HOUSTON — The Atlanta Falcons handed Tom Brady and the New England Patriots the Lombardi Trophy on a Super Bowl silver platter Sunday evening. Somebody should now hand Kyle Shanahan his walking papers.
The San Francisco 49ers should rethink Shanahan, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, as a leading candidate for their vacant head coach position. Regardless, Atlanta owner Arthur Blank might want to start shopping for a new OC this morning.
Shanahan and his boss, Falcons’ head coach Dan Quinn, let down the players and the city of Atlanta, still searching for its maiden NFL championship after 51 long, often torturous, seasons.
As the confetti fell like winter snow Sunday night at NRG Stadium following the Patriots’ improbable, incredible and historically significant 34-28 comeback victory in Super Bowl LI, Falcons players should have been looking through their moist eyes at Shanahan, the team’s offensive coordinator. And, yes, Quinn.
Answers are needed for rather obvious questions.
Here’s one: Ever hear of situational football, guys?
Patriot fans will hate us for this but, New England did not win Super Bowl LI as much as Atlanta tossed it into the garbage bin of history. What in the blazes was the Falcons’ coaching staff thinking when it made some of the most lame-brained late-game decisions in Super Bowl annals? (The worst play calling we have witnessed in covering two dozen Super Bowls, by the way).
Scenario No. 1: In the fourth quarter with only 8:31 left, Atlanta leads New England 28-12. The Falcons are third-and-1 at their 36. As the Falcons approached the line of scrimmage, I say off-handedly to our columnist, Ed Graney, of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan, “Don’t do something stupid here and pass, you might get a pick-6.’’
Silly me. Shanahan has forgotten more about offense than we know, right? OK, so we didn’t have an iPad filled with fancy plays in the press box. But this much we knew:
Run the football.
In other words, WWBD?
What Would Belichick Do? Probably run the football. (Hint: Thanks to Falcon brain freeze, Coach Hoodie now has five Super Bowl rings).
Did you Atlanta brainiacs forget that your two-headed backfield beast of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 2,482 yards from scrimmage this season, plus 24 touchdowns – best of any backfield duo in the league?
Even if the Falcons had failed to convert on third down, what is wrong with punting the football and making Brady & Co. drive down the field and chew up valuable minutes? Instead, a turnover created great field position for New England and, even worse, greater momentum.
“We trust our guys, so we thought that was the opportunity to let it rip,’’ said Quinn, who said he based his decision on New England’s defensive personnel on the field at that time.
Let it rip? You mean the phrase that Pete Carroll, Quinn’s former boss in Seattle, loves to use? Like the time two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX when Carroll & Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell decided to pass inside the New England 1 instead of handing off the ball to Marshawn Lynch?
The result? An interception! And another Super Bowl trophy for New England.
Unlike Wilson, Ryan never had a chance to heave it. Rushed hard by New England’s Dont’a Hightower, the Pro Bowl signal-caller was hammered by the linebacker. Ryan fumbled the ball to Patriots tackle Alan Branch, who recovered it at the Atlanta 25.
Five plays later, Brady fired a 6-yard touchdown strike to Danny Amendola. After a successful 2-point conversion, the lead was sliced to a manageable eight points with six minutes remaining.
“I think we were up 16 at that point, so a two-score game, and to give them a short field was inopportune,’’ said nice-guy Ryan, always the diplomat.
“It hurt a lot,’’ said Falcons center Alex Mack.
Given an opportunity to atone for that blunder, Shanahan (and, by extension, Quinn) managed to foolishly challenge the football gods again. They called an even DUMBER series of plays.
Scenario No. 2: On the ensuing drive, Atlanta came out in attack mode, which was smart despite starting field position at its 10. The Falcons could not afford to turtle on offense, punt and put New England in fabulous field position. On the drive, Ryan quickly completed passes of 39 yards and 27 yards to Freeman and Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones. Before you could say, “Peachtree Street,’’ the Falcons were perched on the Patriots’ 22.
At this juncture, everything was in Atlanta’s favor: Field position. The clock. The score. A dead-reliable kicker.
After a 1-yard loss by Freeman, the Atlanta coaching staff eschewed two more safe running plays that, even if they produced zero yards, would have put Matt Bryant in easy striking distance to kick a 40-yard field goal. Inside a dome. With the roof closed. Perfect.
Did we mention Bryant made 34 of 37 field goal attempts this season (3-for-3 in the postseason), plus 56 of 57 extra point tries?
A Bryant field goal, although not a certainty, would have increased the Falcons’ lead to 11 with less than four minutes to play. Granted, not a gimme-putt lead versus the redoubtable, gritty Patriots. But the right strategy. (Might also tell us what the Atlanta coaching staff thought about its defense, which plays fast and hard but is average in the talent department. After all, they did surrender 31 unanswered points).
Instead, Shanahan, the Falcons’ 37-year-old play-caller dialed up, yep, another passing play. And, once again, Ryan got clobbered, this time for a 12-yard loss to the Patriots’ 35. After an Atlanta holding penalty, the Falcons punted. Brady immediately drove the Patriots for a touchdown, and soon thereafter a game-tying 2-point conversion to send the game into overtime.
Of course, the rest is, as they say, (ugly) history for Atlanta.
Earlier in the week, Shanahan temporarily had lost the team’s game plan when veteran Bay Area reporter Art Spander accidentally took the coach’s backpack during Monday’s “Opening Night’’ celebration. After 20 minutes, Spander returned Shanahan’s iPad with all those fancy plays.
Wonder if the Falcons’ fans and players wished he had lost it. Forever.
Jon Mark Saraceno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jonnysaraceno.