vulnerable to crossing patterns. A deep zone would be better. Should he call for a switch? Maybe. But what if his hunch is wrong? There's less than three minutes to go. The game is on the line and who knows what else; maybe a wild-card spot or even his next contract.

Screw it, thinks Hope, a six-year veteran with a Super Bowl ring from his days as a Steeler. I know I'm right, I'm switching. He nods an affirmation to himself and begins signaling his teammates-by crossing his arms-not to follow the Raiders in man but to stay at home. The ball is snapped. Culpepper drops back. After a few tense moments, the Raiders receivers begin their crossing routes. Bingo. When the pass comes down at the 9-yard line, Hope is in perfect position to step in front of wideout Jerry Porter and pick it off. Game over.

Gutsy? Yes. Clutch? You bet. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hope's gamble was that he felt the freedom to take it in the first place. In fact, his interception perfectly captures just how it is that the Titans are fighting for a playoff spot after starting the season as everyone's pick to dwell in the AFC South's cellar. Whether it's Vince Young's slashing through the heart of a defense, or Jeff Fisher's sticking by running back LenDale White through injuries and weight gains, or defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's selling out on a frenzied blitz, this is a team that dares to take big risks in the pursuit of even bigger rewards. "We have a lot of guys who aren't afraid to step out on that edge," White says. "I don't know if it's us being young or hungry or both."

Actually, the Titans' balls-to-the-walls mind-set comes from a time when they had nothing to lose. In December 2004, Fisher's team YOUNG LEADS ALL QBS WITH 19 THIRD-DOWN RUSHES; officially was a mess. Following two Straight playoff seasons, Tennessee had fallen to 4-7. With their defense decimated by injuries, the Titans faced a road game against the red-hot Colts offense. After two allnighters, Fisher and his staff came to a conclusion: We have no chance of winning unless we roll the dice. "We thought, Why not just onside kick it?" says Fisher. "So we did. And we did. And we did."

No, he really did. The Titans tried three onsides in the first quarter, recovering two and jumping out to a 24-17 lead. (For good measure they also tried a fake punt in the third.) In the end, all of Fisher's scheming couldn't keep the Colts from rolling up 567 yards in a 51-24 rout. But at least, Fisher thought afterward, we weren't scared to try absolutely everything to win. "We push players beyond their limits and expectations every day," Fisher says. "We ask them to take risks. Sometimes, as coaches, we have to remember to do that with our decisions too."

As the man who calls the Titans' shots on draft day, Fisher has backed up his bold talk by building his offense around a pair of high-risk, high-reward picks. After losing seasons in 2004 and 2005, Fisher wouldn't have been faulted for going the safe route with the third selection in the 2006 draft. Instead, he passed on Matt Leinart for Young, even though many scouts questioned the Texas gunslinger's low Wonderlic score, funky delivery and decision-making. In the next round, White fell to the Titans at No. 45 overall because of concerns over his weight and work habits. Fisher took him, too.

As it turned out, the White gambit didn't pay immediate dividends. Dogged by injuries as a rookie, he rushed for only 244 yards. Then he showed up overweight to training camp this summer, setting him back in his battle to beat out vet Chris Brown and 2007 second-rounder Chris Henry for the starting job. But when the season rolled around, White's blunt running style, swagger and improved conditioning won over Fisher. Through the first half, the 235-pound White (yes, that's his fighting weight) led the Titans with 625 rushing yards and 5 TDs. "Late in the game, fourth down, on the goal line, give that ball to me," he says.

Young, meanwhile, operates as if no risk is too great and all things are possible. That mentality often pays great dividends for an offense that, beyond White, lacks elite playmakers. Flash back to the penultimate game last season. The Titans had a fourth-and-two on the Buffalo 36 with 14 ticks to go in the first half. Gusting winds made a field goal all but impossible, so Fisher simply put the ball in Young's hands. At the snap, the rookie sprinted out to the left, and when he couldn't find anyone open he charged back to the right, picked up a convoy of blockers and turned what could have been a sack into a touchdown. How many other quarterbacks could have done that?

