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Atlanta’s By-the-Book Blues

The Falcons need to learn when to toss their playbook, and the rest of the Week 10 news

Poor Mike Smith just can’t get it right. No matter what he does at the end of the game in critical situations against the Saints, it goes wrong for him and his Atlanta Falcons. Last year, Smith was aggressive on fourth down in overtime, and when Michael Turner got stuffed, it set the Saints up with game-winning field position. That move earned him plaudits from some critics (or maybe just me), but he mostly took heat for doing something unconventional, and that heat came entirely because his decision didn’t work out.1 That criticism reappeared when the Falcons went for it repeatedly on fourth down against the Giants in the wild-card round, getting stuffed each time.

On Sunday, the pendulum swung to the other side. With the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter against the Saints again, Smith tightened up. He got conservative in a pair of situations where he could have chosen to be aggressive. It didn’t cost his team the game by itself, but combined with a lack of execution when the Falcons were forced to be aggressive over time, the conservative decisions made it more difficult for his team to find a path to victory.

First, Smith played by the book in a situation where the book should be lit on fire. When the Falcons scored on another absurd touchdown catch by Tony Gonzalez (whom teams should really start covering in the end zone), they brought themselves within five points of the Saints, 28-23, with 13:27 to go. The value proposition for going for two here is pretty obvious: getting within three points means that you’ll likely be able to tie the game up if you can trade a stop with a field goal, and even if the Falcons were able to just hold the Saints to a field goal of their own, they would have been able to take the lead with a touchdown on a subsequent drive. The value in going down four is marginal; you can still tie the game if you only allow a field goal, but you still need to score a touchdown on a subsequent drive to take the lead. This chart estimates that it’s worth going for two in that situation if Smith thought his team would succeed about 23 percent of the time. It’s one of the most obvious situations in which a two-point conversion is a strong play.

Teams are normally hesitant to go for the two-point conversion because there’s an arbitrary rule around football that teams shouldn’t consider the two-pointer until the beginning of the fourth quarter. Smith takes that rule to another level, though: He said after the game, “You don’t even start looking at the two-point chart until there’s seven minutes to go.” Had Smith looked at the two-point chart, he would have found that the Falcons were in one of the most clearly productive and meaningful two-point situations in the game.

The stupid thing about the fourth-quarter rule is that it goes against every reason coaches aren’t supposed to make their decision by the percentages. Coaches don’t coach games in a vacuum and players don’t play the game on paper, so taking the average percentages of a particular situation and applying them to the specific game being played at that moment is naive. Coaches know their teams, and they know when to be aggressive. Right? Well, what can be more stodgy and unaware of the game situation than not even considering an opportunity until the clock hits a certain time? You should absolutely adjust your decision-making to account for the situation at hand in your specific game, but dismissing an opportunity out of hand because it doesn’t fit an arbitrary context just isn’t a wise decision to make. It makes some sense to avoid chasing a particular point total until the end of the game is relatively close, but there are definitely situations where the upside to picking up a two-point conversion are so obvious that it’s worth taking the risk. This was very clearly one of them.

Smith’s decision to kick the extra point put his team down four and created difficult choices for them the rest of the way. After the Saints punted and Matt Ryan hooked up with Julio Jones for a 52-yard completion, the Falcons got a first-and-goal on the 5-yard line and failed to move the ball. Now, they faced fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line with a four-point deficit and 9:08 left. They had few appealing options. Going for it from the 2 was the decision they had avoided minutes earlier, and while it trapped New Orleans with bad field position in the case of a stuff, the Falcons would also be out of the game if they missed and the Saints came back with a touchdown to go up 11. Instead, the Falcons were stuck kicking an unsatisfying 20-yard field goal to come within one point. You can argue that the Falcons should have gone for it, but it was the mistake at the end of the previous drive that compounded the problem. A successful two-point conversion would have seen them happily kicking a field goal for the tie; even with a failed two-pointer on the previous drive, the field goal would have represented a virtually identical proposition, a chance to come within a field goal of taking the lead while still trailing.2

