- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fourth down, 18 inches to go, overtime. An archrival is the opponent with the division lead on the line.

What to do.

Falcons coach Mike Smith opted to take a chance, going for it from his 29-yard-line. The thinking was solid: Michael Turner is one of the NFL’s most powerful backs, and gaining a foot and a half should be attainable. Possessing the ball, Smith felt, was critical for any chance for victory last Sunday.

“Was I surprised? No, not really,” Turner said. “It definitely was a vote of confidence that he put the ball in my hands in that situation.”

Atlanta failed. New Orleans took over and kicked a winning field goal. Smith was ostracized by many.

Not by many of his peers, though.

Mike felt on fourth down that a half a yard was something they could get. If it works and you go on and get a few more first downs and kick a game-winning field goal, it’s a decision that is praised,” said Saints coach Sean Payton. “There are certain times as a coach that you instill some confidence in your group. … I think it’s in a big spot.”

On all levels, coaches are faced with difficult decisions practically every minute. At times, the choices they make seem like outrageous gambles. Yet, they usually are anything but seat-of-the-pants moves.

“It’s overtime and you’re on your 30-yard line, but I don’t look at it as that far out in left field,” said Payton, whose onside kick call to start the second half of the 2010 Super Bowl sparked New Orleans to its only title. “I look at that as something that was measured and calculated as the game had gone on, and they had done a good job in short yardage. They felt comfortable and confident enough in handing the ball to Michael Turner, and I can understand why, and I’m not so certain that if the tables were turned that I wouldn’t have made that same decision and that going forward won’t make the same decision.”

Some coaches have built a reputation on such gambles, or at least on thinking outside the box _ none more so than former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.

Leach was known for often using all four downs, faking kicks or trying onside kicks, or going for 2-point conversions. It made for unpredictable, exciting football, and the Red Raiders were 84-43 under him, with one of the more dynamic offenses in college football history.

Leach fully understands Smith’s thought processes.

“Sometimes you kind of are on a roll moving the ball,” Leach said. “Sometimes a team plays up or plays off the line, and you can catch them.

“It’s a growth process with your players. You put it on their shoulders and it is amazing how they will find a way. It kind of has to become ingrained, so be ready to go on fourth down. You want a sense of accountability on fourth down. We developed into a team that expected to go on fourth down.”

Some teams always go on fourth down. Kevin Kelley, who coaches Pulaski (Arkansas) Academy and perennially competes for high school championships, reasons that a team is allowed four downs to make a first down. So, use them. All four of them.

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