Of course, not many QBs make Young's kind of errors, either. Fast forward to this season's Nov. 4 home game against Carolina. Midway through the second quarter, 20 yards from pay dirt, Young throws a misguided pass into the end one that is easily picked off. The next quarter,the Titans have the ball on the Panthers' 39 when Young throws another offtarget pass into the end zone. Another interception.

Heading into the stretch drive, Young has just 4 TDs against 10 picks with a quarterback rating in the low 60s. On many teams, those sorts of numbers would have the coaches thinking QB switch. But the Titans write off Young's blunders as the acceptable (and hopefully correctable) downside to his innovative playmaking. All that offensive coordinator Norm Chow asks of Young after each mistake is that he be able to justify, clearly, why he made his decision. "I don't want Vince to forget that once in a while you gotta put everything aside and pull one out of your backside," says Chow. "If it doesn't work, blow it off and move on."

Think that sounds just a tad cavalier? Maybe, but Chow and the Titans happen to be taking their cues from one of the most brilliant strategists in history. No, not Bill Belichick. We speak of the 18th-century mathematician Daniel Bernoulli. To paraphrase the good Swiss' utility theory, the less you have (and the more you stand to gain), the more risk you're willing to take. Poker players know this phenomenon well: When they're on the short stack, they tend to take more gambits than they normally would. (All in!) In NFL terms, nothing-to-lose teams have greater incentive to roll the dice than heavy favorites. It's no coincidence that a study by Football Outsiders found that 51 of the 76 surprise onside kicks from 1996 to 2006 were by underdogs, with most coming on the road. Fisher, for his part, has called for five in the past five years. All but one were successful.

Of course, the Titans gain not only from the risks they take but also from the ones their opponents are too afraid to make. In 2002, Cal economist David Romer proved that after teams cross midfield, they generally come out ahead if they go for it on any fourth down with less than five yards to go. That's because fourthdown conversion rates in the NFL are surprisingly high, and the reward of a new set of downs far outweighs the risk of turning the field over. Yet, most coaches play it safe and punt on fourth down far more that Romer's equations say they should. Why? Blame loss aversion, a theory that won Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Kahneman's contention, in a nutshell, is that humans experience the loss of a given resource twice as strongly as they do a gain of equal amount. Which is to say: NFL coaches, like the rest of us, are overly sensitive to getting burned. The potential reward of a risky play (say, a TD for the good guys) pales in comparison to the potential loss (say, a TD for the bad guys) because the consequences of the latter feel more significant. As Chow puts it: "So many people would like to coach in this league. The problem is people become so content when they get these jobs that they don't want to lose them by making the tough decisions or being a risk-taker."

For now, anyway, Fisher & Co. clearly don't have that hang-up. But what happens if they clinch a playoff spot, giving them less to gain and more to lose? Will they suddenly shrink from risk? Fisher vows to have his players embrace that edge whenever it makes sense, no matter how the season turns out. In fact, most of the prep work the Titans put in during the week is aimed at making their reaction to risk calculated and instinctual-as with Hope's pick against the Raiders-rather than emotional. "It's easy to minimize risk," says Schwartz. "What we try to do is manage it."

For instance, if Fisher has seen during film work that an opponent's kick-return unit tends to leave the line early-and he can confirm that tendency during a game-then but only then will he call for a surprise onsides. Chow swears one of these Sundays he'll call for the throwback pass to Young. But he's waiting for the right coverage: man on man, with a corner giving the slot receiver a big cushion.

In the booth on Sundays, Schwartz constantly calculates and recalculates his willingness to take defensive risks, factoring in score, time, down, distance and info from his spotter, who shouts out opposing personnel changes. If it's second-and-long, near midfield, and Schwartz hears that four receivers are coming in, well, uhoh. The offense is trying to protect with just five blockers, and it's time to blitz. Sure, that call leaves the Titans more vulnerable to a big play. But with bulldog defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth clearing the way for the team's explosive linebackers, the blitz is a gamble the Titans usually win. "When it works, it's the best feeling," says Pro Bowl 'backer Keith Bulluck, who leads the Titans' No. 2-ranked D with four picks."You recognize the opportunity, your Spidey senses tingle, the green light goes off, you pull the lever and ... jackpot."

