Mike Smith just can’t get it right these days. When he’s aggressive, his team fails and gets second-guessed. When he’s conservative, his team eventually fails and gets second-guessed some more. I was ready to give his Falcons a week off from this space, since they were playing in the Monday-night game and I’ve usually got most of the column laid out by then, but a series of decisions by Smith and Rex Ryan in that game will keep them in Thank You for Not Coaching for another week. The only thing is that one of those two actually made the right calls.
Before I get to them, let’s ease into this week’s coaching evaluation with some smart decisions from around the league. Thank You for Coaching, you three folks
The Best Calls of Week 5
3. The Jaguars take points off the board to go for it against the Rams. With 0-4 Jacksonville trailing 24-10 in the third quarter of their game against St. Louis, they lined up to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Luxury item Josh Scobee hit the chip shot to bring the Jaguars within 11 points, but the Rams lined up offsides on the play, giving the Jaguars a chance to score a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley took the points off the board and went for the much easier conversion. Blaine Gabbert threw an incomplete pass on the first try, but the down was replayed due to simultaneous offensive and defensive pass interference penalties, something I’ve never seen before. Gabbert failed on the next attempt as well, turning the ball over to the Rams on downs.
Should the Jaguars have taken points off the board? Of course! They’re already down 14 points in the third quarter; they need all the points they can get, and your expectation from the 2-yard line is almost always going to be greater than it is by kicking the field goal, even with a bad offense. The Advanced NFL Stats calculator suggests that it’s right to go if you can succeed 32 percent of the time, and even the worst team in the league will convert more frequently than that. The Jaguars retained excellent field position even with a miss, and given how bad their offense is in terms of consistently making progress and avoiding turnovers or disaster plays, they have to take advantage of goal-to-go situations as frequently as possible. I wouldn’t disagree if you suggested that the Jags should have rolled Gabbert out, run a quarterback draw, or handed the ball to MJD as opposed to throwing the ball in the pocket, but going for it after the penalty was clearly the right call.
2. The Saints go for it twice, including one sweet hard count for a first down. In terms of creating momentous first downs out of nothing with a hard count, nobody in football is better than Drew Brees. He famously (at least, famous in my heart) drew the Bengals offside on a fourth-and-2 down three points with 34 seconds left to set up a game-winning touchdown (as opposed to a game-tying field goal). His play on Sunday wasn’t quite as meaningful, but it showed the value of both going for it regularly and taking advantage of situations where you’re free to threaten the other team.
New Orleans actually passed on a couple of fourth-and-short opportunities during their win over Chicago, but they did attempt one on fourth-and-1 from the Chicago 27-yard line with 46 seconds left, converting with an extra offensive lineman in on a handoff to Pierre Thomas. The Saints passed up a difficult field goal in the process, and their reward came two plays later, when Thomas took a screen pass to the house for a touchdown.
Later, having established their aggressiveness, the Saints lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 47-yard line with a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Regardless of whether they actually intended to go for it or not, this is the ideal situation in which to line up for an offensive play, because there’s no downside. Punters actually prefer having the five extra yards of space to work with, so most teams would take a delay-of-game penalty in this spot anyway; lining up and doing nothing before taking a delay of game (or a false start or something) is no different. If you trust your quarterback enough to read a gap properly, he can call for a sneak if it’s an obviously correct decision. Most importantly, you can try to draw an encroachment or offside call on the defense. Most defenses know this and won’t jump, but by going for it earlier, Brees and Sean Payton established that they were aggressive in fourth-down situations. That was enough to get veteran Lance Briggs to jump, giving the Saints a first down in the process. New Orleans went on to burn 3:35 more off the clock before kicking a field goal to go up 16. The Bears launched a quick drive for a touchdown and correctly went for two to make it an eight-point game, but for the second week in a row, they couldn’t recover an onside kick and lost. New Orleans’s aggressiveness paid off, as did
1. The Bengals punch it in on fourth-and-1 to go up 10 points on the Patriots. I think most coaches wouldn’t have been as aggressive as Marvin Lewis. His Bengals were up 6-3 on the Patriots with 9:27 left, and after being stuffed on second down (and picking up a penalty before scrambling to regain the yardage on the subsequent third down), Lewis could have easily justified kicking a field goal to put his team up six points. In a defensive struggle, points are precious, right? That’s true, but in a context where points are precious, the value of a touchdown is even more meaningful; that 10-point margin is even harder to overcome.
