Coaches struggle with challenge flag

BY foxsports • November 18, 2012

I subscribe to the theory that it's better to be lucky than good.

But what if you're both?

Say hello to the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons not only survived an uncharacteristic five-interception performance by quarterback Matt Ryan, but also a couple decisions by head coach Mike Smith in replay as Atlanta rallied to defeat Arizona 23-19 Sunday.

As replay has become more and more a part of the NFL's week-to-week fabric, we almost always talk about decisions made by referees and the replay officials. But what about the coaches? The league has tried to make it easier on coaches, who never liked the aspect of having to challenge plays on the field. Coaches have always wanted the system similar to the college system, where they are left out of the process.

This game is a perfect of example of why. Coaches make mistakes in replay, too. Sometimes it's judgment and sometimes it's in rules knowledge. It's no different than with the on-field officials.

Once Smith watches game film, I have a feeling he would have made a couple of different decisions if he had them to do over again.

Here are the two plays in question.

PLAY 1: Arizona had the ball, third-and-6 from the Atlanta 14-yard line with two minutes left in the first quarter. Arizona had the lead 10-0.

Arizona quarterback John Skelton completed a five-yard pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling and was tackled by Vance Walker. It appeared Stephens-Howling fumbled on the play and it was recovered by the Falcons' William Moore. But Stephens-Howling was ruled down and the Cardinals kicked a field goal on the next play.

I would have challenged this if I was Smith. I'm sure that he was waiting for some information from his coaches in the press box, but obviously didn't come in time. It certainly appeared to me that the ball was loose before the shin and knee hit. The second part of the play also showed that there was a clear recovery by Moore. Since this was not ruled a turnover, it is not automatically reviewed by the replay official. This could have turned out to be a huge miss by the Falcons.

PLAY 2: Atlanta had the ball, third-and-6 from the Arizona 45-yard line with 7:29 left in the third quarter. The score was tied at 16.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan completed a seven-yard pass to Jason Snelling, who then fumbled the ball and before the ball went out of bounds, Arizona's Greg Toler made an acrobatic move to save the ball and threw it back onto the field of play. Arizona's Rashad Johnson then recovered it. When the Falcons coach threw his flag to challenge the play, he was then flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

There's a reason the NFL put this rule in. Just like a scoring play, the league purposely changed a rule to save the coaches from having to challenge a turnover so they would not risk losing a challenge and a timeout. The league was very clear in explaining to coaches that if they were to throw the challenge flag when they were not entitled to, they would be charged with a 15-yard penalty and the play would not be reviewed.

It's no different than throwing the challenge flag when you are out of time outs or if it inside of two minutes. In my opinion, they weren't going to overturn the ruling on the field anyway, so throwing the challenge flag was basically just a gift for the Cardinals.

So the Falcons were lucky Sunday.

But as their 9-1 record attests, the Falcons are also pretty darn good.