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Ignore stats analysis when debating Smith's call

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith can take solace in this fact: The last time a coach went for it on fourth-and-inches in this type of situation and failed, his team won the Super Bowl. Then again, Barry Switzer was coaching Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, and that edition of the Dallas Cowboys had already established themselves as a power by 1995.

Late that season on a bitterly cold and windy day in Philadelphia, Switzer famously ran Smith one too many times into the breach, coming up short on fourth-and-inches from Dallas' 29-yard line. Much like Sunday, when the New Orleans Saints won on a field goal in overtime after stopping the Falcons' Michael Turner(notes) on the crucial fourth down, the Eagles prevailed on a game-winning kick.

[ Related: Mike Smith pushed panic button on fourth down ]

In the aftermath, Switzer was viewed as a village idiot who had been hired more for owner Jerry Jones to prove a point – that previous coach Jimmy Johnson wasn't the mastermind behind the team's previous two championships – than really provide guidance to that stacked squad. Regardless of how you view Switzer, the fact is that the Cowboys didn't lose again that season is notable.

Atlanta running the table the rest of the way is unlikely, but it's not completely out of the realm of possibilities. This is a good team in the middle of the playoff hunt. If Atlanta does make the playoffs, Smith's failed gamble will likely be forgotten.

If not, however …

This is where people who do statistical analysis and study game theory miss the point when coming out in defense of such gambles. Brian Burke, an extremely bright and well-researched former Navy man who runs the website AdvancedNFLStats.com, calculated that Smith increased Atlanta's chances of winning by 5 percent by choosing to go for it. Burke knows his stuff, having logged information from some 2,700 games played since the start of the 2000 season, and his site is well worth perusing.

Likewise, I enjoy doing my own statistical analysis. The problem is that athletes are not dice. Nor are they decks of cards with a completely definable set of odds. In other words, it's easy to define a situation where it's good to play a 4 or 5 of diamonds in Texas Hold 'em.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: Saints' Will Smith surprised by call]

The only person you have to answer to in those situations is generally yourself. It's a lot harder to play those cards when you're gambling somebody else's money – and that somebody else is looking over your shoulder.

In the case of Smith, he had his entire team watching as he vacillated between punting and going for it (he initially sent in the punt team and then called it back to send in the offense for the short-yardage play). His indecisiveness was part of the equation.

Again, Burke understands this to an extent. As he noted during an interesting 20-minute discussion, studies by psychologists indicate people are far more unhappy when they lose $20 than when they find that same $20 in their pants pocket a week later after the laundry is done.

As was pointed out, Atlanta twice went for it – and converted – on earlier fourth downs in the same game. However, those situations were not in Atlanta's territory with the game on the line. In the aftermath of this call, Smith has to manage a team of 53 players, not to mention deal with the front office, the rest of the coaching staff, the fans and, to a certain extent, the owner.

And he has to do that without the championship players Switzer had in 1995, or the personnel and reputation Bill Belichick had in 2009, when he famously went for it on fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis. Sure, Smith did an extraordinary job last season when Atlanta went 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Unfortunately, the season ended with an ugly, lopsided home loss to Green Bay in the playoffs.

Hopefully, this all works out for Smith, who is one of the good guys in the coaching ranks. His endless optimism and joy for his job are infectious, the kind of stuff that can carry any group through the toughest of times.

[ Related: Mike Smith takes blame for OT loss ]

However, as Smith once readily admitted during a conversation, NFL players view coaches with decided ambivalence. If players think the coach can help them win, they'll listen. If they don't – and that faith is precarious – they tune you out in a hurry.

"No question," Smith said. "We all know that's how it works."

QUICK SLANTS

Baffling birds

View photo

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Joe Flacco(notes) was sacked once and also picked off Sunday.
(Getty Images)

Somebody please explain the Baltimore Ravens to me. In a year when many teams look incredibly inconsistent (Patriots, Steelers, Texans, New York Giants are among a host of teams that have had impressive wins and odd losses), the Ravens may lead the way. The Ravens defeated the defending AFC champion Steelers twice this season and followed each of those victories with odd road losses (the Tennessee Titans the first time and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday). Baltimore also had a three-game winning streak (including dominating wins over Houston and the New York Jets) that was snapped in an ugly 12-7 loss at Jacksonville. Part of the problem is the inconsistent play of quarterback Joe Flacco, who is completing only 54.8 percent of his passes (he was above 62 percent in each of the previous two seasons). The other problem is that the Ravens are leaning on Flacco more than ever. In the past three games (the loss to Seattle, the comeback win over Pittsburgh and the historic rally vs. the Arizona Cardinals), the Ravens are averaging 50 passes a game (not including seven sacks in that run). The problem got so bad that the Ravens ran only eight times at Seattle. Ray Rice(notes), one of the league's better backs, has just 31 carries (compared to 20 receptions) during that stretch.

