Fiasco Calls Titans' Special Teams Into Account, Again

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans special teams coach for the duration of Mike Vrabel’s tenure in Nashville, Craig Aukerman has headed up units that have regularly been mediocre at best – 14th, 19th, 24th, 18th and 16th in comprehensive rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin.

When Vrabel was out with Covid and missed a preseason game against the Bears in 2021, he put Aukerman in charge of communicating with players.

Indianapolis Colts safety Nick Cross (20) and teammates block a punt by Tennessee Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse (4) on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. Indianapolis Colts linebacker Grant Stuard (41) recovered the ball and ran in a touchdown.
Ryan Stonehouse/ © Robert Scheer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

He didn’t communicate much of use to them Sunday, when they were the central figures in a 31-28 loss to the Colts at Nissan Stadium, dropping the team to 4-8 and prompting his boss to once again absorb all fault for all that all went wrong in the phase of the game that too often hurts a team that just can’t afford it.

Titans fans regard Aukerman as one of Vrabel’s best buddies. I have no idea about their relationship outside the office, but it’s clear why the people who buy tickets and merchandise draw such a conclusion. 

While it’s impossible to tell from the outside how exactly coaches and players are held accountable by the head coach in the NFL, Aukerman rolls happily along with the appearance of a golden boy, even after his unit does something like it did Sunday at Nissan Stadium, allowing two blocked punts that produced 10 points for the Colts and knocked Ryan Stonehouse out of the game.

That forced Ryan Tannehill into his role as the backup holder, and Nick Folk missed his first PAT of the season when the backup QB didn’t set the laces and tilt quite right. 

BryMakFolk said the last time he kicked with Tannehill holding was “maybe a couple of weeks ago.” 

I mean that’s terrific coaching all around, being prepared for everything. That backup quarterback is super busy. There is no way you’d want to clutter up his week by having him do something where he’s listed second on the depth chart for a team that constantly pounds the “prepare like a starter” theme. It’s not a big deal. If it comes up, he’ll just work on it on the sideline and those guys will knock it out, no problem.

So Vrabel can take the blame for that, or his sixth-year assistant, a coordinator for five years, could have the foresight to be more ready for an emergency. Of course, it’s a bit harsh to hit Aukerman for that. Maybe I’m too nitpicky in wanting a team that always talks about versatility and preparation to be ready for everything. Besides, how could the punter possibly get hurt?


Let's turn our attention over here instead, where Aukerman’s unit couldn’t handle an overloaded side and keep Nick Cross from breaking through to block the first punt late in the first half and Grant Stuard from scooping it for an 18-yard touchdown that completely altered the dynamic of the game. 

How about a timeout, perhaps, when there are four to block five or three to block four? Maybe a heady special teams ace that was one of your free agent signings like Luke Gifford could step up to call it instead of being one of the players overrun.

Amani Hooker provided a sliver of hope when he picked off the ensuring 2-point conversion pass for Zack Moss and returned it for a Titans score instead: 22-19 Colts.

OK, major gaffe. Tighten up.


Four plays from scrimmage later, after Aukerman had a little time to settle his troops down, Tony Brown simply peeled off from wide left across from the gunner and sprinted down the line and across at the snap, getting to Stonehouse so efficiently the punter fumbled before he could even attempt to punt. 

“They just did a good job of coaching up whatever we had,” Hooker said. “The gunner came off the ball, they did a good job of timing it up just off the edge. Everyone was doing their jobs. It was just a good job on their part and their coaching.”

Stonehouse got smashed and helped off the field. Later he was on crutches in the locker room. The Titans held and the Colts kicked a field goal to move ahead 25-19. Folk became the punter and survived well, with two for a 39.0 net, actually better than Stonehouse.

The special teams’ gaffes start with the players, of course. But in both clips, they looked overmatched or undereducated and we know Tannehill was underprepared. Those are coaching issues. In Week 6 in London, Kyle Philips muffed a punt with 1 second remaining before halftime, which gifted the Ravens a field goal.

Vrabel said he needed to transition faster there, to decide that the punt didn’t need to be fielded. But it sure seemed like an easy decision for a special teams coordinator to make without needing to wait on the head coach. And it sure seemed like easy absolutely for Aukerman.

I asked Vrabel after the Colts' loss about the degree of culpability for Aukerman, and his answer started with "I don't know what culpability means..."

It didn't feel jokey.

So low are Aukerman and the Titans' standards that at the start of the season, he said he hoped to have someone as a punt returner who could catch the ball consistently and he talked about 40-49 field goals as his gold zone while other field-goal-dependent teams similar to the Titans get good numbers from 50-plus.

Ran Carthon and Vrabel, who with Jon Robinson has been far too nonchalant about kickers, finally gifted him a competent one in Folk. He hasn't messed him up!

By the way, Aukerman’s punt coverage team has never blocked a field goal. The last time the franchise blocked a punt was 4,070 days ago, on Oct. 11, 2012, when Tim Shaw did it against Pittsburgh.

The vibe from the inside on Aukerman is that we non-football people don’t get it, we don’t understand. It feels akin to Jadeveon Clowney’s eight games with the franchise in 2020 when he hit the quarterback six times. 

Kuharsky megaphoneWhen we dared to ask questions about him, the responses came with bewilderment and exasperation. How could we not see the major impact of the Great Clowney, the way every defender benefitted from his mere presence?

I don’t know that it’s as extreme with Aukerman, but I presume he’s not making $13 million for the year. But it’s of a similar ilk. 

I feel pretty safe expecting the answers on the record and off will be that we don’t understand, it’s not him.

Can’t you explain it better than that? After nearly six years, can you please show us?

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