Fourth-and-1 is the simplest “big” coaching decision a coach can make, and in this case, Lewis got it right. As Patriots defensive tackle Tommy Kelly limped off the field, Lewis brought in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and had the burly back punch the ball in from a yard out. The 10-point margin ended up holding up, as the Patriots would later bungle their own version of tackling the 10-point deficit.
OK, so let’s get to that Monday-night game. First, the positives: I think Mike Smith was basically right with each of his decisions to go for it on fourth down, although it’s not quite as obvious as those calls are in a vacuum. Let me explain why.
Start with the big call of the night, the decision to go for it on the final play before halftime. Smith bungled the buildup to this play by letting the clock run down; after the third-down play ended at 20 seconds, Smith let the clock run down to seven seconds before using his second timeout and preparing for a fourth-down play. There’s no reason to do that; if you’re going for it (or even thinking about going for it), you need to call the timeout as quickly as possible because there’s no downside to doing so. If you score or you get stuffed, the Jets will have somewhere around 15 seconds left to try to launch a drive, which is going to produce a draw or a kneel-down before halftime. The only situation where the time matters is when you go for it and there’s a defensive penalty that would give you multiple downs to try to score again, and that’s exactly what happened, since the Jets committed defensive pass interference. Instead of having 10 or 11 seconds to run two plays (with a timeout remaining, even), the Falcons had to settle for one more attempt at the goal line, which failed.
As for the decision to pass up the field goal, let’s examine the numbers. This is a different scenario from your typical fourth-and-1 for one key reason: There’s no field-position benefit to be gained. Normally, that adds to the value produced by going for it, but since the game was going to halftime either way, you can’t include that in the equation. That makes our math simpler: If we assume that the Falcons will hit the field goal 100 percent of the time, they need to convert 43 percent of the time or more on their lone play from a yard out to justify going for it. Teams have converted on third- or fourth-and-goal to go from the 1-yard line 55.8 percent of the time since 2010; Atlanta has a small sample, but it’s 6-for-11 (54.5 percent) on those plays. It’s impossible to know what Atlanta’s “true” odds of success are, but I think the odds are still slightly in favor of them going for it.
The soft factors arguing against them going for it are pretty naive. You already know about my skepticism toward momentum, but even as the Jets hollered and crowed about their stop on the way to the locker room, they came out and were immediately manhandled. The Falcons forced a three-and-out on the first drive after halftime and scored a touchdown on their first possession. The momentum meant nothing.
Even worse were the arguments after the game that Atlanta could have won if it had just taken the points and kicked the field goal, turning a two-point loss into a one-point win. If it were only that simple! For one, the game doesn’t play out the same way; each team’s strategic decisions change. If the Falcons kick the field goal and nothing else changes until their final drive of the game, instead of trailing 27-21 on that final drive, they’re trailing 27-24. The Falcons obviously don’t go for it on fourth down twice, preferring instead to kick a field goal to tie the game. That gives the Jets the ball back with four minutes left, and if you’re happy to proceed with everything happening the same way again, the Jets just march downfield like they did in the real thing, setting up a game-winning field goal inside of two minutes.
Furthermore, if the Falcons do score a touchdown on that drive and nothing else changes, their chances of winning dramatically increase. Instead of being down six on that final drive, they’re up one. They don’t have to risk the two fourth-down conversions on that final drive to try to establish a lead; they can kick a field goal, go up four, and then try to prevent Geno Smith from scoring a touchdown to lose the game (as opposed to merely having to hold him to a field goal). If they score a touchdown on that final drive, now they’re up eight and can force Smith to drive the length of the field and get a two-point conversion just to tie!
