It never ceases to amaze me that so many talented and successful coaches in the NFL seem to have such horrid clock management skills. Andy Reid is the most famous example, having consistently coached winning teams over the past 15 years despite regularly making stunningly awful clock management decisions in key situations. As bad as Andy Reid has been in the regard, he has nothing on Mike Smith.
In today’s game against the Cleveland Browns, the Atlanta Falcons were inside kicker Matt Bryant’s field goal range and were looking at a 3rd and 2 with less than a minute to play. That is a situation where you would think the Cleveland Browns would burn a time out to stop the clock, but no, Mike Smith decided to stop the clock to give some thought to what play to run on third down. First of all, an NFL coach who is properly prepared for the game would not need a couple of minutes to think about what to do next. And secondly, since they have one of the best power backs of all time in Steven Jackson and you should be trying to run down the clock at that point, there is only one play to call; a run up the middle. But after thinking it over, Smith calls a pass play, again thereby stopping the clock on two consecutive plays. Matt Bryant makes the field goal but Cleveland has all three time outs left and they march down the field and kick a game winning field goal. Mike Smith is justifiably getting crushed for his decision making for his loss to the Browns, but I believe one of his worst, and most revealing, mistakes, actually came in the greatest win of his career.
In January 2013, the Falcons blew and big early lead to the up and coming Seattle Seahawks and found themselves down 28-27 with 31 seconds to play. Matt Ryan then completed a 22 yard pass, after which Smith rightfully used up his second time out. Ryan then completed another pass to Tony Gonzalez that put them well within clutch kicker Matt Bryant’s field goal range. After that completion, Smith jumped up and down and immediately ran out on the field wildly gesturing for a time out. A poised big game coach like Bill Belichick would have let the clock run down or at least let the Seahawks burn one of their two remaining time outs.
As it turned out, Matt Bryant made the go-ahead field goal after Pete Carrol burned one of his two time outs in a failed attempt at icing him. On the ensuing kickoff, the Falcons made a poor squib kick which gave the Seahawks the ball close to mid-field. After a short completion, they had an opportunity for a Hail Mary, and Russell Wilson was actually able to throw the ball into the end zone where it was picked off by a Falcons defender.
One might argue that if Smith did not call the time out, Pete Carroll would have called one a split second later, but that is unlikely. The fact the Pete Carroll burned one of his two time outs to ice the kicker indicated that his mindset was focused on trying to get Bryan to miss the kick, not on a potential last second comeback in the event of a successful kick. In retrospect, it was actually a poor decision by Carroll to try to ice one of league’s most clutch kickers, as if he had two time outs at the end of game, Russell Wilson would have had the option of competing a pass down the middle to get into field goal range rather than being forced the throw the Hail Mary.
Had the Seahawks pulled off the Hail Mary, that Mike Smith timeout may have gone down as one of the most infamous coaching decisions in history, but since they won the tame, it never received any attention. Though that decision did not cost him, it clearly showed how Mike Smith does not maintain his composure in pressure situations. That lack of composure is what will likely cost him his job.