Did Mike Smith Make the Right Call Going for it on Fourth Down?
The Falcons lost to the Saints in overtime on Sunday after a controversial decision by Atlanta head coach Mike Smith to go for it on fourth down. Like any other coach would for a gutsy call gone wrong, Smith has been crucified in the media. Facing a fourth and inches at his own 30-yard line, Smith decided to let his offense try to keep the drive alive. The Falcons had moved the ball on the ground against New Orleans all afternoon, rushing for 138 yards including 96 from Michael Turner — the man who was stuffed on the play. If Atlanta converted and went on to win, it’s a ballsy call by a coach who trusted his offense. Since they failed to pick up less than a yard, many have said it was a bonehead move from someone who doesn’t trust his defense.
Here at LBS, we were on both sides of the fence. On one side you have Del, who argues that no matter what you should always give your defense a chance to stop the other team when you are that deep in your own territory. On the other side is L.B., who is a strong advocate for going for it since the odds of picking up less than a yard are heavily in the offense’s favor.
As Pro Football Talk pointed out, the website AdvancedNFLStats.com crunched some numbers that help make sense of the situation. Their statisticians determined that if the Falcons punted, they had a 42% chance of winning. If they converted the fourth down play, they would have had a 57% chance of winning. They also unveiled that teams going for it on fourth-and-one convert 74% of the time. Considering the Falcons were facing fourth-and-inches, it would stand to reason that they stood an even better chance of converting.
Overall, it was determined that Smith increased his team’s chance of winning by 5% by opting to go for it. Of course, statistics aren’t all that matters. My point in disagreeing with the call is that regardless of how likely it is to convert, you give your team virtually no chance of winning if they can’t pick up the few inches they need. Failure to convert gives the Saints the ball already in field goal range and excuses their offense from even having to work hard. However, L.B.’s point that the chances of converting are far greater than those of being stuffed makes perfect sense. In other words, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of situation.
Aside from the actual decision, L.B. and I did agree on one thing: poor play-calling. Why wouldn’t Atlanta try a quarterback sneak? They have a big body in Matt Ryan and needed to advance the ball only a few inches. Rather than handing it off to a running back three yards behind the line of scrimmage, why not get down low and try to inch the ball forward behind your massive linemen? You don’t need blockers to establish a lane for the running back when you need only a few inches. If Ryan and the Falcons offense can’t move the ball forward at all on a quarterback sneak, they don’t deserve the win anyway.
Verdict: Coin flip of a coaching decision, poor play-calling.