November 13, 2011
The final judgment on the astuteness of a playcall should be independent of that play's result. Too often, this is not the case. When an NFL coach makes a good decision that goes bad, the decision is widely considered to be the wrong one. Conversely, a stupid call that turns out well is lauded.
The decision of Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith to go for it on fourth-and-inches from his own 29-yard line in overtime doesn't fall into either of those categories. It had the distinction of being both awful and horribly unsuccessful.
After a bad spot on a third-down play, Smith sent his offense to the line of scrimmage for the fourth-and-inches early in overtime. When New Orleans called timeout, surely caught off guard by the unconventional decision, it seemed natural that Smith would reconsider and decide to punt. He didn't, and the fourth-down play was brilliantly fielded by the Saints defense, who stuffed Michael Turner(notes) for a two-yard loss.
Four plays later, New Orleans Saints kicker John Kasay(notes) hit a 26-yard field goal to give the Saints a crucial NFC South victory. It didn't need to be that close. By virtue of Smith's decision, the Saints were in position for a 44-yarder immediately when they got the ball.
It's not as if New Orleans' offense was so dominant on Sunday that Atlanta should have felt kicking was akin to losing. Drew Brees(notes) and the Saints were typically productive against the Falcons but had punted on their last two possessions and five times overall during the game.
Smith gambled instead and did it on a bet where the risk far outweighed the reward. And that's what so vexing: Even if the Falcons made it, they were still 40 yards from field goal range. Getting the first down would have extended the drive, kept the ball in the team's hands and prevented Drew Brees from having a chance to end the game. None of those was enough justification to risk the failure of not getting the first down. Whereas punting may have meant the Falcons would never touch the ball again, getting stopped short ensured it.
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