Falcons players, stats back up Mike Smith’s decision


Mike Smith’s gamble heard around the NFC South isn’t getting the same attention as Bill Belichick’s fourth down call against the Colts two years ago.

That’s for a few reasons. It happened during a 1 p.m. game that wasn’t on everywhere nationally. Falcons-Saints is a rivalry that doesn’t get enough attention. Smith isn’t a lightning rod for discussion like Belichick.

Right after the game, I wrote that I had no problem with the decision. Smith was playing to win the game instead of trying not to lose. If the smashmouth Falcons can’t pick up a foot on the Saints, they don’t deserve to win.

Statistical analysis and Falcons players both support Smith’s call.

Brian Burke, a former Navy pilot who runs AdvancedNFLStats.com, crunched the numbers.  If the Falcons punted to the Saints, they had a 42% chance of winning.  If they converted the fourth down, they would have had a 57% chance of winning.

Teams going for fourth-and-one convert 74% of the time. Considering the distance was more like a foot, and the Falcons ran well all day on New Orleans, I believe Atlanta had a better chance than that to convert.

The numbers tend to oversimplify, but Burke says the Falcons increased their chances of winning by 5% by going for it. It wasn’t really “rolling the dice.” It just didn’t work.

“I thought the ball was inside of half a yard and I thought we could get it. I didn’t want to give the ball back to the Saints,” Smith said after the game.

His players liked the decision.

“As a player, you have to love the confidence that he has in the offense in that situation,” Matt Ryan said via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We just needed to execute better.”

“I liked it. That’s aggressive,” linebacker Sean Witherspoon said.

“All of the talking-head dummies and Monday morning quarterbacks will second-guess but I still think it was the right call,” tackle Tyson Clabo said via Mr. MMQB Peter King.

I agree with Clabo. Reasonable minds disagree. Florio doesn’t like the call, pointing out another stat: Teams are o-for-2 going for it on fourth down in similar situations over the last few years.

It may be a while before we see a third similar attempt, which is too bad.  It’s fun to see a team play to win instead of worrying about how things are usually done.

54 responses to “Falcons players, stats back up Mike Smith’s decision

  1. It’s a simple matter of risk reward. The risk for failing far outweights the reward of making it. So what if they get the 1 yard? They’re still 40 or more yards away from a winning FG. If you don’t make it, game over.

    It was the wrong decision.

  2. Lost in all of that is Smith’s absolute fear of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Smith mentioned it in his post-game. If that made anything at all clear, it’s that Payton and Brees own him.

  3. Look Mike Smith did what he did, he is a good coach, and I have no problem with him.

    However, this play call was a mistake. It was all risk with very little reward. If the Falcons succeed, they are still on their OWN 30 yard line, if they fail the game is over.

    The risk reward relationship would be very different if they were on the Saints 40-45, if they get the foot they have three more shots to set up a field goal, if they fail they still have a chance.

  4. They weren’t playing to win. They were playing for a fresh set of downs………..they still had a long way to go even if they had converted. The smart play would’ve been to punt and force the saints to drive the field. This isn’t Madden football.

  5. Completely impartial observer, but I don’t really understand how the refs changed the spot of the ball after the 3rd down play. Maybe I missed something, but that sure looked like a first down to me.

  6. on 1st thought, it felt wildly different than Belichek’s in that Pats iced the game with success, whereas Falcons still had 40 yards to go. Burke’s stats always good for ballparking though, so it obviously was reasonable decision to go for it. But then you have to adjust the numbers for the specifics.

    Part of reason teams *only* win 82% of time in Saints spot is they run into line and play for long FG attempt…..but Saints didn’t actually do that, they played smart and tried to advance the ball. Also, Burke’s data doesn’t factor in the kick is in a dome, and kickers in general are better now than they were during the bulk of his sample size.

    So would say the call was justifiable, but worse odds than his numbers suggest.

  7. What do the statistics say about the odds of getting the first down when you need a foot, and you hand the ball off 3-4 yards behind the LOS? Sure, going for it make statistical sense, but I seriously doubt that the play call did.

  8. Actually I think the game was on everywhere nationally, on Fox and the redzone channel. I missed nearly the entire first quarter of sf-ny as a result. Also, why does the REDZONE CHANNEL ignore the late games until every last early game is over? At one point there were three late games going on but no-atl were on commercial so they left the feed on the arizona game, which had just ended, so we watched players milling about for a whole minute or so instead of showing any one of the three late games.

  9. Sorry, Smith blew it. I thought that before they went for it, and I think it now. When you do something like that, you have to weigh the potential gain against the potential loss. If they go for it and make it, they still have to gain AT LEAST 30 more yards before they can even think about trying a game-winning FG. However, if they go for it and fail, NO is already in FG range, and ATL almost certainly loses, which, of course, is what happened. If NO had been marching up and down the field at will all game, maybe i’d think differently, but that wasn’t the case.

