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Despite Win, Mike Zimmer Deserves Criticism for Questionable Decisions

Darren PageFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2014

Sep 28, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer looks on during the second quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Falcons 41-28. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings picked up their first home victory of the 2014 season, edging out the Atlanta Falcons 41-28.

The Vikings put in a resoundingly impressive performance from start to finish, only trailing for a little more than four minutes of game time. Breakout performances from Teddy Bridgewater, Jerick McKinnon and Jarius Wright saw the offense matriculate the ball up and down the field. The defense held its own too.

Not all the game’s details were so warm and fuzzy though. First-year coach Zimmer’s inexperience and possibly his lack of preparation showed through in a couple decisions made in crucial situations.

Zimmer entered the Atlanta matchup with only three games of head-coaching experience under his belt. He spent the previous 14 seasons as a defensive coordinator, so he is still learning how to handle his extra duties on the sideline.

Aspects of Zimmer’s job like this are important to analyze, even when the game result points in the right direction for Minnesota. The process is more predictive than the results. Zimmer and his staff are likely to continue making decisions in the same manner, especially if they lead to positive results in the short term. The problem is that if the processes aren’t sound, the outcomes will regress in the future.

None of the first three games featured especially trying situations for Zimmer in terms of head-coaching decisions. The lead-up to halftime in the Atlanta game may have been his first.

After a Jerick McKinnon seven-yard plunge was initially ruled a touchdown on the field, the officials reviewed the play and overturned it, ruling he went down a half-yard short. That meant Minnesota was subjected to a 10-second runoff.

Twenty-three seconds remained on the clock when McKinnon’s play was whistled dead. The Vikings held one timeout, which they could have used in this situation, per former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira:

Minnesota could have called a timeout to save the 10 sec runoff

— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) September 28, 2014

Zimmer and the Vikings opted to let the 10 seconds go instead. That meant a running clock after the ball was set by the referee, giving Minnesota less than 13 seconds to punch it in. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner was then wasteful in his management of the time.

Terrible clock management by MIN. Clock started at 13. Had player run in motion. Bridgewater took too long. Only getting 1 play off = bad.

— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) September 28, 2014

Turner called a play-action rollout, which shows a disconnect between he and Zimmer. If the next play was properly communicated and they had extra time during the review process, then Zimmer should have called a timeout to save the 10 seconds.

The bootleg has little chance of going so horribly wrong that the quarterback is sacked. The back-side end even stayed home to play the quarterback, and Bridgewater was still able to get rid of it. The need to hold a timeout is lessened by the play call.

In fact, with 23 seconds on the clock instead, the Vikings could have even ran the ball or taken a sack and still gotten it spiked to stop the clock in time. Instead, Minnesota trotted into the locker room for halftime with its last timeout still in hand after getting only one play in. The planning involved in this situation was poor.

NFL coaches are consistent employers of conventional wisdom. This was a prime case of that. With a rookie quarterback on the field and a lead in hand, Zimmer and Turner took unnecessary steps to minimize risk and ensure at least three points could be earned. Their poor management of the clock may have actually cost the Vikings points instead.

Zimmer’s next foray into the realm of difficult decisions occurred at the end of Minnesota’s opening drive of the third quarter: a Matt Asiata five-yard gain that came up a yard short of the sticks and led the Vikings back up to the line of scrimmage to sneak Bridgewater on 3rd-and-1 to no avail.

Zimmer was left with a decision to make on 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta 23, leading 24-14 early in the third quarter.

The New York Times evaluates coaching decisions based on past data from similar game situations, using a tool called 4th Down Bot. Its evaluations give success rates based on decisions and the expected point value of the decision, which has many factors considered. It gave this data related to Zimmer’s 4th-and-1 decision, citing 200 past instances that compare since 2002:

4th-and-1 Decision
OptionExpected PointsSuccess RateCoach Tendencies
Go for it+2.464%59%
Field goal try+1.876%40%
Source: NYT 4th Down Bot

Clearly, the expected effect on points scored is greater for teams that opt to go for it in this situation. Zimmer decided to kick the field goal, which follows a conventional pattern of thinking, even when kicking isn’t the decision for the majority of coaches based on the data.

With a lead, making conservative calls that have little chance of bottoming out is the norm.

The size of the lead should have helped steer Zimmer in the right direction, however. Minnesota held a 10-point lead. Increasing it to 13 would not change the dynamics of the game for Atlanta’s offense. It still only needed two scores to lead. The Falcons' proficiency as a red-zone offense, No. 1 in the league in terms of scoring touchdowns, should influence the decision as well.

None of that happened. Zimmer made a conservative decision to kick the field goal, and Atlanta would eventually take the lead about nine minutes later, 28-27. A proficient fourth quarter from the Vikings offense and a depleted Atlanta offensive line would see Minnesota pull away, but the decision-making process was still flawed.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Adding to the flaws in this situation is the fact Zimmer took a timeout in order to make this determination. He was ill-prepared to make this decision within the allotted time, and if the Vikings were chasing a lead late in the game, he could have paid dearly for it.

Teams with experienced coaches and quarterbacks will even march up to the line of scrimmage and use a hard count to try and earn an offside penalty, then use their timeout if that doesn’t happen in this situation. Instead, the Vikings offense stood around waiting for instructions that didn’t come in time.

Then again in the fourth quarter, Zimmer used another timeout to make a fourth-down decision. These situations need to be cut-and-dry decisions that a coach and his staff have previously thought through in order to be fully prepared.

In the interest of full disclosure, Zimmer actually did get this fourth-down decision correct in the fourth quarter, at least according to the NYT 4th Down Bot. The situation is 4th-and-goal from the Falcons' 1, trailing by a single point with almost 11 minutes remaining.

The bot measures effect on win percentage with fourth-quarter decisions because taking the lead becomes the first objective over maximizing points.

4th-and-Goal Decision
OptionWin PercentageSuccess RateCoach Tendencies
Go for it64%55%64%
Field goal try59%100%35%
Source: NYT 4th Down Bot

As the data shows, teams that go for it in this situation went on to win more often. This determination is likely related to how early it is in the fourth quarter. A two-point lead doesn’t hold often with that much time remaining. If the offense doesn’t get it across for six points, it also has plenty of time to rectify the situation.

Zimmer gave the call to go for it, the Vikings brought in an extra lineman and Asiata sneaked through a crease to give Minnesota a touchdown lead.

The end product of mistakes made by Zimmer doesn't necessarily point to his inadequacy as a football coach. He has a proven track record of impressive player development, ability to implement effective defensive schemes and make in-game adjustments.

These are new roles for Zimmer, and some wrinkles will need ironing out. That doesn’t excuse lack of preparation and slow-to-the-draw decision-making.

He and his coaching staff need to work out their process for making these decisions in the future in order to maximize points offensively and save timeouts. They can point to a positive outcome in terms of the game result on Sunday, but some tweaking is definitely necessary.

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