Let’s put aside for now that the Falcons probably got jobbed by a replay official. And that the wrong play may have been called on fourth down. And that, yes, no matter what the circumstances are, an offensive line and a 247-pound running back should be able to bulldoze their way to a one-foot gain.
Mike Smith picked a very strange time to get bold. The wrong time.
The Falcons lost to the New Orleans Saints 26-23 in overtime on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. It was a three-point game won in the 67th minute between two division rivals who may battle for first place for seven more weeks. So this certainly is no time to make grand proclamations about one team being superior over the other.
Simply, the Falcons lost because they made more mistakes. They had too many too penalties (10, including four 15-yarders), too many drops (two alone by Roddy White, one of which led to an interception and a field goal) and too many missed opportunities (three of the offense’s red-zone possessions resulted in six points).
But the biggest mistake was made by the head coach.
Smith was aggressive when he decided to go for it on fourth-and-a-foot from the Falcons’ almost-30 in overtime. We like aggressive coaches. This is the NFL. Passivity doesn’t win.
But when Turner was stuffed three feet short of a one-foot gain, the Falcons knew they basically were giving the Saints the game. New Orleans has one of the best kickers in the league (John Kasay), The resulting 26-yard field was almost an afterthought.
The Falcons had a first down taken away by replay when Mike Cox’s 2-yard gain was changed to no gain. Smith sent out the punt team on fourth down, but then “had a change of heart.”
Despite his claims that his decision was not rooted partly in a lack of faith in his defense but rather out of respect for Saints quarterback Drew Brees, that’s really saying the same thing.
If the Falcons punt from their own almost-30, New Orleans probably gets the ball back at its own 25 to 30. So Smith effectively told his defense, “You can’t stop Brees from going 40 to 45 yards to reach field-goal range.” This is the same defense had just forced the Saints to go three and out in the previous overtime possession and held them scoreless and to one first down and a net 21 yards in the previous two drives.
Predictably, Falcons’ players supported their coach, as they should. One of the strongest comments came from tackle Tyson Clabo, who said: “I wasn’t surprised by the decision — I was one of the guys on the sideline telling him to go for it. I thought it was the right call. We just didn’t do our job. All of the talking-head dummies and Monday morning quarterbacks will second-guess but I still think it was the right call.”
Some of the Saints had a slightly different view. Defensive end Will Smith, one of the first defenders to smack into Turner, was stunned.
When a reporter remarked that the Falcons have been known to go for it on fourth down, Smith responded: “But not on the 30. In overtime. I mean, if they don’t get it, it’s game over. If it was at the 50, we imagine they would’ve gone for it. But at the 30? No.”
Mike Smith is a terrific football coach. He is certain to direct the Falcons to their fourth straight winning season and possibly their third playoff appearance in that span. The fact that the Falcons were able to rebound from a 23-13 deficit to tie it in the final 4:13 of regulation on a Tony Gonzalez touchdown and a Matt Bryant field goal is a testament to Smith’s leadership and the fact his players believe in him.
But it’s rare to see Smith take an all-or-nothing position. It’s unfathomable he would take that position near his own 30 and in overtime. If it worked, of course, he would’ve been a hero. But that wouldn’t have made this less of an extreme roll of the dice.
Ever the stand-up guy, the coach said afterward: “It’s something I take full responsibility for. It’s my decision and my decision solely.”
On that, there is no debate.
By Jeff Schultz