    Moreover, the numbers DON’T necessarily support Smith’s decision (Burke’s figures explicitly don’t take into account the possibility that they wouldn’t pick up the necessary yardage), and what else are Smith’s players going to say? Are they going to throw their coach under the bus? I don’t think so. I’m betting that there are a lot of other players who disagreed with Smith’s decision, but wisely kept their mouths shut.

  10. I fail to see how going for it on 4th down deep in your own territory is “playing to win the game”. You’ve a much better by kicking the ball away, stopping them on D and scoring or getting a turnover. You’re putting it all on one play. You blow it, game over. Why take that risk?

  11. If we were in th@ same position again in NO I would go for it again…4 & inches after a good day on the ground is the right call rather than conceding by punting to sproles & giving Drew a short field…

  12. Let’s see how they feel at the end of the season if New Orleans wins the division, and Atlanta goes home instead of to the playoffs.

    I’m sorry, but you don’t go for it on fourth down in overtime inside your own 30 yard line. It’s one thing to do that when you are trailing, but not in sudden death OT, when a play for no gain leaves your opponent in FG range.

    I think the choice showed little confidence in the Falcon defense. Yeah, if they make it, it’s a gutsy call. But they didn’t make it, and it cost them the game; a home loss to a division opponent who just happens to be leading the division.

    When the game is tied, you punt and play defense. In sudden death OT, you don’t give your opponent the ball in FG range.

  13. I have NO problem with going for it. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that it was inches (yes, inches) to go and it was handed off 3 yards into the backfield. A sneak or handing it off to the FB I get. That call, I don’t.

  14. I like the call. It shows Smith believes in his players and has the confidence in them to make that kind of call.

    Ballsy move. Didn’t work. But it shows a lot to the players, and in that respect, he couldn’t lose.

  15. I actually watched that whole game-including the OT.

    The Falcons had already stopped the Saints once in overtime so it’s not like they were helpless against them. And the Saint’s kicker had missed a field goal earlier.

    For me the deciding factor is that the home team should ALWAYS be able to get a fourth and a foot with the game on the line-and Smith should/does feel the same way.

  16. Had the play gone off without a hitch and the Falcons continued the drive and won the game, we’d all be praising this exact play rather than overanalyzing it and saying how dumb it was. It was a ballsy call that simply didn’t work. It was neither smart nor stupid.

  17. The Ultimate Football Catch-22…

    It was gutsy and genius if the Falcons convert the 4th down and go on to score.

    It was ridiculous and risky if the Falcons get stopped and the Saints takeover and win.

    The latter happened.

  18. While smiths decisions shows an immense OVER- confidence in matty slush and his offense, it shows an utter lack of confidence in his defense. I loved the call and hope he does the same come DEC26. the falcons have 5 losses at home under smith, who dat owns the last three failcon losses at home?! Can you say owned?

  19. I disagree. Stats are averages over a sample range that help decision making…but on that one play they did not have a “74%” chance of making it. They either make it or they don’t. 100% or 0%. Understanding that mathematical certainty, the human factor of analyzing risk / reward has to come into play:


    You don’t make it and the other team is already in field goal range and will likely win the game.

    Losing the game extends a much greater likelihood that you do not win the division, and makes the road to the playoffs substantially more difficult.


    You have the ball 1st and ten on your own 31 yard line, and still have to go at least 35 yards to have a reasonable shot at a game winning field goal.

    The assumption that if they make it they go on to win is magic 8 ball ….

    In this situation you punt the ball every time. Yes it is only a foot, but a foot is hard to get when all 12 men on are on the line…it’s not the standard 4-3 or 3-4 package on the field.

    Plenty will say they like the call, it was “gutsy”, etc…but it was a failure by the head coach to utilize critical thinking rather than the emotions of the moment. You don’t ever place the fortunes of your season on “one play” when by doing the logical you extend the game, giving yourself multiple opportunities to make a game changing play.

    Make it, don’t make it, the decision to go for it in that situation was the wrong call. No amount of statistical support changes the reality of the risk / reward analysis.

  20. “As a player, you have to love the confidence that he has in the offense in that situation,” Matt Ryan said via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


    Confidence in the offense or no confidence in your defense? Isnt that really the issue?

  21. Hopefully PFT will ask the Falcons players again how much they liked the call as they sit at home in January watching the playoffs.

    Any rational analysis of ‘the odds’ also needs to include the potential impact of all decisions. What were the chances of the Falcons winning if the DON’T convert the 4th and 1? Approximately zero.

