Falcons’ Smith panics on fourth down

So what can you say about Mike Smith’s controversial fourth-down decision other than to reference the most-famous four-letter word of the past week.

Oops!

On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach pulled a Rick Perry. He did what New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick did in 2009 against Indianapolis, going for it from deep in his own territory. But Belichick had better logic. He was playing with a lead, trying to run the clock out on the Colts.

Mike Smith and the Falcons lost to the Saints 26-23 in overtime.
(Getty Images)

In this situation, Smith had neither the lead nor the clock to worry about in overtime. With the score tied and facing fourth-and-1 from his 29-yard line, Smith rolled some huge, unnecessary dice against the New Orleans Saints with the NFC South lead on the line. He came up snake eyes, with New Orleans stopping running back Michael Turner(notes) and subsequently getting a 26-yard field from John Kasay(notes) for a 26-23 win. Afterward, Smith, who is as good a strategist as you will ever meet, explained his decision as being overt fear of Drew Brees(notes). As Smith tells it, he has seen Brees march the field at a crucial moment and snatch victory from his team too many times over the years.

“That’s a very good quarterback,” Smith said. “By no means is that lack of faith in the defense. It’s a matter of what has happened when we have played them in the past that is always part of the decision-making process. In previous games, in close games that we’ve played them, we’ve punted the ball and they’ve gotten the ball back with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again, and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process that I went through.”

[ Related: Sean Payton illegally coaches outside the box ]

That sounds good, but that was not this situation. This was early in overtime, when the clock didn’t matter. There was more than 10 minutes remaining in the period, so the Falcons would have had plenty of time left if they stopped the Saints. From where the Falcons were on the field, they could have pushed New Orleans back to roughly its own 30-yard line.

The Saints would have had to move the ball 40 yards to get a reasonable field goal shot for Kasay. That’s not a tough task for the Saints, but it wasn’t like New Orleans was moving the ball at will Sunday. On three of New Orleans’ four previous drives, the Falcons limited the Saints to less than 10 yards. In fact, the Saints had 11 drives up to that point where six of them went for 32 yards or less. Sure, Brees was having a good day (30-of-43 for 322 yards and two touchdowns), but as the old quote goes, “He ain’t God, man.” Furthermore, the Falcons were at home and the Saints have been a bad road team this season (they were 2-3 on the road coming into this game and neither of the wins was against a winning team).

The Saints defense stopped Michael Turner on a fourth and one play in overtime.
(US Presswire)

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: Saints WR Robert Meachum on fourth-down stop]

This was as bad a gamble, which is a stunning to say about any decision by Smith. Last season, the Falcons built a 13-3 record largely on the strength of going 6-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown. They were also one of only three teams to make the playoffs despite being outgained on a per-play basis (Seattle and Chicago were the others). That’s because Smith is great at pushing the right buttons.

On Sunday, however, the only thing he appeared to push was the panic button. Very odd.

“It was something that I take full responsibility for. It’s my decision and my decision solely,” Smith said. “First we were going to punt the football, then I had a change of heart and I wanted us to go for it. I thought that the ball was inside a half a yard and thought that we could get it.”

Oops!

Here are the winners and losers for Week 10:

WINNERS

A.J. Green scores over the Steelers’ Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.
(Getty Images)

OK, Cincinnati Bengals fans, even after the 24-17 loss, you can officially feel great about what you have in quarterback Andy Dalton(notes) and wide receiver A.J. Green(notes). Not that things weren’t looking excellent before this, but Dalton and Green had yet to go up against a team of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ caliber (San Francisco is good, but it’s not the Steelers). Anyway, Dalton was a somewhat pedestrian 15-of-30 for 170 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Likewise, Green was held to one catch for 36 yards (that catch going for a very impressive touchdown over the combination of safeties Troy Polamalu(notes) and Ryan Clark(notes)). However, Green was held in check mostly by a bruised knee he suffered while landing after the aforementioned catch. While neither player was truly special, they also weren’t overwhelmed by the moment. Coming into this game, the Steelers had been 12-1 against rookie quarterbacks, often making the youngsters look like they should be back in high school. Dalton didn’t shrink in this game. He made a couple of mistakes, but the type of throws which can easily be corrected. Moreover, he and Green came up big on their touchdown play and Dalton’s short touchdown throw to tight end Jermaine Gresham(notes) in the second half was a terrific play as Dalton held up against a furious pass rush from James Harrison(notes). It wasn’t a win, but it was the kind of performance a young quarterback and star receiver can build on.

