The Vikings Didn't Give Themselves Enough Margin For Error

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

Last Monday, in the aftermath of the Minnesota Vikings’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, head coach Mike Zimmer was pressed by media members on the factors that went into the decision on whether to retain kicker Dan Bailey following his disastrous day.

One part of his reply really stood out: “If I cut everybody that made mistakes yesterday, we’d all be out of here, including me.”

Let that marinate for a moment.

Try to ponder the implications of what Zimmer said without blurting out your most cynical, angry, sarcastic response. As Dr. Rick from the Progressive commercials would caution, “We all see it. We all see it…”

While your inner voice screams, “Well, maybe you should all be fired then!” take a deep breath and consider that Zimmer has a point. Players and coaches make mistakes all the time. Playing a completely clean, mistake-free game is darn near impossible no matter how good you are.

Thus far, Zimmer seems correct in applying this logic to the Bailey situation, as the veteran kicker rediscovered his form in this past Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Bears. It was one of the few bright spots for the Purple.

Therefore, a more appropriate response to Zimmer’s preaching of patience in the face of miscues is not to call on the Vikings to clean house. Instead, the reasoned reply is to simply point out the Vikings don’t have the same margin for error that some teams enjoy.

The best teams overcome mistakes. However, they have the swagger to run their inevitable screw-ups through the car wash and come out looking good as new. There’s no discernable panic when the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers or Buffalo Bills make mistakes this season. Their mistakes are offset with a big response via a quick-strike touchdown, forced turnover or a momentum-swinging special teams play.

This particular Vikings team does not enjoy that same kind of guard rail for errors. Honestly, neither do most NFL teams. Only that upper tier of teams possesses this kind of luxury. Not so for the unwashed masses – they’re often more evenly matched than their records or stats indicate. It’s how the 0-13 New York Jets can beat the 9-4 Los Angeles Rams, for example.

It doesn’t take many miscues to snatch defeat from the mouth of victory when a team begins with a razor-thin margin for error.

The missed kicks by Bailey went a long way toward sabotaging the Vikings in the loss to the Buccaneers. Other mistakes such as a dropped ball in the end zone by Irv Smith Jr., wasted timeouts and a porous defense that only forced one measly punt all contributed to the loss against the Bears.

Play-calling and/or execution (pick your poison) were also the culprits at two key junctures during the loss to Chicago.

Down 10 points with just under six minutes remaining in the first half, the Vikings opted to go for it on 4th and 1 at their own 34-yard line. The decision was appropriately aggressive. On the other hand, the play-call was too predictable and the execution of said play went about as well as you might expect as Dalvin Cook ran straight ahead into a brick wall of Bears defenders that overmatched the Vikings’ line all day. No gain on the play turned the ball over on downs and gift-wrapped a field goal by Cairo Santos, who apparently hasn’t missed a kick since the Before Times, making it 20-7.

A similar scenario surfaced with two minutes remaining in the game and the Bears clinging to a 30-27 lead. Facing a 4th and 1 at their own 29 this time, the Vikings had no option but to go for it. The play-call was more defensible this time. Rather than running Cook straight at the teeth of the Bears’ front seven, they elected to pass. In situations like this, with the game hanging in the balance, you go straight to your most effective, can’t-miss pass play to gain one yard. That plan fell apart when the Vikings somehow allowed a Bears defender to immediately run free and get in the face of Kirk Cousins, who helplessly scrambled backward and unleashed an off-balance pass resembling the final shot out of a Roman Candle that sailed in the general direction of Tyler Conklin, who dove for the ball but came up shorter than Willie Mays Hayes diving into second on an attempted steal. The ugliness resulted in yet another field goal by Santos to make it 33-27.

The Vikings’ final attempt to overcome their litany of errors came with 50 seconds left and no time outs. We all know how that turned out. Against a better team, the Vikings would have lost by a lot more.

If you paid close enough attention, you saw this kind of season coming since August.

The Vikings were NFC North co-favorites for much of the offseason. But then the defense – which was already missing several starters from 2019 – crumbled further. Michael Pierce opted out. Danielle Hunter’s neck injury ended his season before it started. Anthony Barr lasted about five minutes before a torn pectoral sidelined him for the season. The Vikings started going through cornerbacks faster than hemophiliacs go through Band-Aids.

The margin for error the Vikings thought they might have – to allow time for their young corners to develop, to overcome poor decisions, play calls and execution – disappeared faster than PS5 consoles.

Just as the team had little to no remaining room for in-game mistakes, they lost all margin for error in their schedule. They absolutely had to win every game they were “supposed” to win to have a shot at making the postseason. Sure, every team – even the best teams – lose a game that they were favored to win. However, they usually take a game they weren’t favored to win to offset the loss. The Vikings played their “unexpected win” card at Lambeau this season, escaping Green Bay with a stolen win that, in retrospect, feels more improbable with each passing week.

Unfortunately, they also lost a pair of one-point games to the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans. Seattle and Tennessee have better teams, so while those losses left the aftertaste of missed opportunity, the Vikings’ real season-killers were the three inexcusable home losses to teams they really should have handled. The first was a 17-point loss to the then-winless Atlanta Falcons, followed a month later by a defeat at the hands of the 2-7 Dallas Cowboys and finally this past Sunday’s loss to the Mitchell Trubisky-led Bears. From a more macro perspective, those were precisely the kind of blunders the Vikings just couldn’t afford in a season where they had almost no room to get away with slip-ups.

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