ATLANTA - You are Mike Smith, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and you have exactly five seconds to make the most crucial decision of your season.
But you’ll get to that in a moment. First, take a look back at what got you here.
You arrived in Atlanta as a newly-minted head coach in 2008, and immediately hoisted the team from four wins the year before to 11 and a playoff berth. You killed that red-and-black Atlanta-never-had-consecutive-winning-seasons albatross dead the next year. In just six years, you’ve become the winningest coach in Falcons history, which, granted, is a low bar to clear.
You helmed the best NFC team in the regular season last year, and came within 10 yards of a trip to the Super Bowl. You rolled into this season a playoff lock, with an offense so overloaded with talent it seemed like a fantasy team in a six-team league. And now, thanks to injury and downward trajectory, you’ve spent the better part of three months watching your once-worldbeating team become one of the NFL’s punch lines.
You’ve lost five straight and nine of your last 10. You’ve lost to teams both sublime (the Seahawks) and pathetic (the Buccaneers). You’re on national TV again – Thursday night on the NFL Network, but hey, national is national – and you’re facing your hated rival New Orleans. You’ve got a chance here for a little redemption – not a playoff season, no; those hopes vanished in October, but at least a bit of face-saving.
And the game unfolds, and you watch as your team stays close. Your Falcons are playing with all the grace and daring of a minivan, but like a minivan, they’re doing the job well enough. The game is still within reach with eight minutes left, Falcons down four, 17-13, with possession of the ball.
Your quarterback, Matt Ryan, has been the most successful in the game since 2008 –the year you arrived, remember – at engineering fourth-quarter comebacks. He’s done it 22 times. But this year? Zero. Now would be a good time for the first, don’t you think?
And for just a few minutes, he looks like he’s going to do it. You watch as Ryan leads the team from his own 3 all the way down to the New Orleans 29. You watch as he takes yet another sack, one of five on the night, to push him back five yards.
Now it’s fourth down. Two minutes, 28 seconds remaining, ball on the New Orleans 34, clock running. You’re down four. And you’re facing that choice.
Go for it on fourth and 15? Punt the ball and pin New Orleans against the end zone? Or go for the field goal and hope for the best, knowing you’ve got three timeouts and the two-minute warning in your pocket?
You go for the safe play. You go for the field goal. And the crowd boos.
You watch your kicker, Matt Bryant, the guy they call “Grumpy” in the Falcons locker room, line up for the 52-yard kick. You saw him line up to kick toward this same end zone ten months and eight days ago in the NFC playoffs. He was kicking from almost the exact same spot and the exact same distance, and on that day he drilled it true and bounced Seattle from the playoffs.
Right now, that day seems a lot more distant than ten months and eight days.
Still, you know Bryant’s got both the leg and the spine to kick it from this distance. You know he’s not the type to get rattled easily, even when New Orleans calls a timeout the instant before the snap, a timeout that wipes out a good kick.
And so when Bryant misses on the re-kick, you know there’s nothing to do but breathe deep and hope your defense can make the stop.
Your boss, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, is on the sideline near you in an ash-gray suit. Your boss’s boss, owner Arthur Blank, stands close by as well, in a red-and-black checked sport jacket. You know they’re there. They’re always there at the end of games. You know they can see the failure and hear the boos every bit as well as you can.
You have plenty of time to get the ball back and engineer another drive if only your team can come up with a stop. Naturally, this being 2013, your defense is about as stout as whipped cream. They don’t even stop the Saints; the Saints stop themselves, with two kneeldowns and a runaround that leaves just five seconds on the clock.
One ridiculous prayer of a play later, a play that ends in a hail of flags and an illegal forward pass, and this game – the last, best shot at respectability this season – is over. You’re 2-9 now. You leave the field after all of your players, after all the cameras, even after the band.
You try to justify your decisionmaking after the game: “There’s not a whole lot of great fourth and 15, or fourth and 14, plays,” you say. You explain your reasoning: hit the field goal, get four opportunities to stop the clock, win the game with another field goal.
Your quarterback answers the fourth-and-15 question a bit more definitively than you: “We’re prepared for that every week,” he says, an answer that doesn’t make the official transcript, but then walks it back: “We trust in Smitty. We thought it was the right call.”
The right call. When a season is already flushed, you go for the absolute safest play. You’ll be hearing about this one for awhile.
You are Mike Smith, and you have no defense, on or off the field.
What do you do?