    The Falcons may not have gone on to win had they punted the ball, but Smith’s decision doomed them to lose.

  22. Stats are for losers.. Punt from your own 30 in OT..
    Dumb decision.. you put the entire game on that one play.. You don’t get it and the Saints are already in Field Goal position in a sudden death situation. Stupid move period.. Punt and get the ball back. Smith just showed a total lack of confidence in both his special teams and his defense.

  23. I do not care what advancedNFLstats says, there was NO upside on that decision.

    Its simple, If you fail to convert, you lose the game. If you convert, you still have to go 40+ yards to have a shot of a Field Goal and no guarentee that you win the game.

    There was no appropriate risk to reward here. Terrible decision. What it made it worse, after the Saints called a timeout, Falcons did not even change the formation.

  24. Your Navy Pilot numbers cruncher is an idiot. Correctly split the 57% in half (assuming there’s a 50/50 shot they would be able to get the firstdown) and even the stats say it was stupid. Mike Smith and all that defend that decision dont understand how football is played. Funny though that some people have the moxy to actually defend this decision.

    If he was so scareed of the NO offense why did they even show upfor the game?

  25. Rex Ryan called Sanchez timeout call was the stupiest play in the NFL. That is until he heard what Mike Smith did.

  26. This season it is less than a 50% chance going for it and making it. And all of the stats presented fail to mention that by not making the 4th down conversion the Saints immediately had a 82% chance of winning. Best of all you’ve now told your Defense that you have no confidence in them.

  27. As “Herm the Germ” Edwards always says you play to win the game, but you also have to play intelligently. There comes a point in time that the risk/reward element has to be taken into consideration, and field position is one of those factors entering into this type of decision. If it is at your 40-45 yard line as opposed to your own 29 yard line, it is a bit different for your defense as well as the opponent’s offense because the opposition is not already in FG position.

    Frankly, the Falcons defense knew that unless they forced a turnover, the game was history. Saints FG kicker has not missed a FG inside the 30 yard line since 1998 when some of the Falcons players were only 10 and 11 years old!!!!!!!

  28. Actually the game was shown to 90% of the country and the play is being talked about (way too much the way)on the web and sports radio talk shows this morning. It was a great game pitting two above average teams.

  29. What I wonder is.. if they thought it was the right call… why didn’t they do it on 3rd down instead of that short pass? Sure it went from 3rd and 1 to 4th and inches, but really.. 3rd and 1 would have seemed a smarter down to try and push it through

  30. i DONT have an issue with them going for it. I have an issue with HOW they went for it.

    When the Saints called time out it was not to prepare the Defense for some unusual play that the Falcons might run. I’m sure the defense was told expect the Falcons to run that same friggin play they always run.

    So at that point the Falcons need to decide to go for it by doing something different then what the entire planet knows they are going to do. Not some trick gadget play, just something creative.

  31. Liked the guts just didn’t like the play. Everyone knew what was coming.

    I think they need to check the tape though for too many on the field. It seemed like the whole city of New Orleans was on that line.

  32. “t’s a simple matter of risk reward. The risk for failing far outweights the reward of making it. So what if they get the 1 yard? They’re still 40 or more yards away from a winning FG. If you don’t make it, game over.

    It was the wrong decision.”

    The article laid out the risk/reward probabilities clearly. 74% chance they convert. that’s almost 3:1, so that’s a good “risk”, much better than the risk of Brees and company getting into fieldgoal range, which is more than 26%! It was clearly the right call from a risk/reward point of view, mathematically.

    The other way I can see looking at it is that they risked losing the game to convert a 4th down, which is not equal to winning the game. What I say to that is by giving the ball to the Saints you are allowing them to control their destiny instead of you controlling your own. You are allowing them the chance to win that game instead of taking the chance on your own. That is not how winners play.

    Especially when the odds are on your side (of converting).

  33. thankheavenfornumberseven says: Nov 14, 2011 11:08 AM

    Was it just me or did it seem like it took about 18 minutes for that play to develop? On fourth and a foot, you just have to do a quarterback sneak and get that foot as quickly as possible.


    Exactly. It would be hard NOT to get 6 inches on a play where Ryan leaps over the center and extends the ball. It increases the chance of a fumble, but a fumble doesn’t really matter anyway in a situation where you’re going to turnover on downs and probably lose the game if you don’t convert. Instead they run a play out of I formation and have Turner following a slow lead blocker. Weak sauce.

    Oh well, I suppose it’s payback for their overtime win last year when Hartley missed a chipshot that ultimately was the difference in them winning the division or being a WC.

