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Could Dan Quinn have overruled Kyle Shanahan on fateful Super Bowl series?

This isn’t as cut and dried as you may think.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Had the Atlanta Falcons opted to run the ball with an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, The Falcoholic would have probably had to come up with a totally different approach to our April Fools Day coverage. But could Dan Quinn have overruled Kyle Shanahan’s play calls on that series?

The aggressive approach had worked for the Falcons all season. Quinn has said that he stands by the choice to not intervene with Shanahan’s play calls on that series that resulted in the Falcons being knocked out of field goal range and eventually losing the Super Bowl.

“I heard all the plays going in. Like any other time of the year, if I had said, ‘Hey man, let’s change that and go somewhere else’, we would,” Quinn said at the owners’ meetings. “There were times I did this year, so it’s not like I haven’t before. I’ll always speak up when I think it’s the right thing to do for our team.”

ESPN’s Mike Reiss explored this question with head coaches at the owners’ meetings in Phoenix, Arizona, last week, and the answer isn’t particularly simple. There are a number of factors involved, primarily the limited time teams have to set the play call before the play clock expires.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the decisions have to be made in essentially a split second.

“Things are moving fast. It’s not like you have time to sit there and go, ‘OK, you want to call this play? I’m overruling that!’ That’s not how it works,” Harbaugh said.

He wasn’t referring to this specific situation, but was asked generally how he handles it if he doesn’t agree with a coordinator’s call.

Harbaugh pointed out that, because the play clock is ticking once the ball is set, to override any play call, the head coach would typically have to use a time out. That’s risky, considering how valuable time outs can be, especially in a close game.

Former Falcons offensive coordinator and current Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said he tries to influence the play calls in the context of the bigger picture.

“I’m not going to interrupt a playcall,” Mularkey said. “But I will say, ‘If we get the first, let’s go to this play,’ or ‘If we get to third-and-medium, this is what I want.’”

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said he does interject once in a while, but it’s rare and for a good reason.

“But it does happen occasionally where you’re just going to instruct a coordinator, ‘I don’t want to pressure here’ or ‘Let’s do this here and make sure we take care of this here,’ because you’re looking at the whole game management thing while they’re just looking at what their particular side of the ball is,” Lewis said.

Chuck Pagano of the Indianapolis Colts said he believes in trusting his coordinators to do their jobs.

“There is a fine line there. You have to let those guys work,” Pagano said. “You have to let them call the game. You can’t be sitting there chirping the whole time on the headset because you can get them sideways.”

Even Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, during a recent appearance on Sirius XM Radio, said that play calling is too time sensitive for head coaches to intervene much with coordinators’ decisions.

“By the time the play is over and the ball is spotted, the coordinator doesn’t have any more than 10 seconds at the most to get the play in because we still have to call it in the huddle and get to the line. Or defensively, we’re on the other side,” Belichick said.

That series is the one most people, including myself and Roddy White, point to when identifying the moment the Super Bowl was lost for Atlanta. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s worth noting that it was just one of hundreds of moments that had to go exactly right for New England for the Patriots to come back from a 28-3 deficit to win.

Should Kyle Shanahan have run the ball? Yes. Should Dan Quinn have changed the play call? It’s not that simple.