Drug testing criticized

Attorney David Cornwell, a candidate for the NFL Players Association executive director post that ultimately went to DeMaurice Smith in March 2009, was critical of the union's actions with regard to the drug testing allowed after the start of training camp. Cornwell issued a statement over the weekend after Yahoo! Sports revealed that at least two player reps were upset that Smith did not negotiate a grace period after the end of the lockout. They believe Smith promised he would get one after the players reached a new collective bargaining agreement with owners in late July, yet testing took place only days after the start of training camp. Ten players are facing fines and an 11th is facing a fine and suspension, according to sources.

[ Related: NFLPA head faces scrutiny over possible player discipline ]

Cornwell responded to the story by writing: "I represent one of the players subject to discipline under the NFL substance abuse policy. Numerous people, including me, urged the NFLPA to insist in collective bargaining on a post lockout reintegration period for players subject to the substance abuse policy. Professionals acknowledge that the abrupt ending of the clinical and administrative benefits of the program all but ensured that many players would relapse and use drugs during the lockout. Obviously, it was extremely disappointing to learn that the NFLPA did not request that players be reintegrated into the program before they were subject to discipline. It is even more disappointing that the NFL would refuse to grant players the clinical benefits of the program just because it 'fell through the cracks' in collective bargaining."

Top five

1. Green Bay Packers (9-0): While Monday night's overall effort was great, there are still concerns over a defense that alternates between sensational and dreadful almost from play to play. It's really stunning.
2. San Francisco 49ers (8-1): Dear Patrick Willis(notes) fans: Yes, I know he's great. Now, will you stop already with the emails?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3): Dear Ravens fans: I know your team beat the Steelers twice. But with Baltimore losing to Seattle, I don't care.
4. New England Patriots (6-3): The Patriots defense is getting better in a hurry. Question is whether it will be good enough by the playoffs.
5. Houston Texans (7-3): This is the first time the Texans make the top five. With Matt Schaub(notes) out, it's also probably the last.

Bottom five
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-6):
Not only are the Jags awful, but they might be on the way to ruining rookie QB Blaine Gabbert(notes).
29. Miami Dolphins (2-7): Was that really Reggie Bush(notes) I saw scoring two TDs? It only took half a season to figure out how to use him.
30. Minnesota Vikings (2-7): How can a team with Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin(notes), Jared Allen(notes) and Kevin Williams(notes) be this bad?
31. Carolina Panthers (2-7): If you think it's bad now, five of the final seven games for the Panthers are on the road.
32. Indianapolis Colts (0-10): Have 2 ½-game lead with six to go in Suck for Luck campaign. Might as well fit him for a uniform now.


CLOSING MOMENTS

Conspiracy alert: For all you fans who write me consistently to say the NFL is rigged, here's a good one to look for. The NFL better hope the Packers either go undefeated or lose three games between now and the final two games with the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. Otherwise, the games are likely to be completely meaningless and that won't play well on TV (particularly against the Bears on Christmas night). As an aside, I love to get the conspiracy theorists stirred up.

Sadly, while few people really care about the NBA labor strife, this potentially could be a fascinating test case for NFL players and owners to watch. Yes, the NFL recently settled its labor dispute and has a 10-year deal in place, but NBA players are playing hardball in a way NFL owners feared that its league's players might do. What happens with the NBA players could eventually impact the strategy of the next NFL negotiations. That's because the NFL will probably feel aggressive in the next negotiation because of the indecisive manner in which the NFLPA used decertification. It's a long way away for the NFL, but the NBA could provide a foundation for what happens next in the NFL.

Of all the great things Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) has done while leading the Packers to a Super Bowl victory and 9-0 mark this season, a little moment from the end of the Monday night game when he wasn't even playing ranks as one of my favorites. After Mike Flynn(notes) rushed for a touchdown late in the lopsided win over Minnesota, Rodgers was earnestly happy for Flynn, jogging over to congratulate the backup when he came to the sideline. Compared to how Rodgers was shunned by previous Green Bay starter Brett Favre(notes), Rodgers was practically like a member of Flynn's family.

For those who watched the sad-but-lopsided fall of Stanford's undefeated season on Saturday against Oregon, Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck had an up-and-down performance. Not enough to derail his likely selection as the No. 1 overall pick, but there were cracks in the armor. In short, those who have mentioned him in the same sentence with John Elway should tone it down. Luck is great and looks like a slightly more athletic version of Peyton Manning(notes) (Luck is a better runner and is probably stronger). Nothing wrong with that.

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