x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Numbers in Smith's favour, but not the outcome

Mike Smith took a chance in overtime against the New Orleans Saints. Percentages weighed in his favour. His running back had been perfect in four previous chances out of four. It didn't work out.


It was the highest-stakes gamble of the season. As gambles often do, this one failed.

Mike Smith, the Atlanta coach, facing fourth and inches at his 29-yard line in overtime against New Orleans, brought the punt unit off the field and sent the offence back out with instructions for a hand-off to the tailback Michael Turner. The Saints swarmed him for a loss, then kicked a field goal for the win. Inevitably, many pundits excoriated Smith. In this case though, the numbers backed Smith, however slightly.

New Orleans had the worst rush defence in the league and was third-weakest on stopping "power runs". Advanced NFL Stats, an online service that computes Calculated Win Probability at junctions of a game, determined that the Falcons' chances of victory were five per cent higher by eschewing the punt. Smith had no access to most of these figures. Rather, he drew from a memory bank that recalled punting to the Saints late twice in previous games and watching Drew Brees whip them to winning scores.

A more valid quarrel is with Smith's play call. Turner was four-for-four in the game on short power runs for first downs, but he often has been stopped behind the line this season. Smith should have gone with a quarterback sneak, which carried greater certainty, and he will have noticed that Arthur Blank, the Falcons owner, was not among his many critics. "It was the right thing to do," Blank said, who may want to reconsider if the 5-4 Falcons miss the play-offs by one game.