The truth is that you can’t know how the game is going to break that far out, which is a huge point of hypocrisy when you hear people discussing game-day decisions. Commentators and coaches (usually ex-coaches) will be happy to take a field goal in, say, the second quarter, when you can still reduce the score to a more manageable margin. Brian Billick — who I think is actually very good most of the time — was happy for the Eagles to kick a field goal up 13-7 to make it 16-7, noting that the score put the Eagles up by more than one possession. It was the second quarter of a game between two of the worst defenses in football; the margin didn’t matter. Meanwhile, when a coach goes for a two-point conversion early, as Jason Garrett did down 38-33 in the third quarter of the Broncos-Cowboys 7-on-7 drill, Phil Simms decried the decision for being too early because it’s too early to play to a specific score. That’s the same concept Billick was vouching for, but with an aggressive bent (go for two) versus a conservative one (kick a field goal). You can’t have it both ways, and in Smith’s case, his team was down by 10 points and needed all the scoring it could get. He chose the decision that creates, given the odds, more points for his team. I can’t fault him for it. I would have preferred a Ryan sneak or a rollout, but the decision to try to convert was fine.
Just after Smith was being derided for passing up the sure points in a situation where he bucked conventional wisdom, Rex Ryan nearly cost his team the game with a decision that employed conventional wisdom and avoided any sort of televised scrutiny whatsoever. When his team scored a touchdown to go up 27-14 with 12:05 left, Rex almost surely should have gone for two. At that point, the final score is much more palpable than it is just before halftime, so Rex has to be thinking about the endgame. A 13-point lead is valuable by virtue of saving you if you allow a touchdown and two field goals, but a 14-point lead protects you against two touchdowns, which is much more valuable than the difference between a 12-point lead (with a miss) and a 13-pointer. The footballcommentary.com two-point conversion chart backs this up; going for two is a no-brainer there with a few minutes left in the game, since the opposition will never get three possessions, but it’s merely the much wiser option with 12:00 left. It estimates that Rex should have gone for two if his team had a 19 percent chance of making the two-pointer, which Geno Smith & Co. clearly did. When the Falcons proceeded to score two touchdowns, they took a 28-27 lead that nearly won them the game. And not a single peep came up about Rex Ryan taking the extra point when he should have gone for two.
You Chose It Weird
In case you haven’t noticed, this column starts with the good calls of the week and then slowly shifts down with decisions that are worse and worse until we get to the bad ones. We’re in the “weird but irrelevant” section right now, which leads us to Tennessee. Mike Munchak didn’t have a bad game, given that he was stuck with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback against the Chiefs. He went for it on a fourth-and-1 try, albeit with Jackie Battle as opposed to the really expensive running back (Chris Johnson) he has on his roster, only for Battle to be stuffed. (Nominal short-yardage back Shonn Greene is injured.)
Later on, Munchak faced an impossible decision and chose weirdly. His Titans were down 26-17 with two seconds to go, and without a nine-point play in the playbook, Munchak decided to line up from the Kansas City 14-yard line and attempt, of all things, a field goal. Why?
It’s a total mystery to me. My initial idea was that he was trying to cover the spread, like a college coach trying to keep the boosters happy, but the field goal wouldn’t have allowed Tennessee to cover the three-point spread. Was he doing it under the idea that he was more likely to kick the field goal than score the touchdown from 14 yards out, and that the points would only possibly come in handy in a late-season tiebreaker scenario? Did he want to improve his Pythagorean expectation? (No.) Did he want to just make the score look better? It doesn’t really matter, but it was a choice that seemed incredibly unlikely to me.
Likewise, Mike Smith had a bizarre call on New York’s first scoring drive of the night. The Jets were facing fourth-and-1 on the Atlanta 4-yard line and actually went to line up to go for it, only for the call to come in late, which rendered the whole thing irrelevant; the Jets lined up to go for it, but the whistle was blown for delay of game after about five seconds.
Curiously, Smith declined the penalty and didn’t push the Jets back five yards. Why would he do that? It’s a weird one. For one, if the Jets are genuinely considering going for it, you take that option off the table by accepting the delay-of-game penalty. If they’re going to try to fake going for it again to draw you offside, that’s only really a threat on fourth-and-1 as opposed to fourth-and-6. Did Smith decline the penalty because he thought the 22-yard field goal would be at a weird angle from one of the hashmarks? (Kickers hit 97.9 percent of their field goals from the 4-yard line, so the hash can’t make that much of a difference.) Or, more excitingly, did he decline the penalty because he wanted to dare the Jets into going for it? Mike Smith, you sly dog! Rex didn’t take the bait either way; he just kicked the field goal on the next play.
