The day after his Falcons opened the season by winning in Kansas City, Mike Smith noted that a game that ended 40-24 had nonetheless been a long “two hours and 52 minutes.” Intrigued, a listener picked up a copy of the stats booklet to cross-check the coach’s numbers.
Sure enough, there it was. “Time of game: 2:52.”
Further intrigued, the same listener asked Smith if he’s in the habit of committing the running times of games to memory. (In the NFL, this is a number you have to hunt to find. Indeed, if you scan the Falcons-Chiefs box score on ESPN.com, you won’t find it at all.) And Smith said he does. He also said it’s one of the first things he checks.
Now this was getting really intriguing. There are a hundred numbers in an NFL stats booklet more important that how long the game lasted. We can assume the head coach already knows the final score, but what about yardage, turnovers, penalties, time of possession, third-down conversions. Heck, what about net punting?
So why does Mike Smith, the best coach the Falcons have ever had, note the times of games? “I want to know how long I had to be standing there,” he said, smiling, and what he meant was: I want to know how long I had to endure this latest round of weekly torture.
Of all the coaching jobs in all the world, Mike Smith has one of the 32 hardest. Managing a baseball team is different because you play 162 games, as opposed to 16, and you’re expected to lose at least 50. Coaching basketball is different because everybody knows basketball is a player’s game. Even coaching college football is different because, if you’re a big-name program, you can schedule four or five victories a year.
The NFL, by way of contrast, is a grind every day of every week of every season. You spend 16-hour days preparing your team to do the right things, and then it’s game time and stuff starts going wrong. Even if you wind up winning by 16 points, you feel as if you’ve been run over by herd of wild horses.
“It’s like a stress test,” Smith said, and here we recall that, after a breathless victory in Charlotte last season, the best coach the Falcons have ever had spent several hours in a hospital undergoing an actual medical stress test.
Speaking of wild horses: For Smith and crew, Game 2 figured to be no lazy day at the dude ranch, either. Game 2 was a Monday night affair against the Denver Broncos and the famous Peyton Manning. All of this only heightened the anxiety: All day to fret, all those hours for ESPN to dole out its usual heaping helping of hype, all those folks sure to tune in. And at the end of that dark tunnel was Peyton M., the scariest man alive if you’ve ever been a defensive coordinator. (Mike Smith was, for five years, in Manning’s division.)
Which isn’t to say there was nothing to be gained by Smitty’s team Monday night. On the contrary, this game offered opportunity by the metric ton. Win and the Falcons would be leading the NFC South by a game over Carolina and Tampa Bay and, more to the point, by two over New Orleans. Win and they’d be 2-0 and off to the flying start everyone in Flowery Branch had in mind. Win and they’d have proved their bona fides on a national stage, which they haven’t done lately. Win and they’d have beaten Peyton Manning.
Win or lose, there was one bit of sobering reality for Smith going in. With both sides working from the no-huddle and figuring to throw the ball all over creation, there seemed no way this game would be done in a brisk two hours, 52 minutes. Usually we newspaper types on deadline are the one gnashing our teeth the hardest over protracted night games, but on this night we had company. Mike Smith’s latest stress test was sure to last a nice long while.
And with that, the figurative floor is again open for questions, comments and observations. I’ll be here until the last second ticks off the ol’ clock, which might be around midnight. But I’d appreciate your company, and I thank you, as ever, in advance.
By Mark Bradley