Minnesota Vikings first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell lost for just the third time on Sunday, outclassed by the Detroit Lions 34-23 at Ford Field. The Vikings were curiously 2.5-point underdogs entering Detroit, and oddsmakers proved why “their way” usually reigns supreme.
Along the way, O’Connell fired up a few head-scratching decisions, an odd development because most of the man’s decision-making through 13 weeks has been revered, not chided. Still, O’Connell is new at the job, and Sunday proved that even the winningest of rookie skippers can produce strange choices.
These were O’Connell’s three main head-scratchers.
1. The Trick Play
Near the end of the 1st Half, the Vikings were cooking on offense — well, quarterback Kirk Cousins was blisteringly hot all day — and 1st and Goal inside the 5-yardline.
They had three or four plays to punch the ball in for a touchdown, landing a haymaker versus Detroit in a game that needed back-and-forth counterpunches. Instead, O’Connell dialed up a trick play — that actually would’ve worked if running back Dalvin Cook wasn’t swallowed by Detroit’s defensive line.
The playcall by O’Connell was actually tremendous — if it worked. TE Johnny Mundt was wide open, and if Cook didn’t get obliterated, O’Connell would’ve been applauded for creativity. With revisionist history available late Sunday and Monday, however, Vikings fans wish Cook “just would’ve run it in.” Minnesota had at least three cracks at it but instead squandered the play, possession of the ball — and perhaps the game — due to the fumble.
2. The Failed 2-Point Conversion
Well, the Vikings roared back against the Lions, appearing hellbent on orchestrating yet another suspense-thriller game. With about two minutes remaining in the 3rd Quarter, Cousins found Adam Thielen for a nifty 23-yard touchdown reception, totaling the score at 21-13 in favor of Detroit.
But based on road-game analytics, O’Connell opted to go for the two-point conversion — so that the next hypothetical score by Minnesota would result in a lead.
Of course, the two-point conversion failed, and like the failed trick play, O’Connell looked buffoonish and out of touch with the decision. If the Vikings had converted the two points, O’Connell would’ve been lauded as genius and cutting-edge.
No cigar. It was “too cute” and too analytics-driven. Vikings fans wanted an analytics-focused coaching staff back in February when Mike Zimmer was let go, but everyone wants an analytics-based organization until the analytics-based organization starts trying analytics-based things.
3. The Silly Onside Kick
We still haven’t figured this one out.
Before the onside-kick rule changes about five years ago, the odds of recovering an onsider were about 20%. Now, that percentage is about 6%. Onside kicks — unless utilized out of sheer desperation — are birdbrained. They don’t work. In fact, it’s breaking news when they do pan out.
The Vikings trailed by eight with two minutes and fifty seconds remaining. They tried a maneuver with a 6% success rate. It failed. That should surprise absolutely nobody. The Lions earned wonderful field position because of the onsider, gained a few yards, and kicked a long field goal. Game over.
There was plenty of time to allow the Vikings maligned defense one last try at forcing a three-and-out. Yet, the onside kick was the choice, and Minnesota lost.
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).