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Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

With just under five minutes left in last Sunday’s game against the Giants and his team trailing 27-20, Mike Smith went for it on 4th and 1 from his own 29 yard line. As was the case on repeated 4th down attempts the last time his team visited MetLife Stadium to face the Giants, the decision to be aggressive did not work out well. Matt Ryan was sacked for a nine-yard loss that effectively ended the game. If his previous behavior is any guide, Smith may learn the wrong lesson from that outcome and choose not to go for it again when the next similar opportunity arises. Smith illustrates better than any other coach the potential for fourth down failure to lead to future fourth down timidity.

Before those two failed Ryan fourth down sneaks against the Giants in that 2011 playoff game, Smith actually was one of the more enlightened coaches on fourth down strategy. From 2008-2011, Smith was the third-most aggressive coach of the last twenty years, at least according to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index. Dating Smith’s turning point is a little tough. He got burned going for it in Week 10 of the 2011 regular season, when he tried a sneak on 4th and inches from his own 29 in overtime against the Saints. He punted in a couple of situations where he usually went for it late in the 2011 season, but then was aggressive closer in against the Giants. By the 2012 regular season, Smith hadn’t just abandoned his prior tendency for aggressive strategy. He entirely reversed it. In 2012, he was the least aggressive coach in football, only going for it once in 91 qualifying fourth-down tries. He was similarly passive in 2013. His fourth down decision last Sunday was surprising given that trend.

To see Smith’s evolution on fourth down strategy, consider his decisions on 4th and 3 or less when between the opponent’s 10- and 40-yard lines. To consider only situations where there was a real choice while keeping things as simple as possible, I look only at first-half decisions along with third-quarter decisions where the margin was ten points or less. [click to continue…]

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And then he said, what's your deal?

And then he asked me what my deal was.

A couple of interesting notes, courtesy of Mike Sando on ESPN.com. The first is a good bit of trivia: Jim Harbaugh joins George Seifert, Barry Switzer and Rex Ryan as the only head coaches to reach the AFC or NFC Championship Game in each of their first two seasons as an NFL head coach. The second piece of information provides a possible clue as to how the game might unfold for Atlanta. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have allowed 8.9 yards per rush to quarterbacks this season, the worst rate in the NFL (excluding kneel downs).

To be fair, only three quarterbacks have done anything of note on the ground against the Falcons this year. Michael Vick rushed 7 times for 42 yards in a 30-17 loss. Vick had two first down carries that went for four yards, two third and long carries that went for 10 total yards but no first downs, and then three runs on 3rd and 3 or 4 where he picked up the first down. That’s not good, but not too alarming.
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Who should win Coach of the Year in the NFL?

Let’s get this out of the way. Bruce Arians, or an Arians/Pagano ballot, is going to win Coach of the Year. Period. But who should win it?

Coach of the Year is one of the most difficult awards to predict each year. The award often goes to the coach who most outperforms expectations rather than the coach who does the best coaching job, which is how you end up in situations where Dick Jauron and Jim Haslett were named the best coaches in 2001 and 2000, respectively.

There are no standards or guidelines to help voters determine the Coach of the Year, so every voter is left to his own devices. Today, I’m going to run down my rankings of the top 8 coaches of 2012.

8. John Fox, Denver Broncos

Having Peyton Manning makes coaching easy, but Fox still deserves credit for guiding the Broncos to an excellent season. Denver is going to finish the year on an 11-game winning streak and the Broncos are in the top five in points allowed, yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and rushing yards per carry allowed. Fox has helped turn Von Miller into one of the best two defensive players in the NFL and his hiring of Jack Del Rio to coach the defense has worked beautifully. And while Manning is having a phenomenal year, let’s not forget that it was only three months ago that people were questioning his arm strength and the Broncos were 2-3. Many coaches are doing wonderfully with less, but Fox deserves credit for helping lead Denver to the 2 seed in the AFC.

7. Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak

Gary Kubiak wishes COTY voting took place after the end of November.

It was only three weeks ago that the Texans were 11-1 and the class of the NFL. I wrote earlier this season that Kubiak’s done an excellent job resurrecting his coaching career, and much of that remains true. He’s built this team for half a decade, and he oversaw the additions of J.J. Watt and Wade Phillips to the defense to complement Kubiak’s formidable offense. The Texans are likely going to earn the top seed in the A.F.C., an impressive accomplishment considering Matt Schaub isn’t on the same tier of a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Even with a little luster off the team right now, Texans fans could hardly ask for more than home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

So why isn’t Kubiak ranked higher? I’m not sure the Texans are as good as their record and they’ve had a relatively easy schedule. Kubiak’s done an excellent job, but he also hasn’t had to face as much adversity as some other coaches this year. Houston is now one of the most talent-laden rosters in the league, and that makes Kubiak’s success just slightly less impressive.

6. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

The Packers are 11-4 — they’d have the same record as the Texans if not for the Golden Taint play — despite facing a more difficult schedule than Houston. As is seemingly an annual tradition, the Packers have placed a large number of starters on injured reserve, including right tackle Bryan Bulaga, linebackers Nick Perry, D.J. Smith, and Desmond Bishop, and Cedric Benson (along with two other running backs). Charles Woodson has only played in 7 games, James Starks and Alex Green have been banged up most of the year, and injuries have limited Greg Jennings to just 246 receiving yards this year.

Alex Green is the leading rusher with 464 yards, and he’s plodded to the tune of 3.4 yards per carry, narrowly trailing what Benson (3.5) and Starks (3.6) have produced. An anemic running game, a banged up offensive line, and injuries at receiver and tight end have resulted in Aaron Rodgers having a down season and having taken 46 sacks. Clay Matthews has missed four games and he still has 8.5 more sacks than anyone else on defense.

Yet after all that, the Packers are in line for the #2 seed in the NFC. McCarthy’s team is ranked 7th in both points and points allowed, and Green Bay has responded well in the face of adversity this season. After the painful loss to the Seahawks, would other coaches have been able to keep this team focused? After an emotional loss to the Chuckstrong Colts, you didn’t hear about grumbling in the locker room: instead, Green Bay won five straight games. Since a 38-10 shellacking against the Giants, where they looked lost, the Packers have won four in a row. If McCarthy isn’t a household name, that’s just because he’s the most underrated coach in the NFL. Despite facing numerous setbacks this season, he’s got the Packers right where everyone expected they would be.

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Why trust this guy?

Falcons head coach Mike Smith made a couple of interesting decisions in the 4th quarter of Atlanta’s loss to the Saints on Sunday. And by interesting, I mean conservative. The first strategic blunder came when his team scored a touchdown with 13 minutes remaining, to cut the lead to 28-23 pending the point after. Smith’s absurd reasoning doesn’t merit discussion, and according to Bill Barnwell and the footballcommentary folks, Atlanta should have gone for it if they had just a 23% chance of converting.

Jason Lisk highlighted what was likely in Smith’s head: we don’t know who is going to kick the next field goal. Sure, if it’s the Falcons, then you want to go for two, but if it would be New Orleans (the team about to gain possession) then we’re in a 7-point game situation, so the extra point is the conservative right play.

But here’s the easy shorthand: if the downside to missing the two-point conversion is limited to you needing a two-point conversion later to even things up, then going for it is usually the correct call.

What is the advantage to being down 3 vs. being down 4? Well a field goal ties the game, and even if the opponent kicks a field goal, a touchdown will win it for you.

What is the disadvantage to being down 5 vs. being down 4? Well, a field goal is meaningless in either case (or, if it’s not meaningless, one field goal still leaves you one field goal away from taking the lead). The big disadvantage is that if New Orleans scores, the Falcons would have been down 8 as opposed to being down 7. But in coach-speak, being down 8 is one-possession game just like being down 7 is! That’s obviously not true, but in this case, the downside to going for 2 is essentially cut in half, because you get a second bite at the apple.

In other words, 50% of the time that you ‘go for two’ following a touchdown when trailing by 11, you will be down by 3 and glad you were aggressive; 25% of the time you go for 2 you will have some short-term discomfort, but this will be alleviated when you convert the next touchdown (which you need anyway if you don’t go for two). Only 25% of the time will this move blow up in your face. This is exactly the same logic that dictates that a team, down by 14, should go for two after scoring the first touchdown.

Considering Atlanta’s odds of converting the two-point attempt had to be greater than 50/50, considering that’s roughly the league average, Atlanta’s offense is great, and New Orleans’ defense is terrible, that makes going for two the obvious correct call.

Of course, Smith also made an ugly mistake when he kicked a field goal from the Saints’ two-yard-line when trailing by 4 points with nine minutes left. Had he gone for 2 earlier, I could at least understand the logic of kicking the field goal, even if I wouldn’t do it. But down by 4, he passed up a 50/50 chance to take a three-point lead to cut the lead to 1? Even if he missed, the Saints would have been backed up near the own goal, and a three-and-out would have likely put the Falcons a first down or two away from getting that precious field goal.

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