ATLANTA - You would’ve been hard-pressed to find a coach or player in the Georgia Dome late Sunday afternoon who disagreed with the decision Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made in overtime of his team’s game with the New Orleans Saints.
Almost everyone said it was a gutsy call by Smith, going for it on fourth-and-inches at his own 29-yard line with Saints kicker John Kasay already within range of a game-winning field-goal attempt.
Gutsy? Certainly. But the decision to try to make a first down in that situation went against everything found in the NFL coaching manual, where conservative calls - especially in overtime - are the rule rather than the exception.
It’s certainly easy to see where Smith, a likeable man with a 38-19 regular-season record and two playoff berths since taking over in 2008, was coming from when he took his punt team off the field and sent his offense back out.
He had to feel good about putting the ball in the hands of running back Michael Turner, a 247-pound battering ram, but he was actually taking a much bigger risk than punting the ball and giving Drew Brees a chance - which is what he feared in the first place.
Because his defense already had stopped the Saints on three plays on their first possession of the overtime period, maybe Smith was thinking the odds of the Falcons getting the job done again were lower.
Whatever the reason, Smith’s failed roll of the dice was appropriately labeled “Fourth and Foolish” by one Atlanta TV station Sunday night.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time an NFL coach has had such a move backfire, although it may have been the first in overtime.
In a Nov. 15, 2009, game, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was nursing a six-point lead on the road against the Indianapolis Colts when he had his team go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Pats’ 28 with 2:08 remaining. He did it because he didn’t want Peyton Manning to drive his team the length of the field to a game-winning touchdown.
Belichick’s gamble failed when former LSU star Kevin Faulk caught a pass from Tom Brady and was stopped a yard short of a first down.
As a result, Manning didn’t need to go the length of the field. He needed just four plays to travel the 29 yards to the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds left.
But back to Sunday.
It may have seemed like a good thing to do considering Turner was 6-of-7 converting on third-and-1 this season, including two on the Falcons’ first possession Sunday. But Smith shouldn’t have done it:?The risk was greater than the reward.
“I hope people don’t question that call,” said Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who’s seen a lot in a 15-year career that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he’s done. “That was absolutely the right call for that situation. Michael Turner is a proven back, and you’d think we would be able to go get six inches.”