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Falcons players, stats back up Mike Smith’s decision

Sean Payton, Mike Smith

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, left, walks away from Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith after speaking before the first half of an NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Rich Addicks)


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, 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.