Give the Chicago Bears receiver/returner Devin Hester(notes) credit for backing up his big talk. During the NFL Network pregame show, an interview of Hester by Michael Irvin featured this gem of a quote: “I don’t know what it’s going to take for a returner to get voted in the Hall of Fame, but I’m going to make sure that it’ll be a hard decision to pass me up. There’s a first for everything and I want to be the first.” Hester then added to his NFL record of most punt return touchdowns with an 82-yarder for a score in the first half against Detroit. Look, I’m not sure where I stand on Hester being in the Hall. Frankly, it doesn’t matter since I don’t have a vote. However, Hester is making this a heck of a discussion. He has a 18 career return scores, one short of Deion Sanders’ record, in his six-year career, including a record 12 on punt returns. He is way past the point of fluke player. Assuming he has three or four more solid years, he could easily have 25 to 30 touchdowns on returns by the time his career is over. And that will be after the league made the change on kickoffs, eliminating more opportunities for him.

DeMarco Murray rushed for 135 yards and one TD against the Bills.
(US Presswire)

Here’s a message for Dallas Cowboys coach, I mean owner, Jerry Jones: Don’t mess around, just make running back DeMarco Murray(notes) the starter for the rest of the season. Don’t bother with Felix Jones(notes) when Jones is fully healthy. Don’t overthink this. Don’t think that because both you and Jones have the same name and went to Arkansas that Jones is going to be the monster you expected when you drafted him in the first round in 2007. Just realize that Murray is better. Murray is a monster and he is making your team dominant. With Murray in the lineup, the Cowboys have won three of four and have been dominant doing it. In the three wins, Murray has rushed 67 times for 527 yards and caught 10 passes for 83 yards. The Cowboys, who blitzed the Buffalo Bills 44-7 on Sunday, have won those three games by a combined 101-27.

[ Related: Cowboys cheerleader receives in-game gift from boyfriend ]

Congratulations to Tim Tebow(notes) and the Denver Broncos for the win over the Kansas City Chiefs, which gives Tebow three wins in his four starts and puts the Broncos one game behind Oakland in the AFC West. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Denver actually becoming any good when Tebow completed 2 of 8 passes for 69 yards. Yes, one of them was a nice 56-yard touchdown to wide receiver Eric Decker(notes). But anyone who saw Tebow play extensively in college knows that the one thing that Tebow does well is throw the deep ball (just ask Riley Cooper(notes)). Tebow continued to struggle on anything remotely intermediate. But wins are wins and the Broncos are doing a good job of tricking it up right now, enough to allow Tebow to be the hero for the short-term. Long-term, this isn’t going to work.

John Skelton passed for 315 yards and three TDs against the Eagles.
(Getty Images)

Let’s not get too carried away with Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton(notes), but do give him credit for taking his team all the way to Philadelphia and coming out with a fourth-quarter comeback. As a result, Skelton is now 4-2 as a starter since being a fifth-round draft pick out of Fordham last season. That includes wins in the past two games since Kevin Kolb(notes) got hurt, getting the Cardinals to 3-6. Skelton is very rough around the edges, but he has a big arm and is very bright (he’s the son of two high school teachers). While the team is invested in Kolb right now, things may work out OK if Skelton continues to develop. Like Cincy’s Dalton, Skelton doesn’t melt on a bigger stage against better competition. Fact is, Skelton had a first-half pass intercepted and returned it for a touchdown, but still managed to pull out the victory by throwing three touchdown passes the rest of the way.

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster(notes) continued his torrid pace with 84 yards rushing on 17 carries and 102 yards receiving on four catches, including a 78-yard touchdown on a screen pass. After gaining only 40 yards rushing and receiving over the first three games, Foster has 1,145 yards in the past seven games. In addition, Houston has won four straight to take control of the AFC South. That said, the only quality win the 7-3 Texans have is against Pittsburgh. The other six wins are against teams that are a combined 17-38. Look, I know the Texans are up there in offensive and defensive rankings and they’re winning without wide receiver Andre Johnson(notes) and linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams(notes). But I’m not ready to believe in this team yet. Gary Kubiak is simply too much like Norv Turner with a drawl for me to trust.

