The only person that won’t be doing any Monday morning second-guessing is the Minnesota Vikings head coach.
Mike Zimmer, the man who often challenges the analytics movement that drives the in-games decisions of many decision-makers, made a forward-thinking, probability-sound decision with two minutes to go Sunday night. It backfired, and the Vikings are 1-4.
As coaches run through various game scenarios in their head, rarely would they contrive a situation as puzzling as the one Zimmer faced in Seattle. Fourth and inches at the 5-yard line. A five-point lead. Get a first down to end the game but risk Russell Wilson getting the ball with a timeout and a chance to drive the field and win (he did). Kick a field goal and ensure you can’t lose in regulation, but willingly give Wilson the football with an opportunity to tie the game (we’ll never know).
“We came here to win,” Zimmer said, “so I’m not going to second guess any of that stuff. We didn’t get it done. Everybody else will [second guess]. Let them.”
Alexander Mattison had rushed for over 100 yards in the second half but couldn’t pick up one yard when it was needed most. Film watchers will break down the run all week and ponder whether Mattison should have bounced outside C.J. Ham‘s block for an easy touchdown. His failure to convert set up the MVP candidate quarterback on the other side for his 11th game-winning drive in the last 37 games: a 94-yard march with one timeout that featured a 4th and 10 and a 4th and 6 conversion. Both wound up in D.K. Metcalf‘s hands, the latter for a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining.
By trying to keep the ball out of Wilson’s hands, Zimmer put the worst-case scenario on the table, and it came to fruition. Even so, NBC’s win probability calculator still had the Vikings at a 79% likelihood to win the game after missing the conversion. Settling for a short field goal and a 29-21 lead would’ve given them a 94% chance. Converting the yard would’ve ended the game.
Zimmer didn’t delve too deeply into his thought process, saying afterward that he simply wanted to end the game. Given the context of the moment, the decision makes even more sense than the numbers indicate. Consider: A) The Vikings had rushed for over 200 yards, B) They’d converted two fourth downs earlier in the game, and C) It was raining heavily, which should’ve only complicated any potential rebuttal by Wilson.
Leading up to that play, Mattison had completed runs of 25, six, four and four yards. Mike Boone also added a run of 12. On the big 4th and 1, Ham seemed to be attempting to clear a hole for Mattison off the shoulder of right tackle Brian O’Neill, but a gaping hole to his outside was beckoning. Were the Vikings one Mattison cutback from a monumental win?
“I didn’t see the replay,” Zimmer said. “Good backs you don’t question them too much. You just let them do what they do, and he’s a good back.”
Said Kirk Cousins: “We had run for roughly 200 yards and needed an inch, and we weren’t able to get it.”
Zimmer’s game theory was put to the test early and often Sunday night, but it was clear he felt the need to be aggressive to win in a building he’d never won as a head coach. Minnesota converted a 4th and 2 and a 4th and 1 on their opening two drives to build a 10-0 lead, then later went for two late in the third quarter trailing 21-19. The Vikings failed that conversion on a Kirk Cousins designed run, but instead of chasing those points following their go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, they opted to add the extra point and take a 26-21 lead. Those prior decisions add even more what-if layers to Zimmer’s decision at the two-minute warning.
IF the Vikings take the single point earlier to make it 21-20, then they go for two after their next touchdown and potentially take a 28-21 lead. Zimmer then kicks the field goal at the end.
IF they miss the first two-point conversion but go for two the next time, they could lead 27-21 and have another easy decision to kick the field goal.
All Zimmer can be faulted for is not being a psychic.
The head coach made a series of decisions that were justifiable in the moment, and most of them were supported by analytics. The question is whether Zimmer cares about that or not. The old-school coach admitted last year he doesn’t listen to the numbers because of all the factors in play. That mentality has led to decision-making that some might call inconsistent, like when Zimmer went for it on 4th and 1 in his own territory vs. Washington last year and called it the “dumbest decision” of his tenure, then punted on a 4th and 1 near midfield the following game.
Zimmer doesn’t necessarily have an identity when it comes to late-game decisions. While he was unapologetic about this one, it’s believable that he would’ve also defended his own decision to play it safe and kick the field goal. That ambiguity can trigger fans looking for a scapegoat, but even the most skeptical of fans have to admit that Sunday’s conundrum would’ve stumped myriad coaches.
It didn’t work out, and the Vikings suffered the consequence.
“It’s frustrating and they’re disappointed,” Zimmer said. “They fought their rear ends off tonight, and we didn’t get what we needed to get to. We’ll just keep fighting and keep getting better.”