Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith went for it rather than punt on 4th-and-Inches from his own 29-yard-line with 10:52 remaining in overtime against the NFC South division rival New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Smith made the right decision — it just didn’t work out. And now the armchair quarterbacks and Monday morning second-guessers have formed a unified front against the fourth-year Falcons coach who has a 38–17 record with three trips to the playoffs but only a 2–5 record against the Saints.
“I know it will be scrutinized all week long,” said Smith, immediately following the most controversial decision of his NFL head coaching career. “I want everybody to understand I take full responsibility.”
Needing less than one foot, Smith sent Atlanta’s offense onto the field and ran the ball up the middle with the 5'10", 247-pound Michael Turner, who was promptly stuffed and stopped short of a first down by a blitzing New Orleans defense that timed the snap-count perfectly.
“I just saw a guy in my face as soon as I got the ball,” said an obviously disappointed Turner.
“I had my choices between the holes I could hit if they were there, but they just came with the all-out blitz, guys shot the gap and things like that. There really wasn’t anywhere to go. I just tried to try harder and give that great effort to get those couple of inches that we needed. …
“I’d like to have it back. I would love to be in that situation again.”
The failure on fourth resulted in a short field for the Saints, who took over on downs and got one first down before trotting out John Kasay for a 26-yard game-winning field goal that gave New Orleans a 26–23 victory and first place in the NFC South.
“We were going to be aggressive in all that we did,” explained Smith. “Unfortunately, it did not work out.”
For Smith, it never seems to work out against the Saints. Last season, the Falcons trailed by three points with 2:52 to play on 4th-and-6 from their 43-yard-line with two timeouts left. Smith decided to punt; Brees made him pay with a clock-killing drive to seal a 17–14 New Orleans victory in Week 16 at Atlanta on Monday night.
Back in 2008, Smith chose to punt on 4th-and-5 from Atlanta’s 35-yard-line with 3:23 to play, two timeouts remaining, trailing the Saints 29–25. Guess what happened? New Orleans marched for three first downs, milked the clock and took a Week 14 win.
So when faced with the decision to go for it on 4th-and-Inches or punt the ball back to Brees in a sudden-death overtime situation, this time Smith chose to go for it and give his power run game a chance to pick up the first to keep the drive alive.
“It takes some steel and you-know-what to make that call,” said Brees. “This one play is the game.”
Rivalry history and 2011 split stats — teams going for it on 4th-and-1 had converted 41 of 72 times heading into Week 10 this year — were on Smith’s side. And so was his team, despite the ultimate failure.
“I like the fact our coach has faith in us to make the play,” said center Todd McClure.