Up until a few minutes to four on Sunday afternoon, I was having a perfect sports weekend. Michigan beat Duke in basketball. The Hawks beat the Knicks on Friday night and then put forward a credible showing in Dallas on Saturday night. Barca thrashed Valencia 4-0 to position themselves for a massive vengeance game against stumbling Real Madrid this weekend. Even the Thrashers managed to win a game.
Then, with his team trailing by four and a little more than three minutes remaining, Mike Smith elected to punt on 4th and 5 from his own 35. I looked at Der Wife and said "this game is over. We are never getting the ball back." Sure enough, the Saints got two first downs on three plays, then got a final first down to finish the game off. Let's count all the ways that this was a bad decision:
1. The Falcons' passing game had been playing well all game, averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt. The odds were better than 50/50 that Atlanta would get a first down.
2. The Saints' pass defense is horrendous.
3. The Saints' offense is excellent and had scored on six of nine possessions at that point. Thus, the odds were significantly less than 50/50 that the Falcons would ever see the ball again if they punted.
4. The Falcons hadn't stopped the immortal Pierre Thomas all day.
5. Even if everything went perfectly, the Falcons would get the ball back in roughly the same spot without their two timeouts and with about two minutes remaining.
Now, for the standard caveat that Mike Smith has done a great job this year. If you would have told me before the year that I would be bitching about a call at the end of a close game that left the Falcons at 8-5, I would have told future Michael to quit his moping and recognize that the season has been a massive success. We often tend to overrate late game strategic decisions when evaluating coaches, so I'm not saying that Smith isn't a good coach or hasn't done a great job this year. That said, he made a big blunder yesterday and it might be the difference between the team making the playoffs or staying home in January.
My other beef with the way the Falcons approached the game was that they ran the ball way too much. It was evident fairly early that the run wasn't working especially well (although I'll acknowledge that the fact that I missed the Falcons' first drive on which Michael Turner gained 35 yards on his first two carries colors my judgment here). It was also evident that Matt Ryan and Roddy White could have a field day against the Saints' secondary. Mike Mularkey needed to take a step back and forget the fact that Matt Ryan is a rookie. He needed to recognize that Ryan is playing like an upper echelon NFL quarterback and give him the chances to win the game on downs other than second and third and long.
Speaking of Ryan, I'm a stuck record, so I'll just say this again: he's excellent. I'm not sure if my favorite play yesterday was the one on which he stepped up in the pocket and found Roddy White to convert on third and 21 or the scramble that gave the Falcons their last lead of the game. G-d help the rest of the division if Ryan follows a normal trajectory for quarterback development.