The Minnesota Vikings had a fourth and inches with two minutes to go against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday Night Football. The Vikings were leading by five, and Seattle only had one timeout.
Mike Zimmer decided to go for it on fourth and inches. Alexander Mattison ran into a pile of bodies, and he failed to pick up the first down. With 95 yards ahead of him, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks marched on the field and scored a last-gasp touchdown on fourth and goal.
It begs the question: was Zimmer right in going for it?
First, let’s analyze all four possibilities.
Option 1: Successful First Down
If the Vikings had successfully picked up the first down, they win. They would have a 100% chance of closing out the game. Kirk Cousins could have knelt with the ball on three consecutive plays, and the Vikings would leave with a win.
Option 2: Failed First Down
This is what happened. The Vikings would allow Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense to have two minutes to score a touchdown. The Seahawks would not have to convert on a two-point conversion. However, a two-point conversion would force Minnesota to kick a field goal just to tie in case of another possession.
Option 2B: Failed Fake Field Goal
This is out of the scope of the main argument, but fake field goals are generally a dumb idea. While there is an element of surprise, the team actively puts the ball in the hands of a worse player.
As cool as it may be for Johnny Hekker or Sam Koch to complete a pass as the holder on a fake field goal, it is less efficient than if Jared Goff or Lamar Jackson were to throw said pass. It works on surprise value, but when it fails, it fails spectacularly.
Option 3: Made Field Goal
In this scenario, the Vikings are up by eight with about two minutes left to play in regulation. The Seahawks would have to travel the length of the field, score a touchdown, and add the two-point conversion to force overtime.
Option 4: Missed Field Goal
While Dan Bailey is one of the most accurate kickers of all time, no field-goal is immune from being missed. Had Bailey lined up and missed the field goal, the Seahawks would have slightly better field position than if the Vikings had run a normal play and failed on fourth down. The Seahawks would be in the same situation of being down five having to travel the length of the field to score a touchdown to win the game.
Option 4B: Blocked Field Goal
Block field goals are random. Some blocked field goals don’t lose much in terms of yardage, while other blocked field goals are returned for touchdowns. Had the Seahawks blocked the field-goal and returned for a touchdown, the Vikings would have had a chance to respond in a two-minute drill.
Which option is best?
Option one is the most fool-proof method. If the Vikings convert on fourth down, the game is over. There is no chance that Seattle can win the game assuming the Vikings kneel the ball three times. If you don’t assume that the Vikings kneel the ball three times, the math gets messy and pointless to some degree. The Vikings would, in all likelihood, kneel the ball three times unless they scored on the fourth-down play. If they score on the fourth-down play, they would be leading by at least 11, leaving Seattle with about two minutes to score twice. Even with as well as Wilson has played, it would be a Herculean task to score 11 or more points and add an onside kick in about two minutes.
The second-best option is to kick the field goal and make the field goal. Assuming Bailey is 100 percent likely to make the field goal, the Vikings would almost certainly be immune from losing in regulation. However, the option of losing in overtime still exists as Seattle could go down the field, score, add the two-point conversion, win the coin toss in overtime, and score a touchdown to win the game. Many things would have to break in Seattle’s way for that to occur, but Minnesota would have put the game in the hands of their defense and a potential coin toss. For an example of a team recovering from an eight-point deficit, immediately getting the ball in overtime, and scoring, look at Super Bowl 51.
The third most enticing option is failing on fourth down. While the Vikings would not intentionally fail on fourth down, it is a superior option rather than missing the field-goal. Assuming a run play, the Vikings would force Seattle to move the ball 95 yards to win the game.
The worst option is missing the field goal. Had the field goal missed, Seattle would’ve taken over possession a few yards closer to the end zone. It is marginally worse than the failed fourth-down conversion for Minnesota. The difference in yards likely would not change much for Wilson and the Seahawks.
There’s little to separate the successful instances of either decision or the failure instances of either decision. However, going for it was a more advantageous strategy regardless if it was made or missed. One could argue that a 22-yard field goal has a higher likelihood of going in than a fourth-and-inches run has of being successful. Regardless, NFL running backs and offensive lines should be able to gain a yard on a run play.
One popular choice that fans make after the game is hyping up a decision if it works or tearing a decision down if it fails. For Zimmer, many people were ambivalent about the decision before it happened. As soon as Mattison failed to pick up the first down, they instantly opposed the move. However, if Mattison had picked up the first down, Minnesota wins. Had Minnesota stopped Seattle on a fourth-and-10 at midfield, Minnesota wins. Had Minnesota stopped Seattle on the fourth-and-goal in the red zone, Minnesota wins.
Sample Size in Football:
Have the Vikings been able to run an infinite number of plays, they would have converted more likely than not. However, there are only a handful of decisions in a year that are as critical as Zimmer’s decision during the game. Even if Zimmer had to make that decision in every game, Zimmer and the Vikings would likely end up with a winning record of 10 wins or 11 wins. Losing to Seattle was a conglomerate of favorable odds just not working out for Minnesota.
Is it a cop-out? Maybe.
Aggressive play calls generally lead to win. There is a real consequence of being over-aggressive, but in general, aggressiveness leads to more points and leads to more victories. Even if you took a conservative estimate on how often Mattison can pick up a fourth-and-inches, it is vastly more likely than a failed pick-up.
For Mattison’s career, he has picked up one yard on 81.3 percent of carries (122 of 150). According to Pro-Football-Reference, 46 of 59 fourth-and-ones have been converted so far this season: 78.0 percent. According to ESPN’s win probability model, the Vikings had a 91.4 percent chance to win the game after Mattison came up short. Pro-Football-Reference gave the Seahawks a 22.6 percent of winning. The most conservative estimate gives just a 4.97 percent chance that Seattle both stops Minnesota on fourth-and-inches and goes down and scores. The other end of the spectrum is a 1.61 percent chance of Seattle completing both. Minnesota potentially wins between 95 and 99 of 100 scenarios.
Mike Zimmer was 100 percent right to go for it. His players just failed to execute on the three most important plays of the game.
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