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About Those Falcons Play Calls …

Every Super Bowl loser wants a do-over, but no team has had as disastrous an ending as Atlanta had in the final nine minutes of Super Bowl LI. If the Falcons were given 1,000 do-overs, they would have been expected, according to ESPN’s win probability model, to win the game 996 times.

All the Falcons needed was one more point, one defensive stop or perhaps even just one more minute of burnt clock to zero out the New England Patriots’ 0.4 percent chance to surmount a nigh-insurmountable lead.

Why didn’t they?

“I think we ran out of gas,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said at his post-game press conference. Even so, Quinn’s offensive machine should have been able to coast to the finish line after being up 28-12 with possession of the ball and less than 10 minutes to play. Instead, bad decision-making turned domination into capitulation.

The Falcons, as I wrote one FiveThirtyEight’s Super Bowl live blog, had been stunningly effective on the ground all game. The Patriots’ rush defense ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) this season, yet the Falcons had piled up 94 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries.

Starting at the 9:40 mark, Falcons running back Tevin Coleman ran on first and second down, getting injured on the latter play but setting up 3rd-and-1 from the team’s own 36-yard line. Rather than dial up another clock-eating run, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called a pass play. Coleman’s backfield partner, Devonta Freeman, whiffed on his blocking assignment, and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was strip-sacked.

After the Patriots capitalized on the turnover with a touchdown, the Falcons ran 11 offensive plays — and only two of them were runs. Despite needing more than anything to wind the clock down to zero, Shanahan gave only two more carries to Freeman, who’d been averaging 8.2 yards per carry until that point.

This is where football coaches, who spend numerous hours micro-analyzing schemes and matchups as they build out their game plans, can lose the forest for the trees. It may well be that Shanahan had a perfect play called up for that situation, or a matchup he knew Ryan could exploit. Ryan, after all, had completed 13 of 16 passes to that point; another short completion seemed like an easy ask. But the Falcons needed to maximize their chance of finishing the game with more points, not their offensive efficiency.

Even if the Patriots had stopped Freeman short of the sticks on 3rd-and-1, it would have run 30 more seconds off the clock, and an average Matt Bosher punt would have placed the Patriots inside their own 20-yard line with less than eight minutes to play. Instead, the Falcons’ only turnover of the game gave the Patriots the ball 5 yards from the red zone with 8:24 left on the clock. Even an unsuccessful run and decent punt at this juncture might have been enough to win the game, considering that the Patriots would go on to score the game-tying touchdown with just 57 seconds left. (Then again, having one fewer minute may have just meant that the Patriots would have scored even faster.)

Incredibly, Shanahan and the Falcons later doubled down on their mistake.

On the ensuing Falcons possession, Ryan gripped it and ripped it. The Falcons moved from their own 10-yard line to the Patriots’ 22 with a 2-yard run sandwiched between two deep passes. They then ran once, for a loss of a yard, shaving 44 seconds off the clock. Then, Shanahan dialed up another pass — and Ryan took his fifth sack.

“You don’t think, just run the ball and make your guy kick a 50-yard field goal,” Shanahan told reporters after the game. But wait — why wouldn’t you think that?

Running two more times, even for no gain, would have forced the Patriots to burn two timeouts. The Falcons were on the Patriots’ 23-yard line; a field-goal attempt from there would have been 40 yards, not 50. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant has made 78.2 percent of his career kicks from between 40 and 49 yards. With the score 28-20, going up by 11 with less than four minutes to play would likely have been as effective a dagger as going up by 15.

In the end, Shanahan, Ryan and the Falcons offense can point to just about any metric and say they put together a masterful offensive game. They averaged a whopping 7.5 yards per play over the course of the game, far more than the Patriots’ 5.9, or even the Falcons’ league-leading regular-season average of 6.7.

But sometimes the best performance in a vacuum isn’t the optimal performance in a game situation. That’s something Shanahan, reportedly set to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is going to have to learn.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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