- 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.

He doesn’t punt. And he doesn’t look at his coaching style as filled with gambles.

“It’s a gamble in my opinion if it lowers your chance to win the game. If it raises it, it’s not a gamble,” Kelley said. “That is where everybody differs.

“Based on numbers we have accumulated, the decision by Mike Smith was not a gamble. The decision raised his chances to win the game if executed (properly).

“What is the percentage chance of making 1 yard or less on fourth down as opposed to when the other team gets the ball, what’s their percentage of moving the ball and making first downs and driving down to score? I was watching the game and Drew Brees had been doing it successfully. I am sure Mike looked at that.

“I’ve heard some people say he made that decision based on emotion. He made that decision on what was the best chance to win.”

Some coaches, such as Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Bill Cowher, were tagged as being conservative, yet often they _ especially Parcells _ would call for fake punts or field goals, or go on fourth down. Herman Edwards, a successful coach with the Jets and Chiefs and now an ESPN analyst, also had a conservative bent. He’s adamant that such gambles never should be based on gut feelings.

“You can’t make emotional decisions. You must guard against that as a head coach,” Edwards said. “I can say this as a former player, I get it, I know the emotion in this game. But if you make the wrong decision on emotion, it will linger.

“It is more complicated than people can imagine.”

Such factors as time of game, weather conditions (if applicable, which they were not in the Georgia Dome), type of game, field position, and how healthy each team is all must be factored in. Are substitutes on the field, especially in key positions?

Leach said when he had a good punter and, especially, good gunners in coverage, he often would opt to kick rather than go for it. Edwards would weigh heavily how long each defense had been on the field and whether his defense had enjoyed success stopping the opponent throughout the game.

“It is never a cookie-cutter decision,” Edwards said. “And remember, when you make a decision, you actually think it is going to work. When it doesn’t work, you go, `Really?’ `’

It didn’t work out for Smith last Sunday. It shouldn’t make him gun-shy.

“The thing I respect more than anything, `’ Kelley said, “it is easy for people to second-guess and it is easy for him to punt the ball, it’s traditional. If he punts and New Orleans moves the ball and scores, and he catches no flak. He had to analyze, `Does it help my team win and I have to be willing to put up with the criticism I will get if we don’t make it.’

“I actually respect him more for that decision.”


AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Atlanta, Brett Martel in New Orleans, Ralph Russo in New York and Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this story.



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