  34. Btw, this is all karma or fate or whatever you want to call it. The Falcons play dirty, beginning with their head coach. The officials clearly tried to cook this game for the Falcons and nearly cost the Saints a crucial game.

    The Falcons are headed for a 9-7 record where they will just miss the playoffs and watch the post season from the comfort of their living rooms.

  35. JMil_ATL says: Nov 14, 2011 12:17 PM

    Liked the guts just didn’t like the play. Everyone knew what was coming.

    I think they need to check the tape though for too many on the field. It seemed like the whole city of New Orleans was on that line.

    Typical dirty bird, delusional to the fact that his team is who we thought they were and they let us off the hook

    didnt they accuse the packers of dirty play in that loss, also? Are we seeing a pattern develop. Win…they are the most talented team in the league. Lose… the other team is dirty and cheating I love watching them implode at home, maybe they should implode that dump of a stadium

  36. “If the smashmouth Falcons can’t pick up a foot on the Saints, they don’t deserve to win.”

    Hate that justification. By that rationale, the Falcons should be going for it on any 4th down … up by 6, in FG range etc.

  37. tampajoey says:
    Nov 14, 2011 10:38 AM
    Stats are for loser unless you’re playing fantasy football. The only stat that matters is Wins & Loses.

    And good spelling is for winners.

  38. The risk was great but the reward here was small- merely keeping the ball– as opposed to the potential reward in the Belichick decision. In the Patriots-Colts game, a first down would have meant the Patriots could take 3 kneel-downs and run out the clock with a 6 point lead.

    Here the reward was keeping the ball and hoping to go another 35-40 yards to eventually have a chance to break the tie.

  39. I thought it was a fantastic decision, made even more fantastic when the Saints stopped them dead. Fear of Drew Brees+ lack of respect for our D line= fear based decision making from M-m-m-mike Smith.

  40. I haven’t done probability in a long time, but I’m pretty sure that in order to calculate the odds of two events, you have to multiply the odds of both. Which means you have to look at the chances that they convert the 4th down (0.74) and then the chances they’d win (0.57) assuming they’d convert.

    0.74 (odds of converting) * 0.57 (odds of winning after converting) = 0.42 or 42% chance of both converting and winning. AKA, a 58% chance of losing. And that’s IF they convert.

    The cold logic of it all says that the odds were about the same either way, but I definitely would have punted.

    John Kasey has hit 70% of indoor field goals 40-49 yards and 100% of indoor field goals 30-39 yards in his career. I’d like for them to have to try a little bit harder than that.

  41. It makes perfect sense that someone who bitches and moans like a woman on the sidelines would make a decision based soley on emotion. There is no way you can go for that. Bottom line is the game is over if you don’t make the 1st down. if this is close to midfield then maybe i see taking a chance but not at the 29 yd line.

  42. You dummies – you don’t understand the stats do you? The odds were NOT in the Falcons favor. They had a 42% chance of winning if they punted. They actually had the same chance of winning if they went for it. The odds of winning were NOT 57%. Those were the odds only after they converted the fourth down. The odds of that were 74%. Combining the odds of converting fourth down and then going down the field and scoring a FG or TD generates the same odds of winning as punting (42%). Ergo – dumb decision.

    Decision is only a good one if the odds are in your favor and they were not in this case.

  43. Never have followed the Falcons and if there had been any other game on I wouldn’t have been watching. Having said that I must also say that I loved the call. Screw the stats. Play to win. He has my respect.

  44. I’m a Saints fan and say that it would have worked if he did not hesitate.

    He should have just had them line up quickly and run a QB sneak. That would have worked.

    Hesitating and calling a timeout provide crucial time for Greg Williams to change the defense and the defense to take a breath and get motivated for the stop.

  45. Wow as a Falcon fan, I never thought I would agree with a Saints fan but Banjostang is right. That is the play that should have been called.

    The big problem here though with all people saying it was a stupid call. You are not an NFL coach so there is no way of knowing what the decision you would have called.

    The Falcons had already stopped the Saints once in OT, here is the problem with punting it. One stop is possible in OT but two stops with a team like the Saints, that is not easy no matter how good the defense. I see the only way we would have stopped them is a fumble or an INT. I highly doubt the Saints would have gone 3 and out again. That being said I think it was the right call.

    QB sneak is the better playcall, also remember though, it is Micheal Turner we are talking about. In the end there are a million different calls and a million different situations that could have happened but Mike Smith called one of them and the Saints came out on top in that situation. It’s football it happens and I’m not upset with Mike Smith or the Falcons….well except that they thought they could come out and be a passing team with no offseason what so ever. It wasn’t gonna happen. Come next season the Falcons will have had the time to develop and learn their strengths and weaknesses as a passing team rather than in game when everything is on the line.

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