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25 Nov 2014

Any Given Sunday: Browns Over Falcons

by Andrew Healy

A while ago, a friend taught me a good rule for being critical. Start with something positive and then get to the bad stuff. People take the criticism much better once you've added that spoonful of sugar up front. So let's apply that rule to Browns-Falcons. The Browns' secondary looked solid overall except for dropping easy interceptions. Paul Kruger was good even beyond the one sack he got when Matt Ryan ran into him like a drunken electric football player. And Roddy White was pretty good.

OK, that's it. This game did not reflect positively on either team, including the one that's now 7-4. Facing the worst defense in football by DVOA, Brian Hoyer threw three interceptions that varied from awful to horrendous. Matt Ryan threw three balls that ranged from should-have-been-intercepted to easily-could-have-been-picked in addition to his one interception. And Mike Smith carved in stone his three-year transformation to the dark side of bad coaching.

Shakespeare or Christopher Nolan could have written the Mike Smith tragedy. If we go with the latter, Mike Smith is this guy:

Scarred on one horrible day in the Meadowlands in early 2012, Smith then began a descent into madness that may have reached its crescendo with Sunday's crap-a-palooza. The end of the Detroit game might have been worse, but Smith didn't just mess up the end of this game in horrifying fashion, he also made a hash of the end of the first half. And it wasn't just about bad clock management.

Bad Decision No. 1

ATL ball, fourth-and-4 on CLE 43 with 5:56 left in first half, down 13-7, Falcons punt

Even Bill Belichick is punting these days in this spot. But Smith used to be one of the rare coaches who went for it in spots not too different from this. In his past, he did not usually go for it outside the 40, but he was very aggressive inside the 40. From 2008-2011, Smith went for it 17 out of 29 times between the opposing 40- and 10-yard lines in the first half or in close third quarters (margin of ten points or less). Since 2011, Smith has gone for it 0 out of 19 times in that situation. And a plausible culprit for Smith's wussification leaps out of the data. Here are those 17 fourth-down tries for Smith from 2008-2011.

ATL pts
Opp pts
Line of scrimmage
Yards to go
2008 13 2 SD 6 7 20 1 Run Y
2009 2 3 CAR 21 13 15 1 Run Y
2009 2 3 CAR 21 13 21 1 Run Y
2009 3 2 NE 3 10 34 3 Pass Y
2009 11 2 NYG 7 10 19 1 Run Y
2010 3 2 NO 7 14 26 2 Pass Y
2010 3 2 NO 7 14 11 2 Pass Y
2010 4 2 SF 7 14 10 1 Run Y
2010 9 1 TB 0 0 34 2 Pass Y
2010 12 2 GB 3 3 36 3 Pass Y
2010 15 1 SEA 0 7 18 1 Run Y
2010 17 2 CAR 14 0 26 1 Run N
2010 19 1 GB 0 0 13 1 Run Y
2011 10 3 NO 6 10 26 1 Run Y
2011 13 3 HOU 3 10 34 3 Pass N
2011 18 2 NYG 0 0 24 1 Run N
2011 18 3 NYG 2 10 21 1 Run N

Smith was wildly successful with his fourth-down gambles from 2008-2011, converting on his first 11 tries and 13 of his first 14. Then he failed his last three attempts, including twice in the 24-2 loss to the Giants in the 2011-2012 playoffs. That seems to have been the explosion that turned the previously-a-force-for-good-coaching Smith into just another purveyor of passivity.

Still, we can't go too crazy on Smith since this one was outside the 40 and most coaches incorrectly punt here. It's dumb, but on a scale from 1 (Tomlin's boner settling for three early against Arizona) to 10 (Merkle's boner), let's give the punt a 1.

Bad Decision No. 2

ATL ball, first-and-goal on CLE 8 with 1:00 left in half down 13-7, Falcons call their first timeout

Huh? Cleveland should have been calling its timeouts, but Smith inexplicably used one of his. There was no way the Falcons could have run out of time there. If they wanted to discuss the play more carefully, as Smith would suggest with the end-of-game situation, then they should have let the clock run down and then call timeout. They would have had an extra thirty seconds to discuss the play! Not that they really needed it, anyway, but at least they could have forced Cleveland to be smart enough to call timeout. Remember that Atlanta has the worst defense in football. Cleveland punted once all day. Only Hoyer's mistakes were effective at stopping the Browns. Giving them a full minute was likely to lead to a field goal at the gun. And it would have, if Hoyer hadn't made a brutal throw to a wide-open Josh Gordon inside the Cleveland 20 just before the half.

On the (Merkle's) Boner-o-Meter: 6

Bad Decision No. 3a

ATL ball, first-and-10 on CLE 43 with 1:31 left down 23-21, Falcons snap with 19 seconds on play clock

Bad Decision No. 3b

ATL ball, second-and-9 on CLE 42 with 1:03 left down 23-21, Falcons snap with 20 seconds on play clock

Come again? Both teams had three timeouts left and the Falcons, who should have been trying to run clock, instead were in the hurry-up. Yes, there was some chance that they could have punted back to the Browns and used their timeouts to get one last shot, but again, Atlanta has the worst defense in football. There was only one option here. Steve Tasker on the broadcast was right on top of it when he said that they wanted to be winning on a field goal as time expired.

