Kevin O’Connell deserves loads of credit for what the Minnesota Vikings have accomplished in 2022. The team is 10-3, one win away from an NFC North title, and has shown marked improvement in the pressure-packed moments that doomed their 2020 and 2021 seasons.
However, along with receiving credit, the headman must also take his lumps. Sunday in Detroit was one of those lumps.
Many of O’Connell’s decisions have already been dissected on this website and elsewhere. The most head-scratching aspect of many of these decisions was that he looked an awful lot like the head coach opposite him on Sunday. Dan Campbell has many qualities that have helped pull the Lions from the ashes to the precipice of postseason football, but situational mastery is not one such quality. Uncharacteristically, O’Connell was not a situational master on Sunday, illustrated by (at least) three moments.
1st Quarter 4th-Down attempt
On Minnesota’s first offensive series, Detroit jumped offside on a 4th-&-6 punt attempt, leading O’Connell to leave the offense on the field to try and convert the 4th & 1 from their own 46-yard line. Dalvin Cook was stuffed short of the line to gain, gifting the potent Lions offense with a short field that they immediately converted into a Jameson Williams touchdown.
“I felt like we needed to be aggressive today … We had an opportunity to continue that drive. I got a lot of confidence in our guys … They just made a play,” O’Connell admitted about the decision to go for it.
In a game in which they were facing the 6th-best scoring offense in the NFL, one can understand O’Connell’s attempt to give his team a chance to set the tone and “steal a possession.” However, when the downside is gift-wrapping a short field to a team that is fourth in the league in pass plays over 20 yards (Williams’ touchdown came from 41 yards out), the decision becomes more of a head-scratcher and very Campbell-esque.
Attempting 4th downs from seemingly anywhere on the field has been Campbell’s calling card in his two seasons at the helm in Detroit. The Lions have attempted 69 total 4th-down plays in the last two seasons, most of any team in the league. O’Connell, on the other hand, has not proven to be such an overly aggressive captain, attempting only the 23rd-most 4th downs in the NFL this season.
Goal-Line Jump Pass
Campbell is notorious for poor clock management (this season’s Thanksgiving loss to Buffalo tells you all you need to know). With the Vikings down 14-7 and driving to tie before the half, Detroit was left with just one timeout (Campbell took one with the clock stopped earlier on the drive) as Minnesota lined up 1st and goal from the 3-yard line with 1:06 left in the quarter.
As the situational master that he has proven to be, O’Connell would have been wise to run the ball with Cook to either score or, at the very least, force Detroit to call their final timeout. Then, with a potential 2nd & goal upcoming, O’Connell would have three chances to punch it in (or even call the jump pass) and leave as little time (and no timeouts) for Detroit to get points before the half.
However, O’Connell called for a jump pass with Cook (a la Derrick Henry) on first down. Cook never got a handle on the handoff from Kirk Cousins and subsequently fumbled once the Lions’ pressure got to him. Scoring opportunity wasted, clock improperly managed.
As an aside, the jump-pass play call was suspect as well. After the game, O’Connell admitted that “interior penetration on the play” needed to be stopped for the play to work, something the Vikings patchwork offensive line could not consistently provide without starting center Garrett Bradbury. Time management be damned — that play may have been best left on the shelf for a later week.
2-Point Conversion Attempt
After Cook’s ill-fated jump pass, the Fox broadcast pointed out that O’Connell had mentioned in production meetings that the Vikings couldn’t get cute with playcalling against Detroit’s defense. It didn’t take long for O’Connell to try and out-cute the opponent again. After a clutch, 4th-down, Cousins-to-Adam Thielen touchdown to draw Minnesota closer at 21-13, O’Connell decided to leave the offense on the field to attempt a 2-point conversion.
Common among the analytics community is the strategy of attempting a 2-point conversion to cut an 8-point deficit to 6, setting up a potential game-winning (rather than game-tying) touchdown on the next score. Even if the conversion fails, there will still be an opportunity to tie with a touchdown and conversion on the next score. Teams are converting 2-point attempts at a 46% clip this season, so the strategy is relatively sound.
Generally, this strategy is deployed in the 4th quarter wherein a team is looking to get a quick defensive stop and steal a win. This strategy in this specific situation, however, was unmerited. There was still 2:17 left in the 3rd quarter; given how the Vikings defense was showing no signs of stopping a rolling Lions offense, there was little reason to believe they would keep Detroit off the scoreboard the rest of the way.
Another Campbell-esque, over-aggressive, game-management gaffe that in no way helped the Vikings come out of Detroit with a division title.
Outside of Cousins and Justin Jefferson, Minnesota was not nearly sharp enough to deliver the “playoff-worthy performance” required to beat a hungry Lions team on Sunday afternoon, and the Vikings coach can’t shoulder all of the blame for that. Even so, Kevin O’Connell will have to revert to his situationally masterful ways to get the Vikings back in the win column.
Notes: All quotes come from Kevin O’Connell’s postgame press conference on Sunday. Statistics and game data were sourced from Pro Football Reference.
Will is a husband, father of two, and earned an undergraduate degree in Economics (just like Kwesi Adofo-Mensah). Will’s favorite pastimes are water skiing, Minnesota sports, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He is the co-host of the Load the Box Vikings Podcast with Jordan Hawthorn. Follow him on Twitter (@willbadlose) and find his other sports content at Twins Daily and his very own Bad Loser Blog.