Kevin O'Connell didn't lose Monday night's game to the Bears, but his overtaxed defenders deserved better than what he did to them by going for it on fourth-and-7 from his own 49-yard line in a 3-3 game with 12:10 left in the third quarter.
This thought came to mind before Joshua Dobbs' 6 ½-yard pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson turned the ball over on downs at the Chicago 45. So it wasn't a hindsight-is-20-20 take that prompted this question for the Vikings coach:
"Kevin, if you trusted your defense, why not flip the field, punt the ball down to around the 10-yard line and bank on getting it back around midfield via punt?"
Seems logical. Certainly old-fashioned, but logical.
Heck, Kirk Ferentz has won 10 games and the Big Ten West with Iowa's gosh-awful offense while patiently thinking that way. And, boy oh boy, did Dobbs and the Purple offense qualify as gosh-awful in Monday's 12-10 upset loss to the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium.
O'Connell took the opposite viewpoint, saying that trusting his defense "goes into that decision [to go for it]. Trusting them in that moment, to the way they played, trusting them to try to give our offense a spark."
That's impatience at a moment when an ugly battle for field position demanded patience and a prudent punt. Giving the defense little margin for error near midfield at that point in the game was an ask that was too big after the incredible weight this unit had been toting the past six quarters.
Dobbs threw two first-half interceptions on back-to-back possessions. The defense got one three-and-out and another punt after four snaps. Yardage total for those two Chicago drives: 8.
But even Da Bears eventually found a way to move the ball a little bit. And it came right after O'Connell's failed fourth down.
After failing to convert six third downs, the Bears converted two quick third downs at the Vikings' 48 and 39. They moved the ball only 34 yards in 10 plays, but that was plenty enough for Cairo Santos to kick a 39-yard field goal and take a 6-3 lead. Had that 34-yard drive started inside the 20 instead of near midfield, the Bears would have punted for a fourth consecutive possession.
O'Connell also described some of the nuances that contributed to the fourth down falling a tick short. He mentioned how close Hockenson was to the marker. He talked about Dobbs' footwork, and how his rhythm needed to be "a hair quicker."
Fair points, but in a game of inches where seemingly every other play is under further review, a coach needs to weigh the dozen or so things that could go wrong with 7 yards to gain, especially with a quarterback who wasn't on the roster a month ago.
Trailing 6-3 with 2:47 left in the third, O'Connell went for it again on fourth-and-3 from the Chicago 44. That decision was easier to accept, but why keep Dobbs' dangerous mobility bottled up in the pocket? Had he been moving to his right, he could have jogged past the first-down marker.
Instead, Dobbs forced a throw that became the third of his four interceptions. Chicago took possession at its 31, "drove" 32 yards and booted another field goal for a 9-3 lead.
Chicago would go on to become the first NFL team this season and the first Bears team in 30 years to win a game without scoring a touchdown.
Punter Ryan Wright also let the defense down with a 26-yard shank down to the Chicago 22 with 2:29 left in the game. The Bears drove 66 yards for the game-winning field goal.
O'Connell wasn't happy with Wright's punt.
"We got to get a little cleaner and better clearly in our punts to try to pin people down deep," he said. "Field position is important in a low-scoring battle. … There has been enough [punts] now that it's going to be a point of emphasis moving forward."
Great points. Of course, one also could argue that O'Connell has called for at least one fewer punt than he should have this season.