On the (Merkle's) Boner-o-Meter: 5

Bad Decision No. 4

ATL ball, third-and-2 on the CLE 35 with 0:55 left down 23-21, Falcons call timeout

Eh? As Bill Barnwell described, Smith later said he wanted to get the right play call in for this one. That explanation makes basically no sense, since letting the clock run before calling the timeout just gives you extra time to think about the play. The Browns should have been calling timeout here, but Mike Pettine was not doing so right away, and seemingly was going to acquiesce in letting the clock wind down. (No, Pettine did not cover himself in glory on Sunday, either). On Monday, Smith acknowledged the mistake when he called timeout.

This decision is discussed further in today's Clutch Encounters column.

On the (Merkle's) Boner-o-Meter: 8

Bad Decision No. 5

On the next play, Falcons run a deep sideline route to Devin Hester

Ex-squeeze me? Baking powder? This play call is bad on so many levels. That is a low-percentage route, kind of like the end zone fade, but longer. Now, you could argue that the Browns were looking for the short pass and so it made sense to surprise them. I might even buy that, but there's a pretty big problem with trying to save this decision. The Browns blitzed on the play, leaving their corners in single coverage. And the short throw was wide-open almost immediately. Roddy White ran a simple slant and was all alone in the middle of the field. Needing 2 yards to almost certainly win the game, the slant should have been Ryan's first read. If it was, it sure would have worked. Just look at Roddy White (No. 84) with acres of space in front of him.

White's defender (Buster Skrine) was even shielded by the official for a bonus, but Ryan and White only needed a little space to complete this throw. On the day, White caught nine of 10 targets. If this play was designed to go to the easy throw, all the earlier bad clock management would not have mattered and the Falcons would have kicked a chip shot as time expired.

On the (Merkle's) Boner-o-Meter: 9

Everybody says that Mike Smith is a super-nice guy, and I'm sorry to pile on. But his transformation from good coach to bad coach is, like any trainwreck, pretty fascinating. In his first four years, Smith turned around a struggling franchise, going 43-21 while being one of the most aggressive coaches in football. Since then, Smith has gone 21-22 as one of the least aggressive coaches in football. He has won eight games the last two years, and seems to be now poor at much more than just fourth down when it comes to strategy. Those shortcomings have cost the Falcons two games now that even merely competent coaching would have secured as wins.

(Ed. Note: I personally wouldn't blame Smith for the Hester pass. Dirk Koetter calls the plays as offensive coordinator, and Matt Ryan is the man who has to make the reads. Everything else here, though, great evidence for giving Smith the heave-ho at the end of the season. -- Aaron Schatz)

The Second-Worst Performance on Sunday Belongs To…

Winning quarterback Brian Hoyer. His DVOA for the day (-25.8%) made this his second-worst game of the season, behind only his 16-for-41 stinker against Jacksonville in Week 7. Hoyer does somewhat better in QBR because he gets more credit for the winning drive at the end, but that bit of solid play can't erase how bad he was for the rest of the game. In addition to the three picks, Hoyer missed open receivers on a host of other throws.

That those throws were there for most of the game is no surprise given that, again, Atlanta had the worst overall defense and worst pass defense in football coming into Sunday's game. And atrocious pass defenses rarely have big games in terms of interceptions. Considering Atlanta for 2014 and the worst pass defenses at the end of the year for previous seasons, it had been 64 games since a quarterback threw three interceptions against football's worst defense. That quarterback was a rookie making his first NFL start. Rusty Smith was so bad that day that he never got another start and would only throw five more passes in his NFL career.

But Brian Hoyer is not Rusty Smith. Hoyer is about a league-average quarterback who had an unusually bad day on Sunday. He's also a very interesting quarterback statistically. Hoyer combines a low completion percentage (57.1 percent career, 55.9 percent in 2014) with a high average yards per completion. His 14.0 yards per completion (Y/C) this season leads the NFL, and his 12.9 career Y/C would rank him ahead of all active quarterbacks with at least 1,500 attempts. Looking at my favorite non-DVOA way to evaluate a quarterback's overall performance, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, Hoyer ranks ninth in the league this season. So Hoyer hits on enough downfield passes that he has been effective despite a low completion percentage. With the Browns' best weapon now back, Hoyer is more likely to outperform his solid play for most of 2014 than to replicate Sunday. And as much as the stats guy in me wants to ignore that a major motion picture debuted this year featuring a gritty quarterback named Brian coming back from injury to lead the Browns to glory, the karma for Brian Hoyer this year is definitely there. That and Mike Smith's current mojo deficit were enough to get Hoyer the chance he needed to win a crucial game that he tried to give away for about 59 minutes.

