Last Sunday, in the aftermath of the first postseason victory of his eight-year career, Roddy White sat at his locker looking anything but elated. As the Atlanta Falcons' four-time Pro Bowl receiver talked about his team's dramatic, 30-28 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks, he was interrupted by his 6-year-old son, Roddy Jr., who informed him, "Daddy, they passed it to you 10 times. You caught it five times."
White smiled and patted the boy on the back of his Falcons No. 84 jersey with "THE FUTURE" inscribed as the nameplate. Then he turned his attention back to the immediate past.
"I felt like in the first half we did a heck of a job, just coming out with attitude and executing at a high level," White said. "We got a little lazy in the second half. We kind of got too complacent, too relaxed. You can't do that in the playoffs. Every series matters. You can't have lulls, man."
White was referring to himself and his Falcons teammates, but anyone who watched Sunday's NFC divisional-round clash at the Georgia Dome also had questions about the way the Falcons' coaches seemed to take the pedal off the metal with a 27-7 second-half lead. It sure looked like Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who calls the plays, and/or coach Mike Smith, who green-lights them, contributed to the complacency with a disjointed, conservative plan of attack as the Seahawks charged back to go up 28-27 in the final minute.
Smith wasn't the only NFL coach getting questioned for lacking aggression last weekend. On Saturday, after his top-seeded team suffered a 38-35 overtime defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC divisional-round game, Denver Broncos coach John Fox took some heat for having instructed quarterback Peyton Manning to take a knee at his own 20-yard line with two timeouts and 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
In today's NFL, going for broke isn't always the right call, but it's usually the popular one, and with good reason. As rules changes and enhanced attention to player safety inhibit defenders from slowing down high-powered offensive attacks, playing it safe seems increasingly hard to justify.
Leads once believed to be secure now disappear like Snapchat photos. Remember in mid-December, when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots erased a 31-3 San Francisco 49ers lead in 14 minutes, only to surrender another touchdown 18 seconds later and lose?
It was no coincidence that the Niners and Pats were exceptionally aggressive last weekend in high-scoring playoff victories.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh's nervy and controversial decision to replace quarterback Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick in November came to fruition in a resounding way Saturday night as the 49ers crushed the Packers, 45-31.
Then there was New England coach Bill Belichick, the master of the relentless drive for massive margins, snuffing out the Houston Texans en route to a 41-28 victory Sunday. After stopping the Texans on downs and taking over at the Houston 33 with a 31-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, Brady went up top to running back Shane Vereen for a suspense-killing score — a stark contrast to the way the Falcons approached their playoff game earlier that day.
This, I believe, was at the root of White's frustration. Many NFL franchises are able to attain regular-season success in a given year, but a certain measure of boldness is often necessary to win big in the playoffs.
This realization, in my opinion, is what drove Ravens coach John Harbaugh (Jim's big brother) to make a controversial decision of his own in December, firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replacing him with Jim Caldwell. On Saturday the Ravens' attack featured quarterback Joe Flacco at his deep-throwing best, and this ultimately allowed them to overcome the Manning-led Broncos.
In fairness to Smith, he was under immense pressure to win Sunday's game against the Seahawks. Though no coach other than Belichick has won more regular season games since Smith came to Atlanta in 2008, his 0-3 postseason record was a blight that would have escalated to ghastly proportions had the Falcons blown that 20-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost.
With Sunday's narrow victory, Smith now appears to be entrenched as the Falcons' coach for years to come. Had Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal in the final seconds gone wide, or had Russell Wilson's Hail Mary ended up in Sidney Rice's hands, Smith — deservedly or otherwise — likely would have been coaching for his job in 2013, under the best-case scenario.
"Yeah, it would've been tough, not just for Matt Ryan and Smitty, but for our whole franchise, and everyone on our team," White said on Sunday. "And all the stuff we worked so hard for all year would've disappeared."
By all rights, Smith should be far looser in Sunday's NFC championship game against the 49ers at the Dome. If he empowers Koetter to attack San Francisco's defense with impunity, White, for one, will be appreciative. After that stretch against the Seahawks in which he and his offensive teammates became disconcertingly passive, White is convinced that it would be tough to survive a similar lull against the Niners.
"Other than that first drive [of the second half], we kinda went out there totally off, with no energy, nothing," White said. "We were just waiting around for someone else to make a play. We can't do that. We've got to go out there and execute, play Falcon football.
"It was stressful, because we weren't making any plays on offense. We are an offense-led team, and it was kind of frustrating. The way we were running the ball, we should've been able to have success with play-action. We dropped a couple of passes. It was bad."
To be fair, players, and especially prolific wide receivers, inevitably prefer being put in a position to attack an opponent's weaknesses. Sometimes, it's a coach's job to curb that enthusiasm and to adopt a more prudent approach.
Had Fox allowed Manning to take a shot at beating the Ravens in regulation last Saturday and had the Broncos quarterback thrown an interception in his own territory, the Denver coach would have been criticized for his recklessness. That said, I still believe that fans, and most owners and general managers, tend to be more forgiving of coaches who take chances than they are of those who pucker up in key moments.
Of this much I'm fairly certain: For the Falcons to reach their second Super Bowl and first in 14 years, they'll need to overcome the fear factor that surfaced against the Seahawks.
"We've got to play a complete game," White said, looking ahead to Sunday's game against the 49ers. "If we don't mind our P's and Q's, the whole team, we'll be in trouble."
And if Smith doesn't loosen up, and turn his players loose in the process, the Falcons' task will be that much tougher.
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