These Vikings are frauds. Right?
As I’m sure many of you have seen, this Minnesota Vikings team is viewed around the internet as much worse than their record, by league wide pundits, but also by some Minnesota fans.
This idea of Minnesota’s record being a lie stems from their reliance on scraping by with one score victories, and their overall mediocre-at-best performance, as aggregated by many of the most common statistical models and analytical frameworks.
So what do we trust? These models and the nerds behind them? The less sophisticated but still adamant detractors who point to a string of ‘barely’ wins against practically every team Minnesota has played? The film analysts who look at Minnesota in-depth and find a highly inconsistent offense and a struggling defense?
Or do we trust the record, a 10-2 mark that has the Vikings in the second best position in the NFL and seemingly a lock for the postseason, for their division, and likely for one of the top 2 seeds in the NFC.
Today we will set out to create an argument as to why the Vikings, while perhaps not the second best team in the NFL as their record indicates, are not ‘frauds’ or ‘mediocre’, but instead should be widely considered among the NFL’s best, and be viewed as a threat going into the postseason.
Average at best?
Firstly let’s view the argument that analytical models make against Minnesota, and why everyone says this isn’t a truly dangerous or elite team. Here I’ve made a compilation of several different analytical metrics, ranging from simplest – point differential – to most complex — ESPN FPI.
|ESPN FPI||Offensive EPA/play||Defensive EPA/play||DVOA||Spread ranking||Point differential|
These models don’t paint a pretty picture do they! Based on the analytics the Vikings are a top 10 team at best, but possibly much worse than that. But a primary issue with most of these models is their lack of bias regarding situation, with every play throughout the entire game being considered as equal.
The reason for this is simple, throughout NFL history weighting higher leverage plays appropriately relative to their impact on the game leads to a framework that is less predictive of the future, because generally regardless of when the play happens in the game, teams are using the same process and doing their absolute best.
So weighting for high leverage situations simply overweights a smaller set of the plays, and this leads to less long term accuracy.
Elite when it matters.
But what if a team didn’t employ the same process at all times throughout a game? What if a team specifically saved their best plays, and waited to unleash their greatest schematic advantages, for the moments when they mattered the most? What would that look like?
Would it perhaps look a lot like a team that consistently dominates the 4th quarters of close games? A team that rarely has trouble moving the ball on offense as the game nears its end?
Analytically what would this look like?
Here we can see that based on EPA/play on 3rd and 4th downs in the 4th quarter of games, the highest leverage spots that can exist, Minnesota is literally the best team in the NFL. A massive improvement over their overall rankings when taking into account every play of every game.
But this is a rather crude picture of what I want to show you, instead what if we analyze how each of Minnesota’s ‘lucky’ wins actually played out.
It would be an incredible coincidence if every single game a team played followed an almost identical script, wouldn’t it?
Score a touchdown on the first drive of the game, play decent football going into half-time, come out of the half and do incredibly poorly on offense and defense in the third quarter, but then turn it on and become a highly efficient offense in the 4th quarter.
What are the odds that almost every single win from a team happens in an almost identical way? Assuming that they are approaching every play throughout the entire game the same way – an assumption analytical models make – this coincidence is practically unbelievable.
Well then, lets look through how Minnesota’s offense has performed towards the end of each of their one score victories:
- Game 3 vs Detroit: Down 24-14 entering the 4th quarter, Minnesota got the ball with 10:39 left, and proceeded to muster a first down on four straight plays to start the drive, then a 2nd and 5, another first down, and finally a touchdown on 2nd and goal from the 6. Their next possession resulted in a first down, and then a turnover on downs, and their final meaningful possession of the game was a three play 56 yard touchdown drive.
- Game 4 vs New Orleans: Minnesota scored on their final four drives, going FG, FG, TD, FG, averaging 8 yards per play on their final two drives, both go-ahead scores.
- Game 5 vs Chicago: Minnesota jumped out to a 21-3 lead in this game, before going completely stagnant on offense until their final meaningful drive, where they orchesrated a seven minute, 17 play drive, coming from behind 22-21, to take a 29-22 lead and win the game.
- Game 6 vs Miami: Minnesota thoroughly dominated this game the entire second half, notching two fourth quarter touchdowns and leading 24-10 before Miami notched a garbage time TD with 1:24 remaining to make this one of Minnesota’s patented one score games.