As is their wont, the Saints drove down the field and scored themselves, eventually picking up a 31-yard field goal to restore their four-point lead. Then the Falcons were stuck. They responded with a 78-yard drive of their own, but when they moved the ball to the 1-yard line and failed to pick up a touchdown on second and third down, they finally had to go for it. Smith had basically put that decision off on each of his previous drives by kicking field goals, but because he had neglected to look at his two-point sheet when he should have, the Falcons now had to try to convert from the 2-yard line with far more pressure on them to succeed. Had they picked up the two-pointer earlier, Smith could have chosen to kick a field goal and tie the game here; if he had failed, the Falcons would still have been in the exact same spot. When Ryan was unable to find an open receiver, the Falcons were left to rue what could have been.

We didn’t learn a ton about this year’s Falcons with this loss.3 Truthfully, their level of play wasn’t that much better or worse than it had been in, say, Atlanta’s close win over Carolina several weeks ago. The difference between those two games, of course, was how the Falcons (and their opposition) executed on one or two key plays at the end of the game. Carolina fumbled away their game-winning conversion, punted, and then allowed Roddy White to make a circus catch to set up the winning score. This time, the Falcons made some poor decisions to end their final drives, and when they got White open deep on the desperate final drive after their fourth-and-short stuff, he came up two yards short of making a would-be touchdown catch. Wins and losses are what matter, but they don’t always do the best job of explaining how a team played. The 8-0 Falcons were 5-0 in games decided by a score or less, but they were inevitably going to end up playing a game like this, where they delivered a similar effort and had the breaks come out against them at the very end.

Mike Smith’s an excellent head coach. He’s good enough, in fact, that I’m tempted to try to find excuses to figure out why he wouldn’t have been more aggressive with the game on the line. Does he have such little faith in Michael Turner that he (and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter) didn’t think that the Saints would honor play-action or a possible run? Was he really afraid that the Saints would score a touchdown and put the game out of reach with a nine-point lead? Did he have last year’s failures ringing around in his head? Honestly, from his quote after the game, it just sounds like he has a simple rule that’s antiquated and doesn’t consider how meaningful a given situation can be. That’s really disappointing, and on Sunday, it played an enormous role in ending Atlanta’s undefeated season.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Hey, Jeff Fisher! With Mike Smith getting his own section up top and a variety of bizarre decisions showing up in your tie with the 49ers, you have this one all to yourself this week. Not all of your decisions were bad, but they’re certainly worth talking about.

First: Fake punt mania! Both of St. Louis’s fake punts produced first downs, but only one was a brilliant decision. That one came in the fourth quarter, when the Rams were about to punt the ball away down 21-17 with 5:23 left and fourth-and-8 on their own 33-yard line. Having run a fake punt earlier in the game, under the “nobody gets in a plane crash twice” rule, it’s reasonable to believe that the 49ers would have never seen a fake punt coming again. The upside was enormous, as it gave the Rams a chance to continue a key drive without giving the 49ers a chance to run the clock out with a long, run-heavy possession. The downside wasn’t even that bad. If the Rams turn the ball over, they have to hold the 49ers to a field goal to get the ball back with a chance to tie, and the 49ers would have likely taken off way less clock with the shorter field. If the 49ers score a touchdown in either scenario, the Rams lose anyway. It was the perfect time to run a fake punt, and the Rams executed it well.

St. Louis’s first fake punt of the day, though? Not so great. Yes, it worked, but you can’t judge the fake punt based on one outcome; you have to judge the decision at the time it’s made. The Rams were running this fake punt from their own 10-yard line with 36 seconds left in the first half. In that scenario, the fake punt has virtually no upside. Unless the Rams somehow get 50 yards on the fake punt, all they’re going to get is first-and-10 on their own 20-yard line or so with 30 seconds left. They’re almost never going to score any points on that drive. Meanwhile, if they fail, the downside is gigantic! The 49ers were out of timeouts, but they would have had three shots at the end zone across those 30 seconds, with a chip shot field goal waiting for them on fourth down. I criticize coaches in this space a lot for being risk-averse, but this was a case in which there was virtually all risk without any reward. Had the fake punt not worked, the Rams would have been slaughtered for making a stupid decision. The reality is that the decision was stupid, even though they got away with it.

