The Atlanta Falcons Choked Away the Super Bowl

Most football coaches would be making $50,000 a year as gym teachers if they weren’t making millions of dollars a year coaching football. There is no other highly paid discipline in America — aside from pro athletes themselves — where the disconnnect between what someone makes and what they would make in any other job in America exists like this. Football coaches, by and large, just aren’t that smart and this reveals itself, most frequently, in end of game situations, when real life complexities arise that require a supremely intelligent mind capable of analyzing rapidly changing circumstances in real time with extreme consequences. Sure, there are exceptions — Bill Belichick and Nick Saban would be excellent in pretty much any job since the lessons they distill would apply anywhere — but most coaches aren’t that smart in the grand scheme of things. And football, despite the many people who make a living telling you otherwise, isn’t that complicated of a discipline to study.

For instance, if I told you that you had a year to study to pass the medical boards and perform open heart surgery, pass the bar exam and argue a case before the Supreme Court, or study football and coach a football game, which of these three things would someone of average intelligence be most likely to pull off without falling flat on his or her face?

It’s no contest, right? There’s no way a person of average intelligence is passing the medical boards or the bar exam and either performing open heart surgery or arguing a case before the Supreme Court in the space of one year. At least not without being the worst to ever attempt either. It would be amazing television if you put someone of average intelligence up to either task. The heart patient would die and the oral arguments at the Supreme Court would be an unmitigated disaster.  

But most people could, with a year’s full time study, coach a football game and you wouldn’t even know that they didn’t belong on the sideline.

That’s because plenty of people of average intelligence already coach football. Football just isn’t that hard. Which makes the failure of multi-million dollar coaches all the more jarring. Witness last night’s Super Bowl, when the Atlanta Falcon coaching staff choked away a sure Super Bowl win with a series of indefensible, absurd coaching decisions.

Prior to this game teams with a 25+ point lead were 1057-4 since 1991. So how did the Falcons lose this game? This wasn’t one bad decision or one bad play — like the end of Super Bowl 49 when Pete Carroll got picked off in the end zone — this was a series of poor decisions that culminated in a team giving away a title it should have won. Yes, Brady was extraordinary late in the game, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Tom Brady should have never had a chance to tie this game at 28 and take this game to overtime. Not if the Atlanta Falcon coaching staff did its job.   

Let me explain. 

We begin our coaching analysis with the Falcons leading 28-12 and facing a 3rd and 1 from their own 36 yard line with 8:31 left in the game. The Falcons are up by 16 points. Get a first down here and they can definitely take 2:30 or so off the clock even if they don’t get another first down. Get stopped and they will be forced to punt, which will allow them to take the clock down to around 7:40 before the Patriots take possession.

So what do the Falcons do? The put Matt Ryan in shotgun to pass. The Patriot pass rush sacks Ryan, causing him to fumble, and the Patriots recover the fumbled football at the Falcon 25, a touchdown and two point conversion ensues making it a 28-20 game.

The decision to pass here is virtually indefensible since, as I stated above, if you run the ball the clock keeps running and you stand a very good chance of converting a first down. (The Falcons averaged 5.6 yards per carry). Even if you don’t get the first down — and you would have a better than 50-50 chance to convert — the most likely negative outcome here is minimal — you punt and the Patriots get the ball back with around 7:40 left in the game needing to drive the length of the field and score a touchdown plus a two point conversion. Then the Patriots would have to get the ball back and score another touchdown with another two point conversion. Just to get to overtime.

What you absolutely, positively can’t do in this situation is turn the football over and give the Patriots a short field.

So, of course, the Falcons called a risky pass play that blew up in their faces. The Falcons made a very bad coaching decision that led to very bad consequences. This wasn’t about questioning a specific play call, it’s about questioning a specific coaching decision.

Run. The. Football.  

But even after that poor decision happened the Falcons still had an eight point lead and got the ball back. To their credit the Falcons drove the ball down the field and after a spectacular throw and catch from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, Atlanta found itself with a first down at the Patriot 22 yard line. From here it would be a 39 yard field goal. That field goal, from the eternally reliable Matt Bryant, would have made it an 11 point lead with around 3 minutes to go. The decision at this point in time should be easy — run the football and take time off the clock.

The Falcons run the football on first down and lose one yard, taking the clock down to right at 4 minutes before taking their next snap, an inexplicable decision to put Ryan in shotgun and pass again.

WHY ARE THE FALCONS PASSING HERE?

It makes zero sense. 

If you just run the ball on second and third down you force the Patriots to take two timeouts or watch valuable seconds bleed away. Regardless you can then trot out Bryant to kick the field goal. So far this year Matt Bryant is 32-33 on field goals inside of 50 yards all season. (His lone miss was a kick blocked at Carolina on Christmas eve). Add in the fact that Bryant was 56 of 57 on extra points — which are 33 yards away — and you’ve got a kicker who made 87 of his 90 kicks from inside of 50 yards. (Bryant was also 6-8 on field goals of longer than 50 yards). Considering you are kicking indoors with zero weather conditions, Bryant’s field goal make percentage here is probably even better than the 97% he made all season.

If you run the ball two more times you probably gain five or so yards, which would mean that the field goal would effectively have been an extra point. Moreover, by running the football you force New England to take both of its remaining timeouts in the process. Meaning the odds would be massively in your favor to win the game. The only possible decision to make here if you’re trying to maximize your chances to win the game is to run the football. Make the chipshot field goal and then kick off and New England would have to score a touchdown by going the length of the field, convert a two point conversion, make and recover an onside kick, and then drive and make a field goal all within 3 minutes with no timeouts.

Just to go to overtime. 

The odds of this happening are minuscule.

This is where a head coach has to get on the headset and tell his offensive coordinator to run the football. The game is effectively won, there is no point in continuing to play aggressive football.

Yet even with all of these advantages the Falcon coaching staff put Matt Ryan in the shotgun to pass on second down. This decision was coaching malpractice of the highest order, the equivalent of a doctor amputating the wrong leg. Ryan is sacked on the play, losing 12 yards in the process. This necessitates another pass play, which results in a nine yard completion, putting the ball back at the Patriot 26. Only, you guessed it, holding is called and the Falcons now face a 3rd and 33 from the Patriot 45. In three plays the Falcons have gone from first and ten at the Patriot 22 to third and 33 at the Patriot 45. That third pass falls incomplete, stopping the clock anew, and the Falcons are forced to punt back to the Patriots on 4th and 33. 

As good as Tom Brady is — and he’s the greatest quarterback of all time —  if the Falcons just utilize rudimentary game management skills — the kind possessed by every 12 year old playing Madden on earth — they win the Super Bowl. 

Yep, the Falcons had the Super Bowl won. 

And they lost it. 

All because Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan completely choked on the sideline. When their intelligence and game management mattered the most, both coaches failed. Falcons fans have no one to blame, but their coaches.  

Sadly, this is what happens when gym teachers make complex decisions, time after time, these erstwhile gym teachers now making millions coaching football can’t analyze the game well enough to make the smart strategic decisions.

Yes, the Patriots comeback was incredible and Brady’s heroics were stupendous, but none of that would have mattered at all if the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff hadn’t delivered the biggest choke job in football history.  

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