A few days before that Panthers game, Schwartz draws an imaginary 35-yard line on a dry erase board in his office. Compared to the end zone, he says, the Titans often protect the 35-yard line much more aggressively, bringing the full force of blitzes and stunts. He pauses for a moment, knowing that the notion might seem a little, well, nuts. Then he explains. Outside the 35, the risk/reward equation is between zero points (for a defensive stop) and seven (for allowing a touchdown.) But once an offense gets inside the 35-yard line, the point from which most field goal kickers can reliably knock it down, the calculus changes. It's now between three points (for a field goal) and seven points (for a TD). In other words, once an offense crosses the 35-yard threshold, there's less to gain from a big defensive play and so less incentive to take a huge risk. If Bernoulli had been born 300 years later, he'd surely have been a Titans fan.

Against the Panthers, the Titans open a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead despite Young's end zone interceptions. In the waning minutes, Carolina QB David Carr completes an eight-yard pass to bring his team to the Tennessee 41. Surprise: On the next play, Schwartz bets the house on an all-out blitz. The Titans' pressure ransacks the Carolina line, and Haynesworth pounces on Carr for a seven-yard loss, snuffing out the rally.

A few hours after the win, Young strolls underneath the stadium on the way to his car in the player's parking lot. All Sunday long he was reckless with the ball, a step behind with his reads, sloppy with his technique and often five feet off with his throws. But it's easy to tell from his confident gait that he's completely unfazed. "It's all a learning process," he says. "The one thing I don't want to be is the quarterback who's scared to make that throw, that guy who's afraid of risk."

On this team, he has nothing to worry about.

SHOULD YOU ...BLITZ TOM BRADY? It's sick, just sick. At 39.4 ppg, the Patriots are on pace to break the NFL's all-time scoring record of 38.8 ppg, held by the 1950 LA Rams. Think the only cure for all this sickness is to pressure Tom Brady as much as possible? Wrong. So far this season, the risk of blitzing Brady hasn't been worth it. When you look at Brady's passing Success Rate (a play counts as successful if it gains 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down or 100% on third or fourth down), you'll find that he fares much better against five or six-plus pass-rushers than just four. Meanwhile, all four of his INTs have come against a four-man rush. Of course, this doesn't mean you should go the other way and send just three defenders; the numbers say he'll just carve a D apart. The best strategy is to stick to four rushers, while crossing your fingers. -AARON SCHATZ, FOOTBALLOUTSIDERS.COM

RUSHERS | PLAYS | YDS/PLAY | SUC RATE | TD RATE

3 | 18 | 10.72 | 72% | 17%

4 | 202 | 8.19 | 58% | 10%

5 | 64 | 9.31 | 67% | 13%

6+ | 26 | 7.81 | 77% | 15%

SHOULD YOU ... KICK IT TO DEVIN HESTER?

Devin Hester is one dangerous man with the ball in his hands, as his three kick-return touchdowns the past two seasons attest. But unless it's late in the half or in a close game, a team is actually doing itself more harm than good by squib kicking or short kicking it away from the guy.

Since Hester took over as the Bears' main kick returner in Week 13 last season, teams have kicked his way 46 times and tried to avoid him 35, including the playoffs. In Hester's 46 returns, he's given Chicago an average starting field position of the 31.7-yard line. In those 35 swerves, the Bears' starting field position is the 36.9-yard line. Those two numbers alone say that it's better to kick to Hester, and we're not even considering two other issues: fumbles and penalties.

In 49 career kickoff returns, Hester has coughed up the ball four times. Two of those fumbles were recovered by the kicking team. Every great Hester run is also one block in the back away from disappearing into thin air. A yellow flag cost Hester a TD against Seattle in the 2006 playoffs, and he lost another one against KC on Sept. 16 this season. Even a shorter Hester return could always be docked 10 yards, and that's not going to happen when Israel Idonije is fair-catching a short kick.

What about punting to Hester? Well, that debate is harder to quantify since it's often difficult to determine whether a punter is playing keep-away with the return man. But we offer you two numbers. Five-Hester's punt-return touchdowns the past two seasons, tops in the NFL. Fifteen-Hester's muffs or fumbles over that same time, twice as many as any other player. -A.S.

FOURTH-DOWN CONVERSION RATES, 2007*

YARDS TO GO | CONVERSION RATE

1 | 68 OF 103 (66%)

2 - 5 | 55 TO 78 (71%)

SHOULD YOU ... ATTEMPT A SURPRISE ONSIDE KICK?

Of all the keys to a successful onside kick-a skilled kicker, a big bounce, a good-hands team-the most important is the element of surprise. Consider that from 1997 to 2006, the recovery rate on a standard, expected onside kick (attempted when a team was down late in the fourth quarter) was just 13%. But that rate jumped to 71% when the kick came before the fourth.

Most teams are loath to risk even a 3-in-10 chance that the opposition will recover the ball with prime field position. Only 78 surprise onside kicks have been attempted in the NFL in the past decade. But coaches really shouldn't be so shy; there's reward in that risk.

It's true-not to mention obvious-that when a kicking team fails to recover an onsider, the receiving side is more likely to score than after a routine kickoff. But it's also true that when the kicking team recovers an onside kick, said team is more likely to score than it would be after a routine kickoff. And when we weigh all scenarios against each other, our number crunching shows that-at a 71% recovery rate-a surprise onside kick nets the kicking team .31 points on average.

And this math doesn't even factor in the ancillary benefits. Onside-kicking, for example, forces opponents to game-plan and guard against the tactic. And in their anticipation of a possible onside kick, front-line blockers can't turn their backs early to get a head start on their blocking assignments. That can't help but make the coverage squad's job easier.

Of course, there's one huge catch here: The more teams use the surprise onsider, like Olindo Mare and the Saints successfully did on Nov. 4, the more teams will prepare for it and the less frequently it will work. As it turns out, the conversion-rate threshold for an onside kick being "worth it" is 62%. And through the first 10 weeks of this season, 11 teams had tried a surprise onside kick.

They recovered eight of the 12 attempts-or 67%.

SHOULD YOU ... BAG IT ON THIRD-AND-LONG?

Oh, boy. It's third-and-15 from your own 20. Go for a long pass, and you risk a crippling sack or INT. So instead you call for a safe draw play, knowing that, worst-case scenario, you'll punt on fourth. Of course, as soon as your quarterback puts the ball in the hands of your running back, the fans start booing. Have they no appreciation for cutting your losses?

Actually, those boobirds have a point.

We took a gander at every third-down play in 2006 that came A) with 10-plus yards to go and B) between the offense's own 10-yard line and the opponent's 40-yard line. These criteria eliminate plays up against the end zone (often runs to avoid a safety) and plays close to the red zone (where teams often run to set up better field goal position). What we found is that a pass is more likely to result in a turnover, but it's also four times more likely to lead to a first. Is that a good tradeoff? Yes, because of something else our research turned up: That supposedly safe draw play increases the odds your opponent will score next by a factor of three. Behold the power of possession.

So which team pleases their fans most often with a long throw (at least 10 yards) on third and long? Through Week 10, it's Derek Anderson and the Browns. The Titans, for all their daring, rank only eighth. Hey, when you've got Vince Young, sometimes passing is the last thing on your mind. -A.S.

GOING LONG ON THIRD-AND-LONG

TEAM | THIRD-AND-LONGS | LONG PASSES | RATE

1. BROWNS | 25 | 14 | 56%

2. BENGALS | 26 | 13 | 50%

3. STEELERS | 35 | 17 | 49%

4. COWBOYS | 29 | 14 | 48%

5. DOLPHINS | 33 | 15 | 45%

6. BRONCOS | 33 | 15 | 45%

7. COLTS | 23 | 10 | 43%

8. TITANS | 26 | 11 | 42%

9. NINERS | 42 | 17 | 40%

10. SAINTS | 25 | 10 | 40%