Posted by: Andrew Healy on 25 Nov 2014

14 comments, Last at 27 Nov 2014, 10:55am by Peregrine


by MJK :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 12:25pm

It almost feel like, sometime a year or two ago, Mike Smith and Ron Rivera switched places...or at least traded specific body parts.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 4:10pm

The real reason for Ron Rivera's recent trip to Camus II comes to light.

by Peregrine :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 2:41pm

Falcons fans are perplexed - and yeah, angry too - at how Smith has changed over the years. And it's weird because early in his tenure the Falcons were usually very sharp in end of half / game situations. In particular, the problem I've seen this year is that he's awfully aggressive in using his timeouts when there's no need.

But it's curious that he's gotten more heat for this game and the Lions game than he did for his decisions at the end of the season opener against the Saints. You know, the one where he played for a 50+ yard field goal to win in OT. His own players screwed him against the Lions, and they didn't help out much at all against the Browns. The defense capitulated in a hurry on both occasions, including giving up four straight completions for first downs to Hoyer.

by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:04pm

Could not agree more. I gave him heat for that in my Week 1 recap in my last entry:

by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:07pm

Here's what I said about that:
14:49 (OT) ATL NO: Falcons ball. Colston fumble forced by Bartu. They have to win it now, right? 1st and 10 on the 38. Hate the playcall. A run to Jackson, but he battled for 3. Please put the ball in Matt Ryan’s hands. Let’s not play for a 52-yard field goal. Second down. Run for Jackson. No gain. Then heavy personnel on third and a pass over Toilolu’s head. Can’t believe this is a 52-yard field goal. He makes it anyway. That is terrible process rewarded. Wow.

by techvet :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 3:10pm

Let's not forget Smith's (non-4th down) gamble in the 2010 playoff game (01/15/2011) against the Packers, when he (or Matt Ryan or both) got greedy (instead of trying to get a few yards for a reasonable FG) and tried a sideline route that was taken to the house by Tramon Williams to close out the first half...and the blowout was underway.


by Boots Day :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 3:46pm

An 0-10 team beats a 7-3 team, but your choice for "the weekend's biggest upset" is a 6-4 team beating a 4-6 team? I don't think I understand the point of this column.

by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 4:36pm

Yes, we felt like we had already given Chiefs-Raiders its full due with Scott's special Friday Clutch Encounters piece, so we wanted to go with a different game. And it wasn't a very good week for upsets overall.

by Joshua Northey :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 4:53pm

Instead of 6-4 beats 4-6, think of it as average team on the road beats other average team (at home). The Browns were underdogs.

by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:28pm

I know. I wish there was a better upset this week. Given that we'd already covered Raiders-Chiefs, Browns-Falcons was actually the only win (pre-Ravens) by a three-point or more dog this week. They were at 3, but I see now it even went off at 2.5. Bengals were at +1.5 and also ended up at +2.5.

by BengalFaninIN :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:02pm

Does anyone have any general insight about the domination of the NFC south by the AFC North? I am so far anyway, very surprised that the AFC North is 10-1-1 vs. the AFC south, in this era where we are told endlessly how it's all passing, all the time, and finesse and QB play rule the day, the smash mouth, bad weather, all wheel drive teams of the AFC North have simply owned the NFC South. What's up with that? Is is simply a result of close games and the small sample size, or is there some larger, more important trend at work here?

The AFC North is good, but we thought the NFC South was before the season, the main reason for the collective season long disaster that is the NFC south this year seems to be the fact that they are 1-10-1 against the AFC North.

by herewegobrownie... :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:18pm

I think a lot of it is that Baltimore and Pitt were both more talented than their 8-8 records last year, and Cleveland was much, much more talented than their 4 and 5 win records at least the last 2-3 years - it just had to catch up to them.

And the NFC South had a perfect storm of having to rebuild (Carolina especially,) in Tampa's case poor coaching/management as they've had for quite a while, in ATL's case poor coaching, and in NO key injuries/poor investments (Byrd essentially replacing Sproles.)

Keep in mind that the AFC North is arguably not quite as good as its records because they all have had such easy schedules.

by Peregrine :: Thu, 11/27/2014 - 10:55am

From the perspective of this Falcons season ticket holder, the core problem of the team is not coaching but the lack of physicality on the OL and defensive front seven. Part of this is Smith's fault, because he's closely involved in personnel decisions, but the blame has to fall on Dimitroff as well. I don't think it's an accident that Smith stopped being aggressive - as Andrew details above - after that playoff game against the Giants. (And don't forget that infamous failed 4th down run in OT against the Saints the following season, think it was.) Smith just doesn't trust the OL like he did in earlier years.

As for the defense, we must have the worst front seven in the league. The LB corps is the worst unit on the team, which is saying something.

I do think Smith's gone at the end of the year and the high-profile game management issues will get most play in the post-mortem commentary, but I think these are mainly symptoms of the underlying problem, which is that under his watch the Falcons became physically uncompetitive relative to the rest of the league. Big question is whether Dimitroff will go too.