Crunching the Numbers Behind Mike Zimmer's 4th and 1 Decision

Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson (USA Today Sports)

With 3 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in the half on Sunday night against Seattle, the Minnesota Vikings faced a 4th and 1 from their own 21. Conventional wisdom says to punt in that situation. Since 1994, only 8% of teams ever go for it. It probably didn’t raise nearly as many eyebrows as Zimmer’s later fourth down decision, which became the talk of the town after the Vikings fell 27-26 to the Seahawks. But according to EdjSports, punting was one of the most costly decisions of the week.

The second quarter punt cost them about five percentage points of win probability. The 4th and inches goal line decision netted them an extra 2.1% before the ball was snapped. Failing hurt, but trying was correct, according to the math. But that can be a tough sell.

A lot of people reject this kind of analysis. The game isn’t played on a spreadsheet, after all, and it can be difficult to put into the context of a decision in the heat of an emotional moment. But I, dear reader, do not expect you to take percentage points on faith. Instead, let’s talk about where that probability comes from and try to come to an intuitive understanding of how these methods function.

If I asked you to wager $20K, and to win you had to correctly recite the alphabet, would you take the bet? You stand to lose quite a bit, but the odds of winning are extraordinarily high. Win probability is already pretty intuitive, and speaks to the ultimate goal: to win the game. Think of win probability, or the percentage chance that you win the game, as chips in a casino. Get to 100 chips and you can cash out, fall to 0 and you leave empty-handed. If you were in that casino, would you wager 50 chips to win 10? What if you have a 90% chance of winning? The values shift around, but the process is consistent.

As for that second quarter punt, it may scare you to consider giving the Seahawks the ball on the 21-yard line. Instead, you gave the Seahawks the ball on the 40-yard line. Thirty-nine yards of field position is a small price to wager for a chance to keep a possession, especially when they only needed a yard. Would you take the alphabet wager if you only had to risk $10, but could still win $20K?

If the Vikings ran that 4th and inches 100 times in a row in some sort of Groundhog Day nightmare, how many do you think would convert? The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin has a machine that can calculate the odds of making it for us. That machine tells us that the Vikings convert 71 of those 100 times. You may disagree, and think that is too low or too high. That isn’t a problem, just sub in your own values while you follow along.

In all of those 71 scenarios, the Vikings win the game. So of the remaining 29, how many do you think end in Seattle driving down the field and scoring? Baldwin’s model has the Vikings winning 77% of the time from that point. Or, if you had 100 attempts to stop Russell Wilson with 1:57 from his own 6, you’d succeed 77 times. It’s a tough situation, but perhaps Baldwin’s model overestimates a maligned Vikings defense. Again, feel free to sub in your own values. Going with Baldwin’s estimate, the Vikings win about 22 of 29 times after failing to convert the 4th and inches. That leaves seven of 100 scenarios where the Vikings lose 27-26.

If they kick, Baldwin’s model says they make it 98 times out of 100. Can never be sure about Vikings kickers, after all. Being up eight and kicking off to Russell Wilson wins you the game 91% of the time, or in 89 of those 98 situations. After all, he needs to get a two point conversion and score again in overtime. We’ll even say they stop the Seahawks on the two field goal misses, winning 26-21. That leaves 91 wins and nine losses if they kick, versus 93 wins and seven losses if they go for it.

In other words, because it’s so hard to get a touchdown from your own 6-yard line in the rain, you aren’t wagering much by going for the fourth down. Russell Wilson, down five at his own 6 in the rain, only wins 23% of the time. The fact that we landed in one of those 23 scenarios, instead of one of the 77 wins, doesn’t mean the 23-77 split is wrong. If a roulette wheel lands on double zero, it doesn’t mean it was a wheel of double zeroes.

Perhaps math makes your eyes glaze over like a hungover college sophomore. For that crowd, here’s the argument without any math:  Like Kirk Cousins said after the game, they were pushing 200 rush yards on the night. Pick up the first and you win outright. Failure still wins most of the time. If you kick it, you don’t necessarily win outright. You’re a little better off than going for it and failing, but you guarantee Russell Wilson a chance to save the game. One option could take Wilson entirely out of the picture, one guarantees that he is in it.

The best argument for kicking the field goal is the exact scenario that happened. The Seahawks got the touchdown, but not the two-point conversion, meaning a field goal would have won. For that to transpire, the Vikings had to fail on a 4th and inches, then fail to stop a 4th and 10, then fail to stop a 4th and goal. The situation that happened was a rare one, and playing around it would have been irresponsible. Keep hindsight out of the equation, and there’s no question: Mike Zimmer did the right thing.

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