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Falcons Vs. Saints: Words, Math Disagree On Mike Smith's Fourth Down Decision

When Mike Smith called time out and sent his offense back onto its own 30, every Atlanta Falcons fan I know nodded in approval. Maybe I exclusively know crazy Atlanta Falcons fans. But, as we agreed at the time, if this team can't gain an inch against the New Orleans Saints, it's probably not going to win much of anything anyway, so why not embrace a little zest?

It's the kind of strategic decision that's simple enough for talk radio to hammer into the ground if it doesn't work -- even though 77 percent of the local paper's voters approve of the move -- because many are going to have a hard time separating the try from the play call.

Here's the Harvard Sports Analysis blog, and yes I'm touting it extra hard because it's the Harvard Sports Analysis blog, in a post informed by Advanced NFL Stats' look at Smith's decision:

So Mike Smith made the right decision: his team was 8% more likely to win if he went for it on 4th and 1 instead of punting it. Since his offense did not pick up that yard, he looks like an idiot for giving Drew Brees the ball on the Falcons' 29. However, this feeling is nothing but hindsight bias: Mike Smith made the right call.    

And that 8 percent figure is based on trying to convert a full yard, not an inch or two. The actual number would be higher than 8.

Meanwhile, newspaper columnists are being newspaper columnists, grumpily. Out of all the columns decrying a risk because it didn't work, this is one of the few to argue that it would've been a bad idea even if it had worked (you have to admire the commitment):

Smith gambled instead and did it on a bet where the risk far outweighed the reward. And that's what so vexing: Even if the Falcons made it, they were still 40 yards from field goal range. Getting the first down would have extended the drive, kept the ball in the team's hands and prevented Drew Brees from having a chance to end the game.    

Smith is showing excellent leadership by taking blame for the play, but he made the right choice. If Mike Mularkey had to get clearance from Smith to send in the play the Falcons ran, though, then there's the mistake Smith made.

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