Atlanta's By-the-Book Blues
The Falcons need to learn when to toss their playbook, and the rest of the Week 10 news
By Bill Barnwell on November 12, 2012PRINT
Poor Mike Smith just can't get it right. No matter what he does at the end of the game in critical situations against the Saints, it goes wrong for him and his Atlanta Falcons. Last year, Smith was aggressive on fourth down in overtime, and when Michael Turner got stuffed, it set the Saints up with game-winning field position. That move earned him plaudits from some critics (or maybe just me), but he mostly took heat for doing something unconventional, and that heat came entirely because his decision didn't work out.1 That criticism reappeared when the Falcons went for it repeatedly on fourth down against the Giants in the wild-card round, getting stuffed each time.
On Sunday, the pendulum swung to the other side. With the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter against the Saints again, Smith tightened up. He got conservative in a pair of situations where he could have chosen to be aggressive. It didn't cost his team the game by itself, but combined with a lack of execution when the Falcons were forced to be aggressive over time, the conservative decisions made it more difficult for his team to find a path to victory.
First, Smith played by the book in a situation where the book should be lit on fire. When the Falcons scored on another absurd touchdown catch by Tony Gonzalez (whom teams should really start covering in the end zone), they brought themselves within five points of the Saints, 28-23, with 13:27 to go. The value proposition for going for two here is pretty obvious: getting within three points means that you'll likely be able to tie the game up if you can trade a stop with a field goal, and even if the Falcons were able to just hold the Saints to a field goal of their own, they would have been able to take the lead with a touchdown on a subsequent drive. The value in going down four is marginal; you can still tie the game if you only allow a field goal, but you still need to score a touchdown on a subsequent drive to take the lead. This footballcommentary.com chart estimates that it's worth going for two in that situation if Smith thought his team would succeed about 23 percent of the time. It's one of the most obvious situations in which a two-point conversion is a strong play.
Teams are normally hesitant to go for the two-point conversion because there's an arbitrary rule around football that teams shouldn't consider the two-pointer until the beginning of the fourth quarter. Smith takes that rule to another level, though: He said after the game, "You don't even start looking at the two-point chart until there's seven minutes to go." Had Smith looked at the two-point chart, he would have found that the Falcons were in one of the most clearly productive and meaningful two-point situations in the game.
The stupid thing about the fourth-quarter rule is that it goes against every reason coaches aren't supposed to make their decision by the percentages. Coaches don't coach games in a vacuum and players don't play the game on paper, so taking the average percentages of a particular situation and applying them to the specific game being played at that moment is naive. Coaches know their teams, and they know when to be aggressive. Right? Well, what can be more stodgy and unaware of the game situation than not even considering an opportunity until the clock hits a certain time? You should absolutely adjust your decision-making to account for the situation at hand in your specific game, but dismissing an opportunity out of hand because it doesn't fit an arbitrary context just isn't a wise decision to make. It makes some sense to avoid chasing a particular point total until the end of the game is relatively close, but there are definitely situations where the upside to picking up a two-point conversion are so obvious that it's worth taking the risk. This was very clearly one of them.
Smith's decision to kick the extra point put his team down four and created difficult choices for them the rest of the way. After the Saints punted and Matt Ryan hooked up with Julio Jones for a 52-yard completion, the Falcons got a first-and-goal on the 5-yard line and failed to move the ball. Now, they faced fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line with a four-point deficit and 9:08 left. They had few appealing options. Going for it from the 2 was the decision they had avoided minutes earlier, and while it trapped New Orleans with bad field position in the case of a stuff, the Falcons would also be out of the game if they missed and the Saints came back with a touchdown to go up 11. Instead, the Falcons were stuck kicking an unsatisfying 20-yard field goal to come within one point. You can argue that the Falcons should have gone for it, but it was the mistake at the end of the previous drive that compounded the problem. A successful two-point conversion would have seen them happily kicking a field goal for the tie; even with a failed two-pointer on the previous drive, the field goal would have represented a virtually identical proposition, a chance to come within a field goal of taking the lead while still trailing.2
As is their wont, the Saints drove down the field and scored themselves, eventually picking up a 31-yard field goal to restore their four-point lead. Then the Falcons were stuck. They responded with a 78-yard drive of their own, but when they moved the ball to the 1-yard line and failed to pick up a touchdown on second and third down, they finally had to go for it. Smith had basically put that decision off on each of his previous drives by kicking field goals, but because he had neglected to look at his two-point sheet when he should have, the Falcons now had to try to convert from the 2-yard line with far more pressure on them to succeed. Had they picked up the two-pointer earlier, Smith could have chosen to kick a field goal and tie the game here; if he had failed, the Falcons would still have been in the exact same spot. When Ryan was unable to find an open receiver, the Falcons were left to rue what could have been.
We didn't learn a ton about this year's Falcons with this loss.3 Truthfully, their level of play wasn't that much better or worse than it had been in, say, Atlanta's close win over Carolina several weeks ago. The difference between those two games, of course, was how the Falcons (and their opposition) executed on one or two key plays at the end of the game. Carolina fumbled away their game-winning conversion, punted, and then allowed Roddy White to make a circus catch to set up the winning score. This time, the Falcons made some poor decisions to end their final drives, and when they got White open deep on the desperate final drive after their fourth-and-short stuff, he came up two yards short of making a would-be touchdown catch. Wins and losses are what matter, but they don't always do the best job of explaining how a team played. The 8-0 Falcons were 5-0 in games decided by a score or less, but they were inevitably going to end up playing a game like this, where they delivered a similar effort and had the breaks come out against them at the very end.
Mike Smith's an excellent head coach. He's good enough, in fact, that I'm tempted to try to find excuses to figure out why he wouldn't have been more aggressive with the game on the line. Does he have such little faith in Michael Turner that he (and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter) didn't think that the Saints would honor play-action or a possible run? Was he really afraid that the Saints would score a touchdown and put the game out of reach with a nine-point lead? Did he have last year's failures ringing around in his head? Honestly, from his quote after the game, it just sounds like he has a simple rule that's antiquated and doesn't consider how meaningful a given situation can be. That's really disappointing, and on Sunday, it played an enormous role in ending Atlanta's undefeated season.http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/862 ... ek-10-news