Blame begins, ends with Mike Smith

Coach Mike Smith is taking the blame for the Falcons' 26-23 overtime loss to the Saints. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

ATLANTA – When he walks into a postgame news conference, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith typically gives an opening statement. Sometimes he will go on for several minutes and the media must wait to ask questions.

On Sunday, it was different. Smith made a few quick remarks before making his most daring decision of the day.

“With that, I’ll open it up,’’ Smith said. “I know there are probably lots of questions that you guys have. I’m ready for them.’’

The avalanche was on. For the next 9 minutes, 20 seconds, Smith basically fielded the same question about a dozen times and gave the same answer repeatedly.

That’s what happens when you make a call like Smith did in Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints. With a fourth-and-inches at his own 29-yard line and 10:52 remaining in overtime, Smith elected to go for the first down instead of punting. The play wasn't even close to being successful.

“It’s something that I take full responsibility for,’’ Smith said. “It is my decision and my decision solely.’’

Point the fingers at Smith and keep them there the rest of the season if the Falcons (5-4) don’t catch up to the Saints (7-3) in the NFC South.

“I know it will be scrutinized all week long,’’ Smith said. “And again, I want everybody to understand, I take full responsibility for that.’’

It should be noted Smith slowly emphasized each of the last six words of that quote. He also used some form of “I take full responsibility’’ at least four times.

That might end up being the title of this Falcons’ season if this team somehow misses the playoffs. In general, you can say that one play doesn’t decide a game and a handful of plays don’t decide a season.

But what happened Sunday was an exception to generalizations. Smith’s decision cost the Falcons a very big game – and, in the long run, maybe a lot more.

For the record, let’s review the series of events that led to a decision that will be talked about for a very long time in Atlanta. After falling behind 23-13 with 7:13 remaining in regulation, the Falcons rallied with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez and a 27-yard field goal by Matt Bryant as the clock on the fourth quarter ran out.

In overtime, the Falcons ran three plays and punted. Then, the Saints ran three plays and punted. The Falcons ran three more plays and, at first, it looked like fullback Mike Cox had a first down after catching a short pass. But the play was reviewed and the ball was placed just short of the first-down marker.

That’s when Smith sent his punting team onto the field. Then, he called a timeout. Then, he suddenly put his offense back onto the field and the Saints called a timeout.

Then came, what could end up being a historic moment.

The Falcons handed the ball to Michael Turner, who was met by defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and defensive end Will Smith. Instead of gaining a few inches, Turner lost a few feet and the Falcons lost the game. Well, that actually came four plays later when John Kasay booted a 26-yard field goal that was more a formality.

The game was decided the second Smith decided to put his offense back on the field. So let’s hear his thought process.

“We were going to punt the football, then had a change of heart,’’ Smith said. “I wanted us to go for it. I thought the ball was inside half a yard and we could get it. Did not want to give the ball back to the Saints. In previous games, close games that we’ve played them, we’ve punted the ball with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process that I went through.’’

You can make the case that maybe the Falcons should have had Ryan run a quarterback keeper. But it wasn’t the play call, so much as it was the decision to go for it with poor field position. New Orleans’ offense had cooled off, not scoring a touchdown on its three-fourth quarter possessions or its first possession of overtime.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t have faith in the defense,’’ Smith said. “That’s a very good quarterback (Drew Brees). By no means is that a lack of faith in the defense. It’s a matter of what has happened when we’ve played them in the past that is always a part of the decision-making process.’’

Smith’s decision was universally supported in the Atlanta locker room.

“As a player, you’ve got to love the confidence he has in the offense,’’ Ryan said.

“That’s what you’ve got to do in these types of games -- be aggressive,’’ linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.

It also drew high praise in one corner of the New Orleans locker room.

“It takes some steel you- know-what to make that call,’’ Brees said.

In another corner of the locker room came the wisest words anyone said all day. Those words came from Will Smith when asked what kind of a message the Falcons sent when they put their offense back on the field.

“We’re big, bad and stronger than you guys,’’ Will Smith said. “And we stood up and said, 'No, you’re not.'’’

Someone then mentioned that it’s not uncommon for a team to go for it on fourth down and inches.

“Yeah, but not on the 30,’’ Will Smith said. “In overtime. If they don’t get it, that’s game over.’’

In between taking “full responsibility,’’ Mike Smith repeatedly tried to explain his decision was part of his plan to be aggressive throughout the game.

“When you get the ball, you want to go ahead and try to end it,’’ Smith said. “I felt that we had been very aggressive in everything we did throughout the day in what we did offensively, defensively and on special teams, and we wanted to stay that way through the end of the ballgame.’’

Being aggressive can be a wonderful thing, especially when it’s the smart thing. But the sad reality is Smith’s decision was neither aggressive nor smart. The smart and aggressive thing would have been to punt, trust his defense, and put his offense in a better position to win the game. The smart and aggressive thing would have been for Smith to do the first thing that popped into his mind -- not the second thing.

You have to wonder if anything else was running through Smith’s mind during the timeout before he sent the offense out. Did he hear the noise from the crowd and his offensive players, begging him to go for it? Did he feel pressure from a front office and ownership that seemingly was shooting for Super Bowl or bust this season?

“It’s my responsibility as the head football coach and you have to make tough decisions,’’ Smith said. “I take full responsibility for it.’’

It’s good that Smith is blaming himself for this one. Because there’s absolutely no one else to blame on this one.