There are only three kinds of ways to kick off a football. You can kick it as hard and as far as you can, you can "pooch" kick it, or you can onside kick it. It sounds simple enough to match these options to game scenarios, yet there were two choices too many for Mike Smith, the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, who did everything in his power to blow the Falcons' first post-season victory since 2004 on Sunday.
I would like you to participate in an exercise with me.
Find someone who knows very little about football and present them with this scenario: He/she is the head coach of a football team winning by two points, with eight seconds left in the game. A field goal is worth three points, and if the opposing team kicks one, you will lose this game. So what should you do when you kick off? Do you kick the ball as far as you can, away from field goal range? Do you kick it not quite as far, but into the hands of someone who does not usually field or return the football? Or do you kick it as short as legally possible and try and recover it?
The first option could result in a touchback, which would put the ball on your opponent's 20-yard line. With eight seconds to go, they would have time for only one play to get into field-goal range, which in the NFL, would equate to a 45-yard gain on a single play. Additionally, if your cover team was on the mark, they could tackle the returner inside the 20, making this possibility even more improbable.
With a long kickoff, though, comes the chance, albeit remote, of a return for a touchdown, or a long return. Still, with only eight seconds on the clock, with a long kickoff return, there would not be time to run another play.
If you were the most paranoid of coaches, though, and the opponent had the best of all returners, you might opt for the "pooch" kick.
This is a kick of medium length and great height, where you sacrifice maximum distance to have the football caught by a player who is not a returner and does not field kicks with any regularity. He is there to block.
I believe the Riders employed this technique against the Bombers twice in 2012, in succession, and both times the player fumbled the football and the Riders recovered. In this option in our hypothetical scenario, your opponent is that much closer to getting within field-goal range, but the effectiveness of the return is decreased.
If your test subject chose either of the first two options, congratulate them, because they have superior common sense than at least one NFL head coach making millions of dollars a year, namely Mike Smith. Coach Smith, defying what would appear to be the only two logical choices, opted for option three in this game, the onside kick.
For those of you that don't know, the onside kick is primarily used when a team is behind and doesn't have time to get the football back after a defensive stop. So they sacrifice massive amounts of field position to compete for the football after it has travelled a minimum of 10 yards. It is a highly risky and rarely successful option, but when you are behind in a game, you have few other options.
With eight seconds left in this playoff game, though, while protecting a two-point lead, the Falcons attempted an onside kick.
While it is true, in the final two minutes of the half, the clock only starts after a kickoff when a player touches the football, this still doesn't excuse giving the Seahawks instant field position. While I'm certain the Seahawks were caught off guard with this tactic, because it was so incredibly idiotic they could never have seen it coming, the Falcons almost lost the game as Seattle retained possession, and had a single play to get within a manageable field-goal range.
So without further deliberation, I'm taking the San Francisco 49ers to defeat the Atlanta Falcons next week in the NFC Championship game, for no other reason than the fact that I will not bet on stupidity to make it to the Super Bowl.
For the AFC championship, the Baltimore Ravens will travel to Foxborough again to play the New England Patriots. While it took a miracle of sorts to get Ray Lewis past the Denver Broncos and into this game, in my mind, betting against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady makes as much sense as Atlanta's idea of how to protect a two-point lead.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.