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: LB Brian Cushing on the Texans’ stingy D]

To all the Pittsburgh/Ike Taylor(notes) fans who wrote me this week about how I could possible leave him off the all-midseason team, here is my response (as proved by the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game): Taylor is one of the great “mirror” guys in the game today. By that, I mean that few corners in the league mirror the movements of the guy they are covering better than Taylor. He is incredibly quick, particularly at age 31. However, when it comes to getting interceptions, Taylor just doesn’t get it done. The reason is that Taylor simply doesn’t like to take many risks in a game. That’s fine, but that’s why he has zero interceptions this season and only 11 in his career. By contrast, Hall of Famer Rod Woodson played 10 years at cornerback with Pittsburgh (really, it was just nine because of an injury that cost him the 1995 season). While playing in the same scheme as Taylor, Woodson had 37 interceptions. Yeah, there’s a certain point where rating cornerbacks only in terms of interceptions is silly. However, there is a balance. Getting at least some interceptions is a prerequisite to go from being very good to being great. Taylor is a winner at cornerback. He’s just not a star.


LOSERS

This week’s biggest one: The Philadelphia EaglesDeSean Jackson(notes), who was inactive Sunday after missing a meeting Saturday because of “oversleeping.” Jackson wasn’t just late, he missed the whole thing. One source close to Jackson said Sunday night that the wide receiver, in the final year of his current contract, is frustrated about not getting a new deal before the season and, over the past few weeks, Jackson sees himself getting “shut out” by the coaching staff. “He thinks they’re trying to drive down his value,” the source said, referring to the fact that Jackson had only eight catches for 93 yards in the past three games. When it was pointed out that Jackson was doing a great job of driving down his value by missing the meeting, the source laughed wearily and said, “Yeah, I know, but we’re not talking about the most mature guy in the world.” Last year, for instance, head coach Andy Reid yelled at Jackson after one game for not being focused. Jackson openly sulked afterward, even though the Eagles won.

The Bears’ Julius Peppers forced a Calvin Johnson fumble in the first quarter.
(US Presswire)

The Detroit Lions had one of those bad days that young, inexperienced teams run into on the way to becoming good. It happens. However, the mindless lack of hustle on a strip of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) at the end of the first half was a terrible sign. The Lions could have gotten a possession out of that. The play didn’t hurt the Lions as the Bears didn’t score. However, hustle is hustle. It’s either a part of your essence or not. Coach Jim Schwartz has to drive that point home if the Lions are going to continue on their promising path.

The Washington Redskins’ offense has bottomed out, scoring a total of 20 points and only one touchdown (and that came in garbage time last week against San Francisco) over the past three games. On Sunday, the Redskins managed three field goals against a Miami team that is now 2-7. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan once again tried to be Mr. Secretive by saying all week that John Beck(notes) would start before switching to Rex Grossman(notes) on Sunday morning. Big whoop. Grossman still threw two interceptions and now has eight and one touchdown in his past three starts.

As noted this past week, I was bothered by the fact that the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens both celebrated so strongly last weekend after their big victories over New England and Pittsburgh, respectively. The Giants carried Tom Coughlin off the field and the Ravens gave John Harbaugh a Gatorade bath. Both of them crossed the country for games at San Francisco and Seattle, but neither of them controlled those games in defeat. Next time be a little more reserved after a regular-season win.

Speaking of the Giants, here is a message for the New York fans who ripped me for saying that Eli Manning(notes) isn’t elite: The game at San Francisco is a microcosm of my point. As talented as Manning is (his physical skills rank right there with Tom Brady(notes) and his brother Peyton), the execution isn’t there on a consistent basis. On Sunday, Manning had two interceptions in his own territory. The first was a non-issue as San Francisco’s Alex Smith gave the ball back. However, the second was a killer as it came in the fourth quarter and set up the 49ers’ clinching touchdown. Until Manning can eliminate these kinds of mistakes, he will always rank among the very good, but not the elite.

