Dan Quinn made a mistake. Maybe it was a rookie mistake — this was Quinn’s ninth game as an NFL head coach — but it was a mistake all the same. Let’s be clear about that.
Let’s also be clear about this: I understand why he made it. Don’t agree, but I understand.
Get the picture: Falcons trailing by four points, fourth-and-goal at the San Francisco 1, three minutes remaining, two timeouts remaining. Quinn chose to kick the field goal that brought his team closer but still left it behind with 2:56 to play. He relied on his defense to make a stop, which it didn’t. The 49ers made two first downs — one on a third-down scramble, the other on two running plays — and that was that.
Quinn is a defensive coach by trade. He trusted his defense. It failed him. But the greater error was in misreading the situation. Had the Falcons gone for the touchdown and missed, the Niners would have had to try to grind out two first downs starting at their 1-yard line. That’s rather different from taking the ball at the 20 on a touchback after a kickoff following a field goal that still left them ahead.
Having yielded points but not the go-ahead points, San Fran had every reason to be relieved. Had it stopped the Falcons on fourth-and-goal from the 1, it would have been excited for 30 seconds, whereupon reality would have descended: “Hey, we’re still on our 1 and we’re still using a bumped-up backup quarterback. This ain’t over.”
Sometimes coaches err by not taking a field goal that brings them within a field goal of taking the lead. (As we know, NFL games are forever coming down to field goals after a breathless final drive.) Had the Falcons faced fourth-and-12 at the 30 with the same amount of time remaining, kicking would have been in order. A failed fourth down from there leaves the opponent in decent field position, not with its feet in its end zone.
I’m sure Quinn was thinking: “We take the points; we use our timeouts; we use the two-minute warning and we get the ball back with plenty of time to kick another field goal.” But I say again: The difference between an opponent having the ball at its 1 with a four-point lead and at its 20 with a one-point lead is immense.
We stipulate that not every fourth-down gamble works, and here we consult the master of the failed fourth down, the now-jobless Mike Smith. On Nov. 11, 2012, Smith faced close to the same choice: The 8-0 Falcons trailed New Orleans by four points and had fourth-and-goal at the 2 with 1:46 left and two timeouts remaining. Matt Ryan threw towards Roddy White. Jabari Greer broke up the pass.
Even so, the Falcons got the ball back. The Saints of Brees and Graham and Colston tried three rushes and punted from their 4. (Smith called both his timeouts.) The Falcons took possession at their 31 — a Lawrence Sidbury holding penalty on the punt cost them 10 yards — with 41 seconds left. They couldn’t manage a first down and were unbeaten no longer.
Infamous for his late-game mismanagement, Smitty played that one correctly. He gave his offense two chances — granted, the second was a tough chance made tougher by the penalty — inside the final two minutes. Quinn’s choice wound up giving his offense no chance over the final 2:56. He’s a defensive-minded man, but he doesn’t have Seattle’s defense. (At least not yet.)
That said: If you’re trailing a lousy Niners team with three minutes left on any field anywhere, you deserve what you get. The Falcons were lucky to beat the Redskins in overtime to get to 5-0 and the Titans by a field goal to become 6-1 They haven’t played well in five weeks. They have a week off to recalibrate. They need it.
Further reading: Going by the 4th Down Calculator at Brian Burke’s excellent site Advanced Football Analytics — thanks to Rodger Sherman of SB Nation for pointing this out — making the field goal actually lessened the Falcons’ chances of winning Sunday. Per the Calculator, the Falcons had a 17 percent chance of winning after taking the three points. They’d have had the same 17 percent chance had they missed the field goal. Had they gone for the touchdown and failed, they’d have had a 35 percent chance of winning. Had they scored the touchdown, they’d have had a 78 percent chance of winning.
Quinn, you should know, is big on analytics. He’ll cringe at these.