NFC Games Turn on Key Fourth-Down Calls

Mike Smith's problems went way beyond two failed fourth down conversions

This past NFL season was the Year of the Prolific Offense, with record-setting quarterbacks leading record-setting offenses. The high-octane scoring meant that leads were seldom safe, which forced coaches to adapt their play-calling. That was the backdrop for key coaching decisions in Wild Card victories by the Giants over the Falcons and the Saints over the Lions.

Both games turned on decisions made on aggresive play-calling on fourth downs -- calls that would have been unthinkable in the past.

In New Orleans, Sean Payton elected to go for it on fourth down three different times in a close game despite the fact that failure would greatly enhance Detroit's chances of pulling off an upset. The Saints converted all three attempts, and all three drives ended in touchdowns that pushed Payton into the next round.

On Sunday at the Meadowlands, Mike Smith tried to emulate his NFC South colleague. The Falcons passed on a pair of field goals in favor of going for it on fourth down. Despite needing just a yard each time, the Falcons failed on both tries and the Giants ran away with a 24-2 victory.

Payton's aggressiveness is hailed and Smith is fitted for goat horns, but you can't just look at the results of the plays when assessing the wisdom in trying them. The difference between the two outcomes came on every other play in the game, not on the fourth downs.

We already know, mathematically speaking, that both teams made the right choice. Your expected points are higher when you go for it in all of those cases than it is if you choose to punt or kick a field goal. So you can't kill either coach for making that call. The issue is how you coach in total.

For the Saints, going for it on fourth down was the natural move for a team that plays with the pedal on the floor for 60 minutes and has supreme faith in its offense to overcome any problems that crop up over the course of a game. If the Saints didn't convert those plays, maybe the game turns out differently, but there's a pretty good chance New Orleans still wins because Payton would have kept being as aggressive as possible in every situation.

Atlanta, on the other hand, played so conservatively that you'd imagine Smith is the kind of guy who thinks adding a tea bag to a cup of boiling water is a bit too avant garde. You need look no further than another fourth down situation in Sunday's game to know that's true.

After the Giants picked up a safety on an intentional grounding by Eli Manning in the end zone, the Falcons had the ball with a fourth-and-one on the Giants' 42. Smith chose to punt it away there, making you wonder if he even understands the situations that are in front of him.

It was like that all day for the Falcons. They mortgaged their entire draft for Julio Jones  and never once tried to use him as a deep threat against a team with a bad secondary. They wasted a possession before halftime because they seemed more afraid of the downside than intrigued by the upside. And on those two fourth downs, they ran one quarterback sneak after a lot of dancing around and then ran another one -- without even bothering to put a running back in the backfield -- even though the first one got stuffed.

Anyone killing Smith for his decisions would be wise to remember what happened on the other side of the field. Tom Coughlin passed on a field goal late in the second quarter by going for it on fourth down deep in Atlanta territory and wound up with a touchdown instead of taking a 3-2 lead. No one thinks he's insane for doing that, which is odd because he made exactly the same decision as Smith.

If you want to kill Smith's coaching on Sunday, go right ahead because he deserves it. Kill him for the entire game plan, though, and not just two calls that you would be hailing him for if they had turned out correctly.

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