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: RB Kendall Hunter on 8-1 Niners]

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) continues to play terrible football. Talib was beaten by Jacoby Jones(notes) on an 80-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, missed a tackle on Foster’s 78-yard score and dropped an interception that would have prevented a field goal in the first half. The Bucs reportedly contemplated cutting Talib in the offseason after a shooting incident in Texas that is still pending (he may face trial next offseason). The way he’s playing right now, he might deserve to get cut for his play. That’s shocking because Talib is a gifted player.

Sorry, Buffalo fans, but this is the reality of the Bills’ defense. You don’t get four interceptions every week, as the Bills did twice earlier this season. Add into that that the offense is limited. Running back Fred Jackson(notes) is terrific, but wide receiver Stevie Johnson(notes) is the best they have outside and he can be taken away, as he has the past two games by Dallas and the New York Jets.

THE SUNDAY 10

(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)

Jacoby Jones outruns the Bucs defense on the first play of the game.
(Getty Images)

Loved: The annual tease that Jacoby Jones provided on the first series of the game against Tampa Bay. Jones made a really nice move to break free through the Bucs’ secondary en route to his 80-yard score. The rest of the game, Jones had one catch for seven yards. If you listen to Houston fans long enough, you consistently hear them wonder why Jones doesn’t play better or get more chances. Well, he’s not the least bit consistent.

Loathed: How in the world was Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells(notes) knocked down by Philadelphia cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes)? The 6-foot-2, 229-pound Wells is supposed to be a power back and even had a chance to stiff-arm Rodgers-Cromartie on the play. Somehow, the 6-foot-2, 182-pound Rodgers-Cromartie (and 182 is generous) sent Wells sprawling.

Loved: There is nothing more fun than watching Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu run as hard as he can to make a tackle on a play in front of him. Polamalu is a great tackler because not only is he quick and has great form, but he’s incredibly decisive. Once Polamalu makes a decision, he doesn’t hesitate.

Loathed: The holding penalty committed by Washington tight end Logan Paulsen(notes) in the first half against Miami. A Ryan Torain(notes) 1-yard scoring run was nullified, putting Washington in a third-down situation from the 10-yard line. That’s one of the dumbest penalties you can commit because the yardage is so much more important than the down. Of course, Washington made the situation worse by then wasting a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty after the penalty, and ultimately settled for a field goal.

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: WR Davone Bess on Dolphins’ second win]

Loved: The hurdle move Denver running back Knowshon Moreno(notes) used on the way to a 24-yard run in the first quarter against Kansas City. While Moreno has largely been a disappointment as a pro, he still does that jump better than just about anybody in football. He was particularly great at it when he played at Georgia.

Loathed: The fact that Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson(notes) continues to miss the point in pass coverage. Nelson had a nice hit on Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller(notes) after Miller caught an 18-yard pass over the middle. The problem is that Nelson was late reacting, allowing the catch in the first place. That allowed the Steelers to convert on third-and-10 and score a touchdown on the next play instead of settling for a field goal if Nelson had broken up the pass.

Loved: The 11-yard catch and run by Pittsburgh rookie tight end Weslye Saunders(notes) – is he related to Dwyane Wade? – to give the Steelers a critical first down with two minutes remaining. The Steelers loved what they saw of the undrafted target in training camp and think he can become an impact receiver someday. On the 11-yarder, just his second reception this season, Saunders made two nice moves.

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: WR Jerricho Cotchery on being a Steeler]

Loathed: Not that I have a rooting interest, but anytime a team misses a gimme field goal at the end after a well-executed drive in the fourth quarter, it’s just brutal – particularly at home. That’s what happened at Cleveland, when Phil Dawson(notes) missed a 22-yarder for the Browns with 2:10 remaining, the obvious critical play in a 13-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Loved: Seeing Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson break out of his season-long slump with 130 yards on 27 carries and four catches for 44 yards. At least now I don’t have to hear my boss complain about Johnson, the top pick on his fantasy team. Things were so bad, he nearly sent me to Nashville to investigate the problem.

Loathed: Seeing the passing totals by Jacksonville and Indianapolis in this brutal season for both teams. Blaine Gabbert(notes), Curtis Painter(notes) and Dan Orlovsky(notes) combined to complete 34 of 50 passes for 279 yards in Jacksonville’s 17-3 victory, which dropped Indy to 0-10. The trio combined to complete only one pass of longer than 20 yards. The combined average of 5.6 yards per attempt is downright pitiful.

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Nov 13, 2011