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The Dawgs, the Falcons, and endgame mistakes

Georgia's offense was put into hibernation in the fourth quarter on Saturday by Mark Richt and Mike Bobo, but that was only a light appetizer for the mental meltdown by all involved at the Georgia Dome yesterday

It's hard to evaluate many aspects of football coaching. With college football coaches, we can grade coaching staffs on how well they recruit, but it's hard to account for context properly. Is Mark Richt an excellent recruiter because he consistently pulls in top ten classes or is he benefiting from being the head coach of the flagship program in a talent-rich state? We can decide whether coaches are doing a good job with development when players are progressing nicely, but again, how much credit do we give coaches for Aaron Murray being less mistake-prone and how much do we say that this is just natural development for a hard-working guy? The same issues pertain to scheme issues. Is Tennessee's defense so porous because of Sal Sunseri's scheme or because they just don't have much talent as a result of late era Fulmer's decline and then the Lane Kiffin disaster?

However, one area in which we can judge coaches with some degree of precision is the way that they handle endgame situations. There, the possibilities are finite, so we can make assessments without a cloud of uncertainty. This is true with chess...

Many of the greatest players throughout history have considered the endgame to be of paramount importance because endgame theory is finite.[citation needed] Whereas chess opening theory changes frequently, giving way to middlegame positions that fall in and out of popularity, endgame theory always remains constant. Many people have composed endgame studies, endgame positions which are solved by finding a win for White when there is no obvious way of winning, or a draw when it seems White must lose.

it is true in warfare, and it is true in football.

Mark Richt and Mike Bobo's management of the endgame against Tennessee on Saturday was much closer to Iraq 2003 than Germany 1945. After three quarters, Georgia had scored 51 points and gained 537 yards. In the final stanza. Georgia was held scoreless and gained a whopping 23 yards. Georgia went from holding a dominant position on the board to allowing Tennessee three drives with the ball and a chance to tie the game. Admittedly, the last possession saw the Vols needing to go 65 yards in 24 seconds, so it was only an opportunity in the loosest sense of the word. On the other hand, Tennessee very nearly blocked Georgia's punt in the final minute, so the Vols had chances right up to the end to send the game to overtime.

Other than a first down pass from Murray to Michael Bennett that netted Georgia their only first down of the quarter, a second-and-11 pass that fell complete, and a third down run when Georgia had bled Tennessee of their timeouts in the final two minutes, Georgia ran on first and second downs and then threw on third downs. In other words, Georgia took and offense that was on a record-setting pace for 45 minutes and then made it entirely predictable in the last 15. Richt and Bobo forfeited chances to end the game with the offense, putting the onus on a defense that struggled at times during the game* and then came up big late.

* - Despite Tennessee putting up 44 points, the Georgia defense actually played reasonably well. If you drop out Tennessee's defensive touchdown, their two touchdown drives that started in Georgia's red zone as a result of penalties, and the last drive that started with :24 remaining, then the Dawgs allowed only 23 points on 12 possessions. That's not bad at all. Georgia's first half turnovers made the defense look worse than it was and they no doubt affected the play-calling in the fourth quarter. Given that Georgia's running backs fumbled as much as Aaron Murray threw picks and Bobo could have prevented a reprise of Murray's fumble by leaving extra backs or tight ends to block (the fumble was caused by an unblocked blitzer coming up the middle on a pass play), throwing the ball was not an especially risky endeavor.

As a result of the late-game play-calling, Saturday's game became a microcosm of Georgia under Mark Richt. It left Dawg fans saying "that was good, but I can't get past the sensation that it could have been a little more." It was a B+ performance from a B+ coach.* For one thing, college football is a popularity contest. Georgia missed on the chance to get the attention of pollsters with a 65-point outburst. For another, Tennessee repeatedly rubbed Georgia's noses in bad defeats in the 90s, so some payback would have been emotionally satisfying. After all, the point of college football is to be entertained, is it not? Beating Tennessee was nice, but firebombing the Vols would have been better.