The Week in Halftime Draws
Again, the week’s meaningless halftime draws concern two players who have had injury issues already this season. Welcome back Maurice Jones-Drew, whose Jaguars began a drive with 21 seconds left on their own 24-yard line by handing off the ball to their oft-injured back for a nine-yard gain. They were so buoyed by the success that they didn’t bother to use their timeouts and went directly to the half.
And if that wasn’t enough, Eddie Lacy marked his return from a concussion by starting a drive on his own 20-yard line with 15 seconds left in the half by running into Ndamukong Suh for a one-yard gain. Fortunately, Suh isn’t known for any sort of shenanigans or foul play, so there’s little reason to believe that Lacy was under any risk during this meaningless handoff. These situations present an easy way to protect your players, but instead Jacksonville and Green Bay stupidly exposed their runners to injuries on a meaningless snap.
Simple Case of Timing
The Dolphins needed all the time they could find during their desperate attempt to come back against the Ravens last week. Unfortunately, they burned some time off the clock by blowing their timeout strategy deep in the fourth quarter, costing them valuable seconds.
With 2:20 to go, the Dolphins held Ray Rice to a two-yard carry on first down, leaving the ball on the Miami 32-yard line. With two timeouts in a tie game, Joe Philbin’s Dolphins could have used their timeouts before the two-minute warning, as has been mentioned in this space in the past; instead, Miami waited until after the two-minute warning to use those timeouts. They even slipped and let a couple seconds run off the clock before using one of them, costing them two more seconds.
Ignore that, and let’s just consider this with the idea that Miami won’t let any extra time slip off the clock. Assuming each play takes four seconds and that 40 seconds run off the clock when it can’t be stopped, let’s run the numbers and see when Miami gets the ball back by using their timeouts either before or after the two-minute warning:
That’s eight seconds the Dolphins waste by using their timeouts after the two-minute warning.
Eight seconds doesn’t normally mean a lot, but the Dolphins were already concerned enough about time that they wasted a down on their final series. After Ryan Tannehill produced a magical play to find Brandon Gibson down the sidelines for a 46-yard completion, the Dolphins were in business on the Baltimore 34-yard line, needing only a field goal to tie things up. With 1:01 left on the clock, Tannehill got to the line and spiked the football, costing his team a down. Why? There was no rush to get a play off; the Dolphins could have called a play at the line or even briefly huddled before running something that was better than a spike. The play stopped the clock, but it only gave Tannehill two more opportunities to try to pick up a first down, and when one of those plays was a sack, Miami had to try a 57-yard field goal to tie the game with 38 seconds left, a kick that failed. Those eight extra seconds that Joe Philbin burned by misusing his timeouts would have been more than enough time for Tannehill to confer before running a first-down play (or time that they could have used on the next series had the Dolphins picked up another first down). It was an unnecessary mismanagement of time.
The Three Worst Decisions of Week 5
3. The Seahawks punt on fourth-and-1 from the Indianapolis 48-yard line in the first quarter. If you believe in momentum — and contrary to what certain Grantland editors-in-chief might say, even I believe in momentum sometimes — the Seahawks had all the momentum in the first quarter of their matchup with the Colts. They had stopped the Colts on two three-and-outs, produced a touchdown and a field goal on their two drives, and blocked a punt that was pushed through the end zone for a safety. (Or recovered for a touchdown, if you’re a Seahawks fan.) They had been gashing the Colts on the ground, producing 70 yards on 11 carries at that point of the game. Furthermore, with a 12-0 lead, the Seahawks had the opportunity to pick up a first down that would allow them to keep the mo sorry, this is tough for me momentum from a dominant beginning to the game.