One alternate possibility is that Rams punter Johnny Hekker audibled into the fake punt when the 49ers crowded the line in an attempt to block the punt. In that case, Hekker and Fisher should share the blame for the decision. The audible there shouldn’t be to a fake punt; it should be to a max protect, or barring that, a timeout (or delay of game). Fisher and special teams coordinator John Fassel need to make sure that Hekker knows the game situation and doesn’t do something catastrophically unwise there. And if it was a called play from the sideline, of course, it’s even worse.

The Rams ended up blowing several chances to win the game with some sloppy work — an illegal formation that wiped out a long Danny Amendola catch at the beginning of overtime, and then a delay of game that took Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning field goal off the board — but they also made it harder for themselves with some poor decision-making.

While you can argue that the Rams were too conservative in setting up Zuerlein for a 53-yarder in overtime, what was far worse was their decision to call timeout during their final offensive series of regulation. With 1:18 left after an Amendola catch gave the Rams first-and-goal on the 2-yard line, Fisher immediately used his first timeout to get the Rams situated and set up a play call for the ensuing snap. Why is Fisher trying to save time here? With a four-point deficit and the ball on the 2-yard line, this series is it for the Rams. They’re never going to kick a field goal and try to get the ball back, so there’s no upside to leaving time on the clock. With all three of their timeouts left, they can run the clock down and still run the ball three times if they want to, so there’s no reason to worry about having enough time to score.

Even if you think it’s a good idea for Fisher to call a timeout and have a talk with Bradford before the final series, why call it with 38 seconds left on the play clock? The Rams could — and should — have let the play clock run down to one second and then called a timeout. There’s literally no reason why they should have called the timeout at the beginning of the play clock. None. That decision gave the 49ers 35 to 38 free seconds of time on the clock to work with on their drive, time that ended up being extremely valuable. It’s not unfair to say that the timeout blunder cost the Rams the victory.4


That bizarre tilt between the Rams and 49ers brought Danny Amendola back into the fold for the Rams, only weeks after suffering what appeared to be a season-ending injury to his collarbone. His notable absence during an 0-3 stretch — admittedly one that saw that the Rams play the Dolphins, Packers, and Patriots — was enough for the Fox crew doing the game to point out just how important Amendola was to St. Louis’s chances of winning. With Amendola and Sam Bradford in the lineup, the Rams had gone 10-12, tacking on a tie with yesterday’s outcome. With Bradford in the lineup and Amendola on the bench, though, the Rams are a dismal 1-11; their only win with Bradford in and his top receiver out was a 13-12 victory against the Browns last season. That’s far from pretty.

I had my suspicions that Amendola was an important part of Bradford’s success, but that difference seemed too incredible to be true. It’s worth taking a closer look at how Amendola’s absence has affected the Rams to figure out what he’s really worth to the team.

First, let’s look at Bradford’s stats with and without Amendola in the lineup. Because he’s had Amendola about twice as frequently as he hasn’t, I prorated these stats for a 16-game season.

Bradford’s been better with Amendola around, but it’s not the sort of otherworldly improvement the change in their win-loss record would suggest. He’s less accurate, but he gets slightly more on each throw and throws interceptions less frequently. This could easily be different seasons from the same player’s career and nobody would think any differently of the guy.

Let’s express the gap between Amendola and the rest of St. Louis’s receivers in a different way. What are Bradford’s stats when he throws to Amendola, and how do those differ from when he throws to his other targets?

Despite the fact that he runs shorter routes and does less after the catch than most of Bradford’s other targets, Amendola’s volume means that the Rams still get more yards per attempt on throws to him than they do out of the rest of their cobbled-together roster. Bradford averages about two yards fewer per completion to Amendola (9.3 yards) than he does on throws to the rest of his options (11.0 yards), something Amendola makes up for by being a more reliable target for conversions.

