Bears squib themselves

Lovie Smith opts for the old "Let's give them great field position" play, and the Falcons get a win at the gun.

By King Kaufman
Published October 13, 2008 6:10PM (EDT)

The Chicago Bears cost themselves a win over the Atlanta Falcons with a squib kick Sunday, and it was so obvious even the commentariat is noticing, which means the end-of-game squib kick might be living on borrowed time.

No matter how stupid a strategic gambit is, no matter how many times it doesn't work, NFL coaches will keep using it until they get more criticism for using it and failing than they get for not using it and failing. Sunday's squib kick so clearly handed the game to the Falcons that Bears coach Lovie Smith is getting roasted for it, though the squib does have its defenders.

Here's what happened. Kyle Orton had just led the Bears on a 77-yard touchdown drive in the two-minute drill, giving Chicago a 20-19 lead with 11 seconds to go. All the Bears had to do was prevent a long return on the kickoff and keep Matt Ryan from completing a Hail Mary touchdown pass.

Now, Falcons kick returner Jerious Norwood had taken Robbie Gould's most recent kickoff 85 yards to the Bears 17, setting up the field goal that had extended Atlanta's lead to 19-13. The Bears followed that with their touchdown drive.

"The kickoff before we had kicked it deep and they were able to get a long run," Smith said after the game. "Guys were a little bit tired. We felt a squib would be safe. We'd get them down and they'd have a chance for maybe one more play."

Guys were a little bit tired? Too tired to cover a kickoff? Maybe the coaching staff should get the team in better shape. This was regulation time in an indoors game.

It's true Norwood had burned the Bears on the last kick, but why should Smith base his decision on one kick? The two kickoffs before that, Norwood had failed to reach the 30-yard line. He had made it as far as the 41 on the first kick of the day.

Want to go further back? Gould's squib kick was fielded by the Falcons at their own 34. On Gould's 30 previous kickoffs in 2008, the Bears' opponents had returned the ball as far as their own 34 four times, including the one by Norwood to the 41 Sunday. And one of those four was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting a drive at their 36 following a Bears penalty on the return.

For that matter, Bears opponents had committed penalties on kickoff returns five times, each resulting in the drive starting deep in their own territory. So it had been more common for a deep kick to result in a Bears opponent being pinned deep than to start at the 34-yard line or better.

At the moment the Falcons fielded the squib kick at their 34, it was already the fifth worst kickoff of the year for the Bears. The Falcons returned it 10 yards to the 44, hardly an unusual result on a squib kick. The only time the Bears kicking team had given an opponent better field position had been on the previous kickoff, the one Norwood took 85 yards.

I don't know about you but when I'm kicking off with 11 seconds to go and a one-point lead, I'm thinking, "Let's have one of our worst kicks of the year right here!" That's why they call me Lovie Smith.

With six seconds to go and the Bears playing a "let the Falcons receivers get open downfield" defense -- a whole nother story -- Ryan completed a 26-yard pass to Michael Jenkins, who got out of bounds with one tick remaining. Jason Elam kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired and the Falcons won the game.

The question was whether the Falcons were more likely to complete a pass into field-goal range from midfield-ish field position without the clock expiring, or to return the kickoff into field-goal range or all the way for a touchdown. Keep in mind that a long kick return would have had to set up the field goal, because there wouldn't have been time for a play and a field goal after a long run.

Smith saying the Bears return team was tired throws a wild card into the equation, but I'm still going with the deep kick by a lot. Even a tired team ought to be able to make a basic football play, especially after having just failed at it. The Bears kick return team had an 87 percent success rate at keeping the opponent inside the 35. And it would have been reasonable for Smith and his staff to expect the squad to tighten up after its letdown on the previous kick.

But Smith went for the squib because it seems like the safe option. If the other team returns a deep kick all the way, the talk-radio crowd howls about a squib. Only it backfired on Smith, twice. First when it cost the Bears the game, and now that he's taking heat for it.

Could the days of the squib be dwindling?

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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