It’s simple risk versus reward.
With the game tied 23-23, Smith’s Falcons faced a fourth-and-1 from their own 29-yard-line on Sunday against the Saints. At first, Smith decided to punt the ball, which would have not only been the conventional thing to do but also the smartest. Instead, he had a “change of heart” (his words, not mine) and decided to go for it instead.
What happened next was highly predictable if you’ve paid attention to the Falcons the past three years. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been playing not-to-lose-football ever since he was hired by Atlanta in 2008. His ball-control offense has been successful the past three years, at least in the regular season. But his failure to unleash Matt Ryan and the passing game has produced two losses in the playoffs and a ton of questions about his ability to attack defenses when the moment arises.
Thus, it was no surprise that Ryan took the snap on that fatal fourth down, spun around and handed the ball to Turner, who was promptly stuffed in the backfield.
The entire play was a mess from the start. First of all, Mularkey hadn’t run the ball once in two possessions in overtime. He’s a conservative playcaller by nature, so even the hot dog vender knew that Turner was going to get the ball when the Falcons lined up in their Jumbo package. The fact that Mularkey had his right guard Joe Hawley pull on the play instead of just pushing ahead only compounded the mistake. Hawley has been a small disaster as a run blocker this season and had just made the transition from center to guard two weeks ago. Why Mularkey thought Hawley was the perfect lineman to pull and get in front of Turner is beyond me.
Which gets us back to Smith. After three-plus years of playing conservative football with his conservative offensive coordinator, why take the ultimate risk at that point? Again, had the Falcons picked up the first down they still would have had a ways to go just to get into field goal range. If they didn’t convert, the Saints would take over only needing to trot their field goal unit onto the field for a game-winning attempt.
Following the game Smith admitted that he was afraid to give the ball back to Drew Brees, which is certainly understandable. The Falcons have a rookie punter in Matt Bosher and while he has improved the past couple of weeks, one shank could have been disastrous. But not as disastrous as failing to convert on fourth down.
The Falcons defense had just forced Brees to go three-and-out on their previous possession and had forced a punt to set up the game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter. It made much more sense to punt the ball and force Brees to go 40-plus yards than risk handing the game to the Saints on a silver platter.
Granted, the Falcons were robbed on a potential first down call on the previous play, which would have completely negated the decision to go for it. But that doesn’t excuse Smith from pushing all of his chips into the center of the pile and saying, “Let it ride!!!” when there was absolutely no reason to do so.
If you look at this fourth down play as its own separate entity, then you could chalk it up as a risk that just didn’t pan out. But sometimes I wonder if Smith and the Falcons know who they are as a football team. Even if you agree with the decision to go for it, the play that Mularkey chose and Smith signed off on was highly predictable and lacked creativity, which has been something that has plagued the Falcons for three years.
Have Ryan sneak the ball. Go play action and let Ryan hit the sure-handed Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field. Spread the Saints out and throw a quick hitch to the sidelines.
Or better yet, punt the football and know when the risk is worth the reward.