The Bears were down by seven and down to one timeout last Sunday when Justin Fields completed a pass to former Vikings receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette at the Minnesota 44.

Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler slipped to the ground after a stiff-arm from Smith-Marsette and recovered his balance as the receiver cut back inside and tried to juke Harrison Smith for additional yardage. Dantzler ripped the ball out of Smith-Marsette's hands, turning back toward the Bears' end zone as U.S. Bank Stadium erupted, and slid to the ground at the Chicago 45, ensuring the Bears would not get the ball back and sewing up a 29-22 victory.

For Ryan Cordell, sitting two levels above the field in a coaches' booth, the proudest moment came when he watched the Vikings sideline and saw players and coaches motioning for Dantzler to get down.

"The part that's underrated, to me, is the entire sideline is jumping up and down, helping him out," Cordell said. "It isn't just one guy. Cam knows it, but so does everybody on the sideline, so does everybody on the field. He makes a great play; let's capitalize on this great play and close out this game."

None of the 28 assistant coaches on Kevin O'Connell's staff has as unique a role as Cordell, the Vikings game management coordinator whose job is to prepare players and coaches for the split-second decisions that can mean the difference between a win and a loss in the NFL.

A year after going 5-8 in one-score games and finishing a game out of the playoffs, the 4-1 Vikings have won three consecutive games by seven points or less, getting the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter each time. They picked up a key first down with Ryan Wright's completion to Jalen Nailor off a fake punt against the Saints on Oct. 2, and iced the game with Dantzler's turnover after a seven-minute touchdown drive against the Bears last Sunday.

Cordell's weekly "situational masters" meetings, where he holds lively film reviews of how teams handle different in-game scenarios, have become a big hit with players. On Saturdays, he meets with O'Connell and the Vikings coordinators to talk through how they plan to handle certain situations. On gamedays, he sits in the coaches' booth, thinking ahead about O'Connell's upcoming decisions and ready to chime in about whether the Vikings should go for it on fourth down, challenge an official's call or manage the clock a certain way.

"When I flip over to defense, or it could be a situational thing on special teams, field position-wise, how aggressive I want to be on some of these fourth downs, he's involved in a lot of that dialogue," said O'Connell, who is 3-for-4 on fourth-down attempts. "He's so intelligent, so bright, but also has a great way about him."

Most NFL teams spend time talking through situational football, and the Vikings emphasized it with meetings and situational drills during practices under Mike Zimmer. Under O'Connell, the Vikings are one of a handful of teams that have game management coaches on staff.

"I don't think you can overemphasize it," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "Kirk [Cousins] may know the situation, but we've got to get every single offensive lineman, every person on the field understanding what we have to get done. Winning NFL football teams are good situational football teams."

Connections on the 49ers staff

Though knee injuries affected Cordell's playing career at Calvert Hall College High School outside Baltimore, his comebacks also helped him confirm he wanted to be involved in football somehow. He was Notre Dame's student equipment manager in 2010 — Harrison Smith's fourth year in the program — and Cordell caught on with the 49ers as a salary cap intern in 2014. The following year he was an offensive assistant.

When Chip Kelly became the 49ers coach in 2016 and sought an assistant to help out with game management, Cordell's undergraduate degree in mathematics and MBA, combined with the fact he had been a coach, made him an ideal fit for the job.

It also introduced him to O'Connell, who was in a football operations role with the 49ers that year, and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who was in the 49ers' football research and development department.

"I just remember he would come in on a Monday, and not only would he have broken down our decisions and management from our game, he would have done it for most of the league," O'Connell said. "He'd have great insight on, 'Hey, did you see that game against so-and-so when they did this? Here was why, and here's how it could have been different.' He just does a great job putting things in context. I still have some of those notes from sitting down and talking football with him."

He kept in touch with O'Connell after their year together, and reconnected with Adofo-Mensah in Cleveland after Cordell joined the Browns staff in 2019.

His time with both men made the Vikings' offer an attractive one when O'Connell sought him out for a game management role, but Cordell had been comfortable with the Browns, and his fiancee, Christy de la Cruz, had already moved from Charlotte to Cleveland to be with him. When they talked through the decision, though, the opportunity with the Vikings seemed too good to pass up.

"It became pretty apparent, pretty quickly, that this was a great place to come — not only for the building and everybody else we have here, but knowing Kevin and knowing Kwesi," Cordell said.

He works with the Vikings offensive staff as a pass game specialist as well, but some of his most important work during the week comes in the player meetings he leads with assistant head coach Mike Pettine and the conversations he has with other coaches about how the Vikings will handle scenarios on a Sunday.

"I love it, too, because guys will come to me with something they saw and say, 'Hey, what do you think?'" Cordell said. "That dialogue is great, because it allows us to refine how we want to approach it."

Staying a step ahead

The term "situational masters" was popularized by Sean McVay with the Rams, and O'Connell brought it with him to Minnesota; to prepare for his meetings each week, Cordell continues the process that first caught O'Connell's eye in San Francisco.

He reviews different situations from each NFL game every week, scouring film for either examples worth emulating or cautionary tales to avoid. From one presentation, Hicks said, he learned the NFL's obscure rule permitting a free kick after a fair catch; another presentation, right tackle Brian O'Neill said, highlighted the proper and improper ways to defend a teammate during an on-field scuffle.

"He's charismatic," Hicks said. "He brings some humor into it — cutting in and out of different funny clips. He's always trying to keep guys engaged and be creative. He does a great job."

The meetings have taken off to the point, wide receiver Adam Thielen said, where players bring in their own examples of situations they saw in a college game on a Saturday afternoon.

"Guys are coming in and saying, 'Man, did you see that game and what they did? That's a perfect clip for situational masters,'" Thielen said. "You see guys actually watching other games and learning from them before we even talk about it."

On gamedays, Cordell's most important role might be to stay a step ahead of O'Connell.

He travels with O'Connell to different channels on the coaches' headsets, providing an eye-in-the-sky perspective about whether to challenge a call or and picking his spots to cut through the conversation with short bursts of information about an upcoming decision the head coach might face.

"[He'll say], 'Hey, if you're third-and-11 and you get 6 yards, your line where the percentages tell you you can be green-lit to go for it is here,'" O'Connell said. "And then I just have to make the decision. Are we close to that line where I'm willing to risk it?

"He does a great job laying out the circumstances based on his recommendation. I know what the analytics would say, and then I can think about the game, how the team's playing on the other side, how we're playing in all three phases, and then, is it a moment where we can possibly grab the momentum?"

Cordell said he has used different analytical methods with different teams when advising on fourth-down decisions or kick-or-punt choices. He's spent enough time as both a coach and a data analyst to know those choices aren't always cut-and-dried.

"You want to go, 'Hey, A led to B led to C.' Well, if we'd changed A, then C would have been way different,'" Cordell said. "Seeing how the game shifts and grows and moves as it goes along is important in how you make your decisions. I'd love for it to be a little more linear, but it's not. At the end of the day, it's an oddly shaped football, and it does some weird things from time to time."

O'Connell is grateful to have Cordell there to help him navigate it all.

"We're just really lucky to have him," O'Connell said. "He's a real bright spot for me on our staff."