- Game 7 vs Arizona: Faced with a 17-14 deficit midway through the 3rd quarter, Minnesota reeled off touchdowns on back to back drives to give the team a 28-17 lead. Arizona tacked on a field goal and a touchdown before Minnesota added another insurance TD, bringing the game to its final score of 34-26.
- Game 8 vs Washington: With 14:14 left in the 4th quarter, Minnesota was down 17-7 in this game, having done nothing on offense since the first quarter. They then went FG, TD, FG on their next three drives to gain a 20-17 lead and close out the game.
- Game 9 vs Buffalo: Following a Minnesota punt and a Buffalo field goal, Minnesota got the ball back down 27-10 with just 16 minutes and 51 seconds remaining in the game. On their next three drives Minnesota racked up 222 yards of offense, culminating in a turnover on downs at the goalline that led to the famous defensive touchdown that gave Minnesota the lead. After Buffalo tied and the game went to overtime Minnesota drove down to the goal line, and perhaps would have ended the game if not for Buffalo fielding 12 men on first and goal. Overall the Vikings finished this game with 282 yards of offense on their final four drives of the game, moving the ball practically at will against a very good Buffalo defense.
- Game 11 vs New England: The offense moved the ball virtually at will against the Patriots, until the end of the 4th quarter when they punted on back to back possessions and their defense sealed the game.
- Game 12 vs New York: This game followed an almost identical script to Minnesota’s game against Chicago earlier in the year, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead, allowing the Jets to get back into the game, bringing it within 5 points, before Minnesota marched down the field 75 yards in just 7 plays, starting the drive with four straight first downs. Afterwards the offense went back into its shell, forcing this game to be much more of a sweat than it otherwise should have been.
Overall the pattern that we can consistently see throughout Minnesota’s wins has been that regardless of how the offense has played throughout the game, regardless of the struggles they’ve faced, whenever they absolutely need to score, they have been able to, and usually these scores have come quite easily, as easily as if perhaps an offensive mastermind was behind these crucial and necessary drives.
Why would they randomly always be good on the first drive of the game, and then randomly good again towards the end of games whenever they need to be good? Every. Single. Game. Why?
I think rather than simply assign 9 straight one score victories to luck – of which the odds seem pretty ridiculous – instead we look for a possible strategy behind Minnesota’s close game prowess.
My theory is that Kevin O’Connell, a coach renowned for his abilities as an offensive gameplanner and schemer, is able to design offensive plays and scripts that are virtually unbeatable when properly executed by Minnesota’s offense. But Minnesota doesn’t/can’t unleash this tool at all times, because
- Minnesota has limited talent on both sides of the ball. While they are a good team, they are not a great team, with weaknesses throughout their roster. What happened against Philly and Dallas was their roster was simply overwhelmed, with their players being outperformed on both sides of the ball.
- O’Connell and his fellow coaches’ have a strategy to save certain plays and schematic wrinkles for when they are needed, rather than simply emptying the chamber whenever they come up with a play/idea.
- O’Connell’s awareness of how important situational moments are for winning football games.
As for the defense, Minnesota’s strengths happen to be such that they present themselves most strongly in highest leverage situations. The pass rush is anchored by superstars Za’darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, while the secondary is led by savvy veterans Harrison Smith and Patrck Peterson.
It is no wonder that these players are often able to come up with big plays towards the end of games when teams are put in clear passing situations, and the game is on the line.
If anything it would be a significant surprise if they didn’t play their best when the moment is the biggest.
Not to mention the strong possibility that due to O’Connell’s overall philosophy Donatell saves his most menacing blitzes and coverages for the highest leverage spots.
Due to all of this, Minnesota ends up completely average when viewed through the lense of overall efficiency, but they are able to become a juggernaut when it matters most.
Is this theory crazy?
Now perhaps all of these ideas are simply delusions sprouted deep from the mind of a mentally troubled Vikings fan who is looking for something, anything, to cope with the reality that this Vikings team is not as good as their record.
But alternatively, could it be possible that a coach that played under Bill Belichick, and coached under Sean McVay, paired with a forward thinking analytical GM like Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, could have a coaching strategy that optimizes for winning games within a single score margin, a margin by which the vast majority of NFL games are decided? After all wins don’t count any extra in the standings the larger your margin of victory is.
Is this sustainable going forward? Maybe not against teams much more talented than these Vikings, where scheme can only do so much. But against the mediocre teams that Minnesota has been consistently notching victories against, they will continue to rack up wins.