* - For the record, I like B+ coaches. You can drive yourself crazy pining after Nick Saban, but there are ten Derek Dooleys out there for every Saban.

While Georgia's approach in the final quarter against Tennessee was questionable, the final three minutes of the local professional football collective's game against the professional football collective from up I-85 was a comedy of errors. The Falcons made huge mistakes and then the Panthers topped them with even bigger screw-ups. Let's start with the Falcons' play on third and three from their own 36 with 2:34 remaining. Dirk Koetter, who has otherwise been a breath of fresh air for Falcons fans, called a rollout pass, a play-call that is usually used with green quarterbacks to simplify their reads. Matt Ryan can't exactly be described that way. It is also a play-call that Falcons fans remember from the end of the first half in the playoff game against Green Bay, a play that ended in a pick six that effectively killed the Falcons' season. With no one even remotely open, Ryan should have thrown the ball away. Instead, he took a potentially devastating eight-yard sack, turning fourth and three into fourth and eleven. Overrating the ability of his defense to get a stop, Mike Smith punted the ball back to Carolina. In the space of a few short decisions, the Falcons' offensive coordinator, quarterback, and head coach all made significant errors. The National Museum of Iraq was being looted.

However, Ron Rivera was about to go all-in on making conservative mistakes. The Panthers got a first down relatively easily, using the basic spread running plays (the same plays that Gary Danielson claims are a lost cause in the SEC because: (1) SEC defenses are too good; and (2) teams can't recruit for the spread as NFL teams do not use it). The Panthers then found themselves one yard from sealing the game on fourth and one at the Falcons' 44, in no small part because the Falcons were not deploying their safeties close enough to the line of scrimmage in what was effectively a goal line situation. The Panthers have over-invested in running backs, so if any team should be equipped to get one measly yard, it is this one. Moreover, Auburn won a national title in 2010 in no small part because Cam Newton is almost unstoppable in short yardage. Finally, the risk-reward for any team in Carolina's situation - one yard from clinching the game from the opponent's 44 - is such that going for it is the smart call, let a lone a team like the Panthers with a very good spread running game and a not-so-good defense.

So what did Rivera do? He punted. His boner looked artificially good when the Panthers got a lucky bounce and downed the punt at the one. Then, Rivera's charges froze to death at the gates of Moscow. They allowed Roddy White to get behind the defense in a situation where the one thing that Carolina could not do is give up a deep pass. Adding to the comedy was the Falcons running a play-action fake from their own end zone with 50 seconds remaining and no timeouts. That was funny when Michigan ran play-action in a similar situation in 1979 and then Georgia did the same a year later because they didn't have any passing plays without play-action; it's not as funny with an NFL team in 2012. But then again, maybe Carolina insanely fell for the fake, so the joke's on them?

After an incompletion, the Falcons found themselves with no timeouts and 23 seconds remaining at the Carolina 40. The Panthers then committed a pass interference penalty (stopping the clock when simply letting the Falcons catch the ball and tackling them would have forced the Birds to try a 52-yard field goal) and then allowed two straight completions at the sidelines. I would not expect a high school team in that situation to permit completions to the boundary, let alone an ostensibly professional team whose coaches no doubt put in 16-hour days all week and then forgot about the rules regarding stopping the clock at the end of a game. Having received multiple donations that Jerry Richardson will no doubt claim on his 2013 tax returns, Matt Bryant hit a 40-yard field goal and the Falcons have a three-game lead in the division after four games.

It is hard to figure out what to say after an ending like that. It's great that the Dimitroff-Smith-Ryan Falcons have won so many close home games in quasi-miraculous fashion that is was entirely expected that they pulled their chestnuts from the fire yesterday. It's not as great that the Falcons found themselves in that position in the first place, mostly because the offensive line concerns that fans had before the season suddenly materialized in the form of Charles Johnson declaring residence in Ryan's backfield. It's great that the Falcons won a dramatic game to take a deathgrip on the division. It's not great that Ron Rivera's self-administered lobotomy was a major reason why they got the win. As with the Georgia game, the endgame leaves us with a combination of happiness and concern. It was good, but it could have been better.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.