Falcons’ Smith Setting New Lows in Clock Management, Deserves the Axe

Mike Smith

Is there anything more putrid than the NFC South division?

The Atlanta Falcons have the worst defense in football, yet they share first place in the division with the New Orleans Saints, who continue to give games away with poor second-half play.

Both teams have 4-7-0 records, while the Carolina Panthers a one-half game behind at 3-7-1. Last year the Panthers had the second-best defense in the league behind the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and an opportunistic offense. This year, the best thing you can say about the Panthers is that they played a tie game on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, who reside in first place in the AFC North.

The Tampa Bay Bucs are woeful at 2-7-0, but if they had managed to find a way to beat the Chicago Bears last Sunday after jumping to a 10-0 halftime lead, they would have been one game out of first place.

If there was any justice in the NFL, the powers that be would refuse to allow the winner of this division to compete in the playoffs. They would award the spot that previously went to the NFC South to a more deserving team, and it wouldn’t have to come from the NFC. Just give it to the team – most likely an AFC representative– that will have the best record of all the non-playoff teams.

While we know this won’t happen – although no league changes its rules as much as the NFL – it would be the sharpest move the league could make.

But it’s not just about the division as a whole. If there is any coach who deserves to be thrown out on his rear, Falcons head coach Mike Smith is that man. He may be a veteran leader who has been on the job for seven years, but he doesn’t know how to manage games.

His incredibly short-sighted decisions have cost his team two games this season.

Smith had the Falcons on the brink of the Super Bowl in 2012, because they had a 12-4 record and beat the Seattle Seahawks at home in the divisional playoffs. That gave them a chance to earn the NFC Championship at home against the San Francisco 49ers, and they fell just short in dropping a 28-24 decision.

But he has gone through two brutal years in a row, and that’s not going to change even if the Falcons finish a way to win their brutal division.

The Falcons were beaten up and bruised in recording a 4-12 record last year, and while there were key injuries suffered by Julio Jones and Roddy White, Smith had no clue how to pull his team out of a year-long funk.

This year the Falcons have been able to avoid most of the major injuries they had last year, but they still can’t win. They simply can’t stop anyone, and while much of the blame must go to general manager Thomas Dimitroff for giving his coach a small and powerless defense that gets pushed around nearly every week, neither Smith nor defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can figure out a way to deploy the personnel to mitigate their lack of strength and ballast.

But it’s Smith’s clock management that has been most egregious. Late in the fourth quarter with his team trailing by a 23-21 margin, Smith called timeout prior to a third-down play with 44 seconds remaining. The Falcons were in field goal range for Matt Bryant and Smith wanted to discuss a play that would have given Atlanta a first down.

But if he had not called timeout, the Browns would have been forced to spend one of their three timeouts. The Falcons failed on their first-down attempt and Bryant kicked a 53-yard field goal to give the Falcons the lead.

However, the Browns had time and all of their timeouts. Brian Hoyer and Mike Pettine used the timeouts wisely as Cleveland marched down the field and won the game on Billy Cundiff’s 37-yard field goal at the gun.

Smith defended his decision after the game, but he was more reflective Monday morning and admitted that his dunder-headed clock management cost his team.

“After reflecting on and analyzing how that played out, I would have done some things differently,” Smith told the Associated Press. “Given an opportunity to think about it through the night and doing some analyzing, I didn’t do the things that needed to be done to put our guys in the best position to win the game. There are a lot of plays in a football game that can affect the outcome, and I didn’t do my best to help us win.”

Smith basically admitted he’s an idiot.

An NFL head coach is supposed to know how to manage the clock. It’s not good enough to figure it out a day later.

He was equally woeful in the Falcons’ 22-21 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week Eight when his team blew a 21-0 halftime lead. In that game, Atlanta had a 21-19 lead at the two-minute warning, but instead of letting the clock drain by calling a running play on third down, Smith had quarterback Matt Ryan throw a bubble screen to Jones, and the receiver dropped the ball.

Instead of getting the ball with 45 seconds to go, the Lions got it with 1:38 remaining on the clock and they took advantage when Matt Prater kicked the game-winning field goal.

Smith is normally a well-adjusted and happy human being, which is a rarity for an NFL head coach. However, he can’t think through the game’s decisions and he has cost his team two games already this year.

The Falcons should be 6-5, but they are not. They may turn out to be the most embarrassing division winner in NFL history.

Smith has lost his grip, and he needs to lose his job at the end of the season.

Even if the Falcons make the playoffs.

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Steve Silverman
Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and NFL.com. Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.