Mike Zimmer is an old-school coach through and through, quick to scoff at the overuse of analytics at the expense of coaching instincts.
It was no surprise, then, that Zimmer wasn’t exactly happy with himself after Kirk Cousins got stuffed trying to sneak the ball on 4th and 1 from Minnesota’s own 34-yard line while leading by 10 over the Washington Redskins in Week 8.
“It was probably the dumbest decision I’ve made since I’ve been here,” Zimmer said the morning after.
It was definitely uncharacteristic. Never before in his Vikings tenure had Zimmer instructed a 4th and 1 attempt that deep in his own territory. In fact, in 31 opportunities from the Vikings’ own territory on 4th and 1 in Zimmer’s tenure, the Vikings have punted 26 times. Twice they were essentially required to go for it based on fourth-quarter deficits, leaving three moments where Zimmer rolled the dice voluntarily, less than 10% of the time.
The Vikings coach was confronted with three more 4th and 1 deliberations Sunday at Kansas City.
“There’s a lot of things, really,” Zimmer said when asked about what considerations he makes on fourth down. “The team that we’re playing, how we’re playing the game, field conditions, the wind. Do I feel like we need to score more points? Do we want to play field position?”
His first decision Sunday was fairly simple in the early stages of the first quarter.
The Chiefs smartly challenged the spot of Ameer Abdullah’s apparent first-down run, which was egregiously marked two yards further than it should have been, leaving the Vikings a yard behind the chains at their own 27. Many may argue that going for it on 4th and 1 is always the right move — teams this year are converting it 63% of the time — but no team has yet to adopt that aggressive philosophy when they are that deep in their own territory. Only three teams have gone for it on 4th and 1 inside their own 30 before the fourth quarter since 2014, and two of those games were third-quarter blowouts.
We’ll skip the second 4th and 1 scenario and get back to it in a moment. Let’s first examine the 4th and 1 from Kansas City’s 15-yard line with under 30 seconds to go in the half and the Chiefs leading 10-7.
Zimmer opted to go for it, which was the correct move. Cousins’ conversion to Irv Smith Jr. added 4.84 expected points, per Pro Football Reference, one of the top five non-touchdown EPA plays the Vikings had on the day. Getting that first down gave Cousins three shots at the end zone for a potential go-ahead touchdown. Though none of them connected, one was reviewed for defensive pass interference, which could’ve given Minnesota the ball at the 1-yard line.
While the Vikings ended up with just three points, Zimmer stayed consistent in his decision-making. He’s now gone for it 13 out of 18 times (72%) on 4th and 1 in the red zone, in line with his coaching peers. Since 2014, teams have gone for it 69% of the time in those situations, and only one team, the Rams, have settled for a field goal 50% of the time or more.
In general, Zimmer is aggressive in the opponent’s territory, having only punted on a 4th and 1 twice since 2014.
Now let’s backtrack to the most interesting decision. On the second play of the second quarter, Kirk Cousins dropped back facing a 3rd and 6. He scrambled forward with plenty of room to pick up the first down but slid too early, grounding himself a yard in front of the first-down marker. It set up 4th and 1 at Minnesota’s own 45-yard line.
This is the part of the field where coaches seem to have the most disagreement on fourth-down decision-making.
Let’s focus on the 10-yard area between a team’s own 40-yard line and midfield. Teams have punted it 65% of the time on 4th and 1 in that area since 2014, with the Vikings landing in the most conservative quarter of that group. Zimmer’s teams have punted nine out of 11 times (82%), including Sunday against the Chiefs. On the other end of the spectrum, there are analytically-driven coaches like John Harbaugh with the Ravens who have only punted 30% of the time in those scenarios.
The Zimmer style of thinking makes traditional sense. Pin the opponent deep, let the defense go to work. That plan seemingly shaped up perfectly on Sunday after Britton Colquitt’s punt backed Kansas City up to the 9-yard line, but the Chiefs didn’t cooperate, driving 85 yards and almost nine minutes for a field goal, keeping Minnesota’s offense off the field. Looking at EPA, Colquitt’s excellent punt only added 0.38 expected points, roughly the equivalent of a Dalvin Cook two-yard run on 2nd and 5. According to EdjSports, a successful running play on that 4th and 1 could have added 6.1% to Minnesota’s game-winning probability.
But Zimmer is adamant that blindly listening to analytics is the wrong move with so many factors at play.
“Analytics says, ‘Go for it,'” Zimmer said. “I don’t go by that.”
There’s nothing controversial about Zimmer playing the field-position battle with a perennially strong defense. Many other coaches have the same mindset. Just don’t expect Zimmer to listen to the math 100% of the time.