You’ve watched enough football games to understand what’s supposed to happen when a team is up 28-12 and has the ball with 9:40 left to play. They run the ball as much as they can, they squeeze every second out of the game clock, and they win the goddamn game.
Here is a complete list of all the times the Falcons ran the ball after being up 28-12 with 9:40 left to play in the Super Bowl:
- 9:40 Tevin Coleman takes a toss to the right side for eight yards
- 9:00 Tevin Coleman runs up the middle for one yard, is injured
- 5:18 Devonta Freeman runs to the right end for two yards
- 4:40 Devonta Freeman runs to the left end for -1 yard
And that’s it! That is a complete list all the times Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan thought to run the ball while protecting a lead in the final minutes of the Super Bowl—this despite the fact that he was working with one of the best running attacks in the league, which had spent the first half of the game shredding the Patriots’ defense.
After the game, Shanahan was asked about his decision not to run the ball more, and he defended his decision rather unconvincingly. “You always want to run the ball if you can,” he said. “You gotta look at each situation when you’re getting the ball, what’s the down and distance.”
A fair enough answer, but there were two crucial moments in the fourth quarter when Shanahan’s decision to throw the ball resulted in massive swings in the Patriots’ favor. After Julio Jones’s miracle catch on the sideline, all Shanahan had to do was call for three runs up the middle and hand, at worst, a 39-yard field goal over to his kicker. Instead, he abandoned the run and his team managed to lose 23 yards.
There was a similar situation on the drive before that one. After back-to-back runs by Coleman left the Falcons with a 3rd and 1 from their own 35, Shanahan had Matt Ryan drop back instead of instead of trusting his run game to gain one yard and keep the clock ticking. Ryan was strip-sacked and the Patriots needed to go just 30 yards to pull within eight points.
It wasn’t just the play calling that was strange, either. Throughout the fourth quarter, the Falcons kept snapping the ball without letting the play clock run all the way down. I counted four instances in the fourth quarter when the Falcons snapped the ball with 10 seconds or more on the play clock while the game clock was still running. That kind of Andy Reid-ish clock management goes deservedly unnoticed when it happens in a normal game, but when you allow the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history, every little thing deserves to be scrutinized.
Falcons fans will remain haunted by a plethora of horrors from this Super Bowl. If there’s one person who could have prevented all of them from coming into existence, though, it’s the guy who was unable to execute a fourth-quarter offense that every teen who’s ever played Madden could have pulled off.