Never has it gotten easier to coach from your La-Z-Boy on NFL Sundays.
Want to rip your favorite team’s head coach for a gutless fourth-down decision? Spend 30 seconds on Twitter and find evidence of why his latest decision defied the analytics. The proliferation of win probability in football, combined with readily accessible play-by-play data, gives fans the ammo to launch valid arguments against teams’ decision-makers. That includes Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell.
Patience is no longer a virtue in pro football. Being aggressive, valuing possession, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals — those are winning strategies. Playing it safe, trusting your defense, taking the points? Not so much.
O’Connell received a mix of praise and criticism last Sunday in the Vikings’ 21-20 loss in Denver. The praise was for a gutsy fake punt and subsequent fourth-and-one decision that extended a fourth-quarter drive. The criticism came over an earlier fourth-and-one punt before halftime that allowed the Denver Broncos to drive for an important field goal.
Through 28 regular-season games, O’Connell presented himself as a fairly aggressive play-caller in the sense that he likes to throw the football. Minnesota has ranked third and second, respectively, in pass attempts in O’Connell’s two seasons at the helm.
The head coach is also bullish about throwing the football with a lead, which debunks the criticism that O’Connell clams up when the Vikings are trying to close out a game. It’s true that Minnesota becomes more ineffective offensively when playing with a second-half lead, averaging just 3.2 yards per play since the start of last year. But they’re also one of only five teams to throw the ball more than run it in those situations. That’s in no way conservative.
O’Connell is also unafraid to be creative. In his brief tenure, O’Connell has dialed up fake punts, wide receiver throwbacks, running back jump throws, direct snaps, and, fatefully, tight end T.J. Hockenson pitching the ball to quarterback Josh Dobbs last Sunday.
There are aggressive and fun elements to O’Connell’s style. He keeps the pedal down in the passing game and picks his spots to use gimmick plays — for better or worse. But what does the data say about some of the more specific game-management situations?
Through this lens, O’Connell lives on the conservative side.
The best test of aggression is usually fourth-down decision-making. Programs designed to evaluate these decisions almost universally suggest going for it in opponents’ territory in short-yardage situations (between one and three yards), which we’ll use for this discussion. The league has quickly adapted to this data, which is now commonly used on major broadcasts like Sunday Night Football. For instance, old-school Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had a go-rate of 37.6% during his eight-year run from 2014 to 2021. While this still ranked in the lower half of the league during that timeframe, it would rank dead last in the league over the previous two years.
As the percentage of analytically driven, offensive-minded head coaches has increased, so too has the risk-taking.
O’Connell is not tremendously more aggressive than Zimmer, though. The Vikings have a go-for-it percentage at 47.6 since his arrival. That’s tied with the New Orleans Saints for 24th lowest in the NFL. For reference, the Philadelphia Eagles — thanks in large measure to the Tush Push — have gone for it a league-leading 86.5% of the time under those same parameters, while seven total teams across the league are over 65%.
O’Connell hasn’t done himself any favors in the last three weeks. In Atlanta, he kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line (albeit after Jaren Hall was injured). He elected for a 54-yard field goal against the Saints that was missed instead of trying to move the sticks on fourth-and-three. And we already explained what happened before halftime against the Broncos — a punt that resulted in a Ryan Wright touchback for only 28 net yards of field position.
In over a season and a half, O’Connell has typically leaned the way of taking points when possible in those situations. The Vikings are 11th in field goal rate facing fourth-and-shorts. Kicking field goals is usually more justifiable than punting, which in modern NFL thinking is akin to a turnover. Yet O’Connell has punted three times in 30 opportunities under our criteria, a rate of 10%, which ranks fifth-highest in the league. Consider that six teams haven’t punted once in two seasons under these circumstances, and over half the league is under 5%. So, while three punts hardly seem like an indictment, it puts O’Connell on the wrong side of the analytics. (Stunningly, Hall of Fame head coach Bill Belichick is the most archaic, with a 20% punt rate.)
In fairness, giving O’Connell several years like Zimmer will do more to unveil his true nature than the limited sample size we currently have.
Even with an analytics-centric general manager in Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, O’Connell hasn’t fully caved to the spreadsheets yet. It seems inevitable that the league will only tilt further and further in this direction. The question will be whether O’Connell does the same.