TAMPA, Fla. — He'd used the phrase "I don't know" three times in responses to six questions about his kicker on Sunday afternoon (and, for all anyone knows, perhaps he said it another time in a response that was lost to history after his microphone was muted during on a postgame Zoom call).
But Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's seventh response about Dan Bailey, who missed three field goals and an extra point in a game the Vikings lost 26-14 to the Buccaneers, might have done the most to crystallize the coach's tension about a player he likes at a position that's given his teams fits.
"Like I said, I don't know right now," Zimmer said. "He kicked good during the week this week. So we'll just have to make a decision and go with it. I like the kid a lot. Like I said before, I've had tons of confidence in him. He's had a very good year. He's had a couple bad weeks now. But you know, we can't throw away 10 points and things like that. It's not just Dan Bailey. We gave up a 50-yard throw because a couple guys weren't in the right place. You can't do that either. If you guys want me to fire guys for making a mistake here, a mistake there, then we wouldn't have any players. Let's not put this all on Dan Bailey."
The coach's point is valid: Simply because Bailey's misses were the plays most susceptible to an if-then analysis does not mean they were the only ones that decided a pivotal game for the team's playoff chances. Perhaps if the Vikings do refrain from their second in-season kicker change in three years (in the middle of a year where they've already changed long snappers), it will be because they've deemed a quick move insufficient to cure all that ails them.
The Vikings will not give up on the year, not with three games left to secure a wild-card spot that still remains only a game out of reach. They will talk of trying to beat the Bears, and then the Saints and then the Lions, with the belief a berth in this seven-team NFC playoff field, of all years, could be a lottery ticket that pays.
But they are 6-7 and in need of help, not 7-6 and in charge of their own fate, because of a game decided on just enough moments that got away from them.
Two of them — a second-quarter penalty on Harrison Smith for lowering his helmet to initiate contact on LeSean McCoy and a Hail Mary pass interference penalty on Todd Davis that gave the Buccaneers a free-play field goal — drew Zimmer's ire. The coach chided an official as the Vikings walked off the field at halftime, and responded tersely when asked about Davis' foul on Rob Gronkowski.
"I don't know," he said. "I just know two calls changed the complexion of the game."
The Buccaneers' first touchdown, though, came on a 48-yard Tom Brady-to-Scotty Miller pass that Zimmer referenced when he said a couple players were out of position. Safety Anthony Harris was the only player in deep coverage before the snap and jumped a post route while Brady looked for Miller in one-on-one coverage with Chris Jones.
And the Vikings' chance to stop Tampa Bay after Smith's penalty was wiped out when Jeff Gladney drew pass interference for grabbing Mike Evans' arm in the end zone before he picked off Brady's throw.
Tampa Bay put itself in position for a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half after a Vikings drive that took just 23 seconds off the clock.
"That's another one of those possessions that you feel had a big impact on the outcome of the game," said Kirk Cousins, who threw incomplete on first and third downs. "You see yourself with an opportunity there to at least get into field goal range and maybe go down and score a touchdown. Not only did we not get points, we didn't run the clock. That's where taking a sack there might actually be helpful because it forces them to take a time out or we run clock. We throw an incompletion and it stops the clock for them. All those situational pieces ended up having a big impact on the game."
Bailey's misses, though, turned what had been a productive first half into one where the Vikings managed just six points.
It took the Vikings only two quarters to surpass 100 rushing yards against the Buccaneers, who had permitted two teams to run for more than 100 in an entire game this season. Against the NFL's top run defense, the Vikings had no intent on changing their game plan, running it on 14 of their first 22 plays. They built in some breaks for Dalvin Cook with Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah, but gave the ball to their top offensive player 15 times in the first half, when they posted 191 yards of offense.
Things first went amiss after Cook's one-yard second-quarter touchdown run, when Bailey missed an extra point. Then Bailey pulled a kick left from 33 yards.
On the Vikings' ensuing possession, after a Brian O'Neill false start penalty put the Vikings in a third-and-11 and Carlton Davis broke up Cousins' sideline pass for Justin Jefferson, Zimmer opted to send Bailey out again for a 54-yard field goal. The kicker missed right, and the Buccaneers needed to drive only 56 yards for their next touchdown.
Tampa Bay opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive in nine plays, including a 29-yard connection from Brady to Evans. The Vikings countered with a ponderous 15-yard march that took 8:33 to reach the end zone, as Cousins completed all seven of his passes on the drive to tight ends or running backs, including a scoring throw to Irv Smith.
"The only reason I didn't feel [the drive took too long] was how much time was left," Cousins said. "Obviously, we couldn't afford to have them go down and score and separate the lead again. And then obviously the next drive, we went down the field and had time, but then we couldn't finish with the touchdown. The endings of the drives are what's so critical as opposed to the time."
Down nine near the end of the third quarter, the Vikings gave themselves a chance to get the points they needed with a quick stop. Cousins, who did all he could to step in front of and away from the Buccaneers' pass rush, scrambled for 21 yards on the Vikings' next drive and moved them to the Tampa Bay 8-yard line.
But then he was sacked twice, and Bailey missed for a fourth time, from 46 yards out, and the Buccaneers drove for a clinching field goal.
A week ago, when asked about the kicker's issues, Zimmer said he hoped it was "just an enigma." The word he was searching for, it seemed, was "aberration."
But then again, "enigma" might be the perfect word to describe a Vikings team that's not quite dead yet but can't count itself among the NFC's contenders, either.
"I think we've got three more left," said Cook, who became the first 100-yard rusher against Tampa Bay this year. "We gotta win these games and leave it up to whoever make the choices to put us in. I think if we just win these games and leave it up to whoever it is, that's what we gotta do."