It’s no surprise that Amendola is a lower-reward target for Bradford than the likes of Brandon Gibson or Chris Givens. He averages just 9.3 yards per completion, which is well below the 11.0-yard mark Bradford gets out of his other receivers. Because Amendola’s such a reliable target and gobbles up such a high percentage of the passes thrown to him, though, he actually averages more yards per attempt than the rest of the team.

As it turns out, while Amendola’s absence does hurt the Rams, there are other effects to consider that help explain their poor record without him; notably, the Rams defense seems to allow more points without Amendola around. When they don’t have Amendola around, Bradford and his team see their scoring average decline from 18.3 points per game all the way down to 11.9. At the same time, though. St. Louis’s defense seems to find those points and give the opposing offense a chance to redeem them. The Rams have allowed 20.7 points per game with Amendola in the lineup, but when the former Texas Tech star has been out, they’ve allowed 25.5 points per tilt.

You can argue that the improved offense and Amendola’s ability as a slot receiver are enough to account for some of that shift, but going from a point differential of negative-2.4 points to one nearly six times as bad has to fall at least partly on the shoulders of the defenders in blue and gold. While his agent surely must be licking his lips at the idea of pointing out Amendola’s value in terms of that win-loss difference when he goes to negotiate a long-term deal this offseason,5 the truth is that there’s a lot more to that gap than merely Amendola.

No Fumble Icons

Ah, fumble luck. The Denver Broncos simply don’t have it. Of course, at 6-3, the streaking Broncos don’t appear to need it, either. Denver already possessed the league’s lowest fumble recovery rate through eight games, a figure that has hurt them at least a little bit. Recovering fumbles is always better than not recovering fumbles. Right? Well, if the Broncos play the way they did on Sunday, not really, no.

It’s pretty remarkable that the Broncos — whose fumble recovery rate has lagged at around 25 percent all year — were only able to recover one of the five fumbles in their game with the Panthers Sunday. Willis McGahee added two more fumbles to take his season total to five and Peyton Manning lost the ball on a sack, while the Broncos forced two fumbles on defense. Of those five, only McGahee was able to recover one of his fumbles for the Broncos, and that came long after the game had been decided as a contest. Usually, losing four fumbles is enough to put a team’s back against the wall, but the Broncos were able to overcome those issues with stunning plays immediately after failing to recover said fumbles.

Take the end of the first quarter, when the Broncos forced a Cam Newton fumble on a sack and were unable to fall on it. When the Panthers fell on the ball, it was a bitterly disappointing blow for the Broncos, who would have taken possession inside the Carolina red zone in a 7-7 game. Undoubtedly bummed at their failure to fall on yet another oblong spheroid, Denver sent Trindon Holliday back to field the Carolina punt … and he promptly returned it 76 yards for a touchdown.

Then, up 17-7 in the third, the Broncos had a promising drive stall out just outside the Panthers red zone when Charles Johnson forced Peyton Manning to fumble. Despite the appearance that a Broncos offensive lineman had immediately recovered the fumble, the Panthers eventually claimed possession of the football and took over on their own 34-yard line. That’s a huge momentum shift that puts the game back in Carolina’s hands, right? Well, on the very next play, Tony Carter picked off Cam Newton and returned it 40 yards to the house, giving the Broncos a 24-7 lead.

So, who needs fumbles? Not the Broncos, apparently. It says a lot about Denver that they’ve played so well these past few weeks, even without those extra takeaways and extended possessions that they would expect to receive from a league-average fumble recovery rate. The Broncos probably aren’t going to respond to each missed opportunity with a touchdown on the subsequent play, but they don’t need to, either; as their luck improves over the rest of the season (and it eventually will), they will continue to play at a high level and produce those big plays with the extra opportunities afforded them. Normally, it’s better to be lucky than good; on Sunday, the Broncos were so good that they laughed in luck’s face and succeeded in spite of it.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell