NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A mixture of lightning delays, key injuries, two kick return touchdowns, five interceptions, a fight and both teams admittedly running out of snacks, were some of the highlights (and lowlights) on a day when Mike Vrabel made his head coaching debut.
Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans (4-8) face the Miami Dolphins (9-3) for “Monday Night Football” (8:15 p.m ET, ESPN), marking the first time Tennessee returns to Miami since Sept. 9, 2018 — when the two teams set a record for the longest game in NFL history in front of a sold-out Hard Rock Stadium for the season opener.
The game lasted 7 hours, 8 minutes and finally ended with the Dolphins winning 27-20. It surpassed the previous longest game since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, when the Chicago Bears won in overtime against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013 in a matchup that went 5 hours, 16 minutes. The biggest delays were for two lightning stoppages, which combined for a total of 3 hours, 59 minutes.
“It’s like, ‘This one’s going to be a while. So let’s take our pads off and hang out,'” Vrabel said Monday, “and then try to have an idea of when [the delay] may end and try to ramp back up. Have to be ready for everything, I guess.”
Needing to be ready for everything is an understatement.
“It didn’t even feel like the same day,” said former Titans linebacker Darren Bates, who’s now an assistant special teams coach for the Seattle Seahawks. “It was a whole ‘nother day. It didn’t feel right.”
THE FIRST LIGHTNING delay came with 1:11 left in the first half. Both teams were forced into their locker rooms for 1 hour, 57 minutes with Miami holding a 7-3 lead.
Titans running back Derrick Henry said he walked around the locker room joking with everybody while he tried to “keep his legs warm” and loose for whenever they had to take the field.
Some of the Dolphins players stayed warm by riding a stationary bike while others — including cornerback Xavien Howard — listened to music.
“We was trying to stay warm and stuff like that, everybody joking,” Howard told ESPN. “We was watching other teams also play in the locker room, so it was fun — even though we was ready to get back on the field and we had to keep going back and forth. I think we probably went in the locker room probably like two times.”
When they went back onto the field to finish the final minute or so of the half, they were told to stay on the field instead of going back to the locker room for halftime to make up for lost time. The typical halftime break lasts around 12 minutes, but this halftime show spanned a little over 3 minutes.
The second lightning delay came with 6:47 left in the third quarter with the score still 7-3. That delay lasted for 2 hours, 2 minutes.
The restart time kept getting pushed back as the lightning strikes continued to illuminate the Miami skies. Every time there was a lightning flash, the 30-minute clearance period would start over.
CURRENT TITANS QUARTERBACK Ryan Tannehill was Miami’s starter at the time. It was his first time playing since tearing his ACL in his left knee late in the 2016 season.
“It was wild,” Tannehill told ESPN. “You had guys that stayed in the uniform and other guys basically got completely undressed and were hanging out.”
The two teams had to find something to eat during the delays since they hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Titans security coordinator Jeb Johnston and his team found a way to get food for the visitors.
“The ops guys went upstairs and they were getting mini pizzas from the concession stands and brought them down because we ran out of food,” Vrabel said.
A fan saw Bates with Titans defensive backs Brynden Trawick and Malcolm Butler sitting on a water cooler and chairs outside of the locker room eating pizza and hot dogs. The fan got a kick out of them sitting there, so he asked Bates to take a picture.
Bates wasn’t expecting the fan to throw the phone down to him so he wasn’t ready to catch it while he was eating.
“I just looked as it hit the ground and shatter to pieces,” Bates told ESPN.
Meanwhile, the food selection was a little better in the Dolphins locker room. They ate what was supposed to be the postgame meal that consisted of barbecue along with macaroni and cheese, according to Tannehill.
“They ate like they were privileged,” Bates said of the Miami players.
Tannehill wisely concluded it was a bad idea to eat the “super heavy food” knowing he’d have to go back on the field at any given moment.
A few of the Dolphins players failed to have the same intuition, causing their stomachs to sour when they had to resume play.
“They came in like, ‘Hey, you’re on the field in 10 minutes’ while people were eating barbecue,” Tannehill said. “That was crazy. Going from eating barbecue and mac and cheese to playing a football game in 10 minutes.”
THE INJURIES PILED up for the Titans. First cornerback Adoree Jackson went down on a punt return. Then starting quarterback Marcus Mariota threw two interceptions in the third quarter and came out of the game with an elbow injury that kept him from being able to feel his fingers or grip the football.
The first interception was a costly one as left tackle Taylor Lewan suffered a concussion on the play and didn’t return. Dolphins linebacker Andre Branch blasted Lewan on a blindside block during the return by safety Reshad Jones.
Lewan was laid out face down on the field after the hit. But he suddenly popped up as a fight involving both teams led to Jordan Phillips and Bobby McCain for the Dolphins and Titans running back Dion Lewis receiving offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker got carted off the field late in the fourth quarter because of a right ankle injury that required season-ending surgery. Walker wasn’t able to regain his form after that injury and was released in March 2020 before signing a one-day contract to retire as a Titan on Oct. 18, 2022.
There were interceptions on three consecutive drives in a span that was a little more than two minutes in the third quarter, and every quarterback who played was responsible for at least one pick on the soggy day.
FINALLY, THE SCORING began after a field goal shortly after the second delay to make it 10-3. It came in a hurry — with four touchdowns happening in just over a four-minute span.
Blaine Gabbert came on in relief of Mariota and led the Titans on a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 10-10 with 14:17 left in the fourth quarter.
Dolphins returner Jakeem Grant answered with a 102-yard kickoff return before Miami would score again on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill to Kenny Stills with 10:22 left to make it 24-10.
Darius Jennings closed the gap when he returned the ensuing kick 94 yards. The Titans have only returned one punt or kick for a touchdown since. The two returns in the same quarter is the third instance of it happening in the last 20 years, and it was the first time since 2008 — with the other coming in 2007.
“I would like for us to be able to get one and not give up one,” Vrabel said of the returns. “Those special teams moments can be great ways to change momentum.”
Henry had a momentum-shifting run early in the fourth quarter that would have made the score 17-17 after going 62 yards to the end zone, but it was called back for a holding penalty. The drive would result in a punt.
“I had a touchdown get called back, so I must have felt pretty good,” Henry said.
As Vrabel returns to where it all started, Miami is on its third coach since 2018. The game was during the final year of Adam Gase’s tenure, and Mike McDaniel is now head coach.
Only five coaches in the AFC (Bill Belichick, New England Patriots; John Harbaugh, Ravens; Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers; Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs; Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills) have had longer tenures as head coach of their current teams.
None of them can say they began things quite the way Vrabel did though, a game that ended with roughly 10,000 fans left in the stands after hitting the 65,000 mark for the 1 p.m. kickoff.
Added Vrabel, “It was certainly an interesting and unique way to start my NFL coaching career.”
NFL Nation reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques contributed to this report.