Despite having Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson at the ready, the Seahawks passed on fourth-and-1 and punted. The Colts narrowly squeaked out a first down on three plays, and on the fourth, Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a 73-yard touchdown. A game that had been single-handedly dominated by the Seahawks — who could have easily been up 17-0 with a call in their favor moments earlier — was now a 12-7 contest. The Seahawks might not have been able to knock the Colts out by converting that fourth down, but they could have kept them on the ropes. As it turned out, punting let the Colts right back into the game. (The Seahawks would later convert a fourth-and-3 in no-man’s-land, since Russell Wilson is quite good at scrambling for first downs.)
2. Tom Coughlin calls a timeout to see if he should challenge a relatively meaningless play, challenges it, and then loses the challenge. Announcers and reporters used to love bringing up Tom Coughlin’s challenge record as a sign that he knows what he’s doing; if he got most of his challenges overturned, it was a sign that he was throwing the flag out at the right times. Of course, that’s like judging a shortstop by his fielding percentage; it can be useful to some very tiny extent, but it only measures what he does on the balls he can get to while ignoring the balls he should have gotten to and didn’t. Coughlin’s challenge record was a success because he was challenging plays that weren’t very valuable and/or were very obvious successes without any real regard for the value of that challenge. It was low-risk, low-reward stuff.
That brings us to Sunday. After the Eagles converted a third-and-10 on their own 27-yard line early in the third quarter for an 11-yard gain, Coughlin’s Spidey Sense started to tingle. Sensing a chance to make a play, he called a timeout to get more time to review LeSean McCoy’s catch. Then, having reviewed the evidence, Coughlin decided to throw his challenge flag to overturn what was a relatively meaningless play. The Eagles had the ball only on their own 38-yard line, and given how prone to big plays these two defenses are, the field position the Eagles gained from the conversion was relatively meaningless. Forcing Philly to punt, in the bigger scheme of things, wasn’t going to have a huge impact on New York’s chances of winning the game.
And that all assumed that Coughlin was going to win the challenge. As it turned out, Walt Coleman went underneath the hood and came back with the announcement that Coughlin had lost the challenge. The Giants lost their second timeout with 26 minutes to go in the second half, and all because they wanted to turn a conversion deep in Eagles territory into a punt. Fortunately, while the decision was a colossal waste of resources, it didn’t matter because the Eagles proceeded to immediately go three-and-out, Eli Manning threw three second-half interceptions, and the Eagles eventually pulled away from the Giants anyway. Football is the worst. But given the relatively low impact, this wasn’t the worst call of the week. That belongs to an unlikely candidate
1. The Patriots kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line down 10 points in the fourth quarter. This was a very similar decision to Mike Smith’s call from Week 4, when he took a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 6-yard line against the Patriots that turned a 10-point game into a seven-point one. Here, Bill Belichick faced fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line against the Bengals, and he made the same call: kick a field goal and go down seven.
Some of the facts regarding those two decisions are the same. Others affect the choices at hand. The biggest difference was that Belichick made his call with 6:30 left in the game, while Smith’s came with 3:00 left. With the extra time, Belichick’s team would theoretically have more time to move the ball down the field and produce the extra yardage it needed on the subsequent drive for the touchdown, which seems to make the early field goal a better option.
On the other hand, if Smith went for it and failed last week down 10 points, his game was over. Belichick could have gone for it here, failed, and still had a shot at scoring on two more possessions to win the game. That’s a friendlier fallback plan in the case of failure. In a contest where yards and points were harder to come by, Belichick had to know that it would be harder to score a touchdown on any future possession than it would be from the 1-yard line, even with Cincinnati’s great defense. And, of course, going for it and succeeding on this possession was Belichick’s best shot at actually winning the game over the next two drives; a field goal and a touchdown would only take him and the Patriots to overtime.
What he might not have known is that the skies were about to open up. New England kicked the field goal and eventually got the ball back on Cincinnati’s 44-yard line after a fumble with 3:26 left, but by then, monsoon-like conditions had taken over in Cincinnati. The weather was so bad that Tom Brady completed only one of his nine subsequent passes the rest of the way, and the Patriots never seriously threatened to tie. I can’t fault Belichick for failing to prepare for the incoming storm, but his conservative call to kick from the 1-yard line really hurt his team’s chances of winning the game in any weather.