Fourth and three from the 24 yard line.
Down 20-17 and nearing the two-minute warning, kicking a field goal to tie up the game was a no-brainer.
With the clock ticking down, spectators and players alike eagerly awaited the refs whistle at the two minute mark…but it blew 11 seconds early.
The logical response (and assumption initially made by FOX anchor Joe Buck) was that Jim Harbaugh had called a timeout to preserve time on the other side of the two-minute warning in hopes of orchestrating a game-winning drive.
But Harbaugh was too busy throwing a temper tantrum to call the TO.
In fact, Saints’ head coach Sean Payton called the timeout. A bizarre, unconventional move that led some (once again, Buck) to believe he was giving beleaguered kicker Garret Hartley time to warm up and calm his nerves.
First off, any NFL head coach will tell you that giving a kicker MORE time to think about an important kick is setting him up for failure. Like a golfer, a kicker is most effective when he is not thinking or analyzing, but instead kicking off instinct. That’s why a kicker’s mental fortitude and confidence are vital; a kicker who over-thinks each kick will end up going wide-right out of the league.
‘Icing the kicker’ is so popular (and sometimes effective) because it forces kickers to spend an extra 30 seconds or so standing out on the field and staring at the impending kick.
It’s all a mind game.
So why would Payton, who knows Hartley’s confidence is fragile (making only 74% of field goal attempts at that point), essentially ice his own kicker?
The answer came on the ensuing Niners possession.
Payton’s timeout was not directed at Hartley or the field goal in any way; instead, it was a sending a message to his defensive unit.
The message said: I believe in you. You will win this game for us.
Thinking two drives ahead of time, Payton bet that his defense could rally to hold the Niners to a three-and-out on the next possession. To conserve time for a possible Saints game-winning drive, he called that timeout.
And who could blame him?
Through three quarters, the Saints held the explosive Niners offense to a paltry 17 points. For the entire game, they held Colin Kaepernick to a pedestrian 127 yards passing. What’s most impressive, though, is that they held the 49ers AS A TEAM to 81 rushing yards. That’s better than any other team has managed to do this season, including the overhyped Sea-Chickens of the Pacific Northwest.
Undoubtedly Payton has confidence in his defense every week, but when your normally average run defense (17th in the league, giving up 114 yards per game) is managing to stone-wall the 5th best rushing attack in the league, it’s time to roll the dice.
So Payton calls the timeout, potentially gift-wrapping extra time to the Niners. But rather than increase the pressure on the Saints defense, in my eyes the move actually took all of the pressure of Rob Ryan and his crew and put them in a no-lose situation.
If they manage to hold the Niners to a three-and-out and get the ball back quickly for the offense, everyone wins; Payton looks like a genius and the defensive unit looks like a group of Greek gods.
However, if they end up letting the Niners roll down the field and kick a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation the blame lands on the head coach, not on the defense. Payton had a chance to let the clock run to the two-minute warning, kick the field goal, and give the ball back to San Francisco on their own 20 with one timeout and somewhere around 1:50 left in the game. That’s a tough task indeed for even a decent passing attack, and even more so for the statistically-worst in the league (168 yards per game / 32nd in the NFL).
Playing for overtime was the smart choice, perhaps even the RIGHT choice. But it’s calls like this one that make Sean Payton who he is, led him and the Saints to a Super Bowl victory, and will eventually land him in the Hall of Fame.
By giving the defense that opportunity to prove their worth while also putting them in a situation where they won’t be subject to blame if they fail was pure genius, and we’ll all see the benefits as the rest of the season unfolds. Their confidence is sky high, and in the swagger-based defense Rob Ryan runs that confidence makes his exotic blitzes all the more devastating.
It also will pay off come playoff time, where every possession must be played with that attitude of desperation. Being put in high-pressure situations during the regular season makes it easier to respond to similar situations in the playoffs.
Where the call has the most significant impact is in the Saints’ identity. Despite being perennial playoff contenders, the Saints have always been thought of as a scoring machine trying to mask their lack of a defense. Even this year, despite the defense playing well most analysts have been waiting for them to crumble and return to mediocrity.
But that three down stop told the NFL world that they are here to stay. Signified by Sean Payton’s roaring fist pump after Junior Galette’s first down sack of Kaepernick, the Saints are no longer merely marching in.
They’re kicking down the door.