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As the East Coast reeled in the aftermath of Breaking Bad's finale, the Patriots and Falcons played out one of the more entertaining games of the year on Sunday Night Football, eventually won 30-23 by the Patriots after no small amount of uncertainty. That game involved a number of key coaching decisions from Atlanta coach Mike Smith, a regular in the Thank You for Not Coaching section over the past couple of years for late-game decisions both good and bad. While I'll get to most of Smith's work in the full-length TYFNC on Tuesday, I want to talk today about the decisions he made on that penultimate drive, with the Falcons down 10 and with the ball deep in New England territory. He got it wrong in a way that I think many other coaches would have in the same scenario by kicking a field goal too early.
To set the stage, that play came on fourth-and-1 with three minutes left in the game and the ball on the New England 7-yard line. Smith's Falcons trailed by 10 points, so while the team would obviously prefer a touchdown, a field goal would also help matters by making it a one-score game and extending Atlanta's chances of competing. As most coaches would in the same situation, Smith chose to kick the chip shot field goal, bringing the Falcons within those seven points. The Falcons failed on the ensuing onside kick but then held the Patriots on downs when Tom Brady fumbled the snap on a fourth-and-1 sneak attempt. Atlanta quickly drove the ball downfield, only to fail on a fourth-and-7 from the 10-yard line with 41 seconds left. As this game turned out, I think it's pretty clear Smith made the wrong call, since the fourth-and-1 he passed on was much easier to convert than the fourth-and-7 he was stuck trying later. That's just one outcome, but I think it's a clear case before the Falcons even knew that they would have to convert a fourth down to score a touchdown on the second drive.
Go back to that fourth-and-1 decision and weigh the different arguments. Let's keep things simple and say the Falcons will lose if they fail to score on this drive, which seems reasonable enough. By kicking, the Falcons guarantee they won't lose with three minutes to go. Reasonable enough. On the other hand, by kicking, the Falcons are creating a more difficult path to victory in a number of ways:
• They lose if the Patriots score on their next drive. If the Falcons try an onside kick and fail to recover, as they did, the Patriots can try to run the clock out. If they get stuffed in field goal range, the Patriots can kick a field goal to go up 10 again and end the game. If the Falcons score a touchdown first, a Patriots field goal would put Atlanta down only six, giving it another opportunity to win the game with a touchdown drive.
• They have to regain the yardage needed for a touchdown on the subsequent drive that they've already produced on this one. If the Falcons score a touchdown on this drive and need only a field goal to tie on the subsequent drive, they don't need to drive the full length of the field to score. Instead, they only need to drive the ball to about the 25-yard line for a comfortable field goal try. Since the ball is already on the New England 7-yard line, that's a minimum of 19 extra yards the Falcons will need to pick up on the subsequent drive to score a touchdown (since they'll need those six final yards on both drives), yards that take precious time off the clock.
• The Falcons need to go for it on one of the two drives anyway, and a failure will be demoralizing regardless of when it comes. One of the common arguments against going for it early is that you end the game prematurely, which demoralizes your team by virtue of not extending the game for as long as possible and giving it a chance to win. It doesn't fit here. The Falcons can't tie this game by kicking field goals; their only hope is to score a touchdown on one drive and a minimum of a field goal on the other drive, which means they're going to need to score a touchdown at some point. Going for it on fourth-and-1 early, if anything, shows faith in your team. Had the Falcons gone for it then and failed, they would have been demoralized, of course. But do you think there was a single person in that home locker room after the game who wasn't demoralized? Was there anybody in that room who said, "Well, at least we kicked that field goal early, because it gave us a chance to tie the game up at the end?" Of course not.
• Not only was the fourth-and-1 they passed up easier than the fourth-and-7 the Falcons eventually had to try to convert, it was easier than the average situation they would expect to be in on the subsequent drive. Atlanta was clearly trying to score a touchdown on the first drive; if it was planning on kicking and playing defense, it should have kicked a field goal once it got remotely close to Matt Bryant's range and moved on. When the Falcons got to fourth down, they reevaluated and decided the risk of losing the game was too high. It wasn't. Fourth-and-1 is a difficult conversion (which hangs in your mind in a game during which each team had failed on a fourth-and-short try), but it's a lot easier to score a touchdown on a possession when facing fourth-and-1 from the 7-yard line than it is given a typical drive from first-and-10 on your own 35-yard line, which was where the Falcons might have expected to take over after a typical best-case scenario punt from the Patriots (if the Falcons kicked deep) or after a stoppage on downs following a failed onside kick.6
Given that the Falcons needed to score a touchdown on one drive or the other, that's the question they needed to ask themselves on fourth-and-1: Do we have a better chance of scoring a touchdown from this situation or from our average expected situation on the next drive? If the Falcons kicked, they were going to have to produce a long drive to score a touchdown, and unless they went an entire drive without ever facing a fourth down, they were unlikely to face a more makeable fourth down than fourth-and-1. And if all that doesn't convince you, here's the last little bit of evidence that might swing you …
• The only way to win the game in regulation is by going for it on the first drive of the two. The 10-point play — scoring a touchdown and kicking a field goal — only creates a tie game.7 Even if the Falcons successfully pulled off the play, they still have to go to overtime and have no more than, oh, a 55 percent chance of winning.
If the Falcons go for it on the first drive and score a touchdown, that opens up the possibilities dramatically. Now, their second drive can actually win them the game. The Patriots have to stay in a very conservative defensive shell to try to prevent a game-winning touchdown from getting past them, creating space underneath for intermediate throws and catch-and-run opportunities, where the Falcons excel. This would, coincidentally, make it easier for the Falcons to get in field goal range. If the Falcons score a touchdown on the second drive, they're up four points with a few seconds left, pushing their win expectancy to 99 percent. If they can't knock the ball in, they can still kick a field goal and go to overtime, just as they would have by kicking on fourth-and-1, maintaining the same 55 percent win expectancy.
Think about it for a second. How can you be willing to trade all those advantages for the sureness of kicking a chip shot field goal and merely not losing for another couple of minutes? You're putting off the inevitable — you'll need to score a touchdown on one of these two drives — and leaving it for what will, the vast majority of the time, be a much more difficult situation, while preventing yourself from having any hope of winning the game in regulation. I don't fault Smith personally, since I think 90 percent of coaches would have made the same move, but it's a hyper-conservative call that speaks to the level of ingrained risk aversion there is around the NFL.
Ironically, a much less celebrated coach correctly handled this very situation earlier in the day but came up short. Dennis Allen's Raiders were down 10 points to the Redskins with 3:38 left and faced a fourth-and-1 on the Washington 17-yard line. They rightly went for it, but Matt Flynn lost the ball on a quarterback sneak and was stopped, ending Oakland's chances of winning. I'm sure they were unhappy with the final outcome, too, but they picked up the same "L" that the Falcons did. The only differences are that Allen lost by three more points and went down giving his team its best chance of winning in the process.