I’d have gone for it. I’d go for it again. I might call a different play the next time, but I find no fault with Mike Smith’s reasoning. His choice was to try and keep possession by gaining six inches or to rely on his defense to halt the great Drew Brees yet again. That’s no choice at all.
Said Dunta Robinson, who we should note plays defense for the Falcons: “We were more bothered when we saw the punt team going out there [which it did before Smith called timeout and changed his mind] than when we saw the offense. We felt there was no way we weren’t going to get that first down.”
But they didn’t, and the Falcons lost another wild and crazy game in the series that leads the world in wild and crazy games, and now they’re 5-4 and trail New Orleans by 1 1/2 games in the NFC South. Give them this, though: They went down swinging, surging from 10 points behind in the final five minutes to force overtime, losing in overtime on their terms — not Drew Brees’.
We can and will debate whether these Falcons are as good as they should be, but we cannot question their guts. They out-dared the Saints, who as we know are a dauntless bunch, and came within an eyelash of stealing a game Brees and Co. should have locked away. That’s not to excuse the loss — there are no moral victories in the NFL — but it is to suggest that anyone who believes this excruciating game will crush the local team hasn’t been paying attention.
This is a feisty bunch, and this coach is a gutsy guy. Mike Smith made some curious decisions Sunday — a poor challenge that cost a timeout, an onside kick that came too early — but his team was in position not just to tie but to win at the end of regulation. (To me, Sean Payton messed up worse than Smitty did.) And that fourth-down call at the 29 in overtime wasn’t some flight of fancy but a considered decision based on, of all things, a grasp of history.
Said Smith: “We have had no success in giving them the ball back.”
He referred to two games: A five-point loss in the Superdome on Dec. 7, 2008, when the Falcons punted to the Saints with 3:15 remaining and saw New Orleans kill the clock, and the deflating game here on Dec. 27, 2010, when the Falcons, trailing by three, again punted with 2:44 left and never touched the ball again. Many among us ripped Smitty for a failure of nerve after the second game — that’s my hand you see raised — and we can’t have it both ways, can we? A coach can’t be half-daring, can he?
Smith again: “The message all week was that we were going to be an aggressive football team.”
As to the play itself: It was awful. Needing six inches, the Falcons eschewed a quarterback sneak and handed instead to Michael Turner, who had two lead blockers but had to wait for those blockers to array themselves. By that time, the Saints had him.
Said Turner: “If I didn’t like [the call], I would have walked off the field and let somebody else run the ball.”
The bottom line is that Smith’s daring gave the ball to Brees 40 yards closer than a punt would have, but there’s a line that undercuts even that bottom line: If you can’t get six inches in a game of this magnitude, you don’t deserve to win.
Said linebacker Curtis Lofton: “Fourth-and-inches, it being overtime — why not? You’ve got to go for it.”
Actually, you don’t. A skittish coach would have punted and, after the great Brees had driven his team to victory, have said, “Whaddaya want from me? I played the percentages!”
This is what we got from Mike Smith: “It’s something I take full responsibility for … It’s not anybody else’s fault. It’s my responsibility.”
As Smith spoke, his employer sat five yards to his right. Asked if he’d have gone for it, Arthur Blank said: “It was absolutely the right thing to do. You can’t keep giving the ball back to that offense.”
Let’s say again that there are no quality losses in pro football, and the Falcons somehow lost a game in which they outgained the great Brees and his offense by 118 yards. But these teams will meet again the night after Christmas, and the Saints have the tougher schedule from here. This division race isn’t over, and I’m pretty sure this coach’s men aren’t going to quit on him. On the contrary.
“I’m behind Smitty,” said center Todd McClure. “In this situation we didn’t get it done, but I like that our head coach has faith in us to get it done.”
Maybe in December they’ll gain those six inches. But a few words to the daring Mr. Smith: Quarterback sneak next time.
By Mark Bradley