Typical wisdom in the NFL runs as such: save your timeouts for the end of the half/ game so that if you are desperately trying to drive down the field for a win or a tie, you can stop the clock at critical intervals. Likewise, wisdom also dictates that when you are ahead late in the game- whether you are on the field offensively or defensively- you let the clock run as much as possible.
Unfortunately that wisdom may have backfired for the Vikings this Sunday. Ben Goessling over at ESPN wrote an article recapping the various reactions of the Vikings regarding the back-breaking 4th and 20 play that ultimately would lead to the Bills scoring in the final seconds and sealing a one point victory. Overall, the players and coaches seemed to have had a similar theme- the speed of the Bills offense at that point caught our defense unprepared on that play, particularly in regards to Chad Greenway and Captain Munnerlyn. Interestingly enough, Mike Zimmer admitted that calling a timeout at that moment- despite it flying in the face of the above wisdom- might have changed things, and could have ultimately led to the stop and a crucial road victory for the Vikings.
Last year, then coach Leslie Frazier had two such moments of thought- one where, like Zimmer yesterday, he stuck by conventional wisdom and regretted it; and then later when he bucked tradition (to the chagrin of many, including Greg Jennings) and ended up securing a win. Early on in a season filled with last-minute/second drives where our defense collapsed and the opposition made the game winning score, we got our first taste of such agony against the Chicago Bears. After that game, Frazier commented on a fatigued defense that was out of position, and admitted that if he had called a timeout, things may have gone differently. Later on in that season, against the Washington Redskins, he did make the call for a timeout- twice, as a matter of fact, when the Redskins were making just such a drive. (That was the game when Jennings was caught on camera going ballistic over the decision on the sideline.) While many thought it ludicrous at the time, its worth pointing out that the Vikings made the stop and won that game.
The NFL is known as a bastion of tradition, in particular with coaches and coaching decisions. It's typically accepted that ‘revolutionary ideas' start at the bottom (high school) and filter their way up through college ranks and eventually into the NFL. But as we've seen time and time again, being a ‘revolutionary' can lead to great things, and many have called for NFL coaches to get more creative than tradition dictates. The best example might be going for it on fourth down outside of just crucial situations- there's even an entire Twitter account (@NYT4thDownBot) dedicated to analyzing just such decisions. The underlying cause for this is the same as using defensive timeouts- coaches want to play it safe.
We lament the idea of ‘playing not to lose rather than playing to win', yet that concept is far more rampant in the play-by-play decisions coaches make, from Bill Bellichick on down, than we accept. Furthermore, coaches are aware that they can insulate themselves some from criticism by making mistakes ‘traditionally' rather than by being creative or unique. The outcry against Zimmer for not taking a timeout and resting his defense is nowhere as bad as it would be had he taken a timeout and the Bills used the clock stoppage to score, despite the results being identical. Right now, we are primarily bemoaning Greenway and co. for allowing the long conversion; had it occurred after a timeout, we likely would be throwing Zimmer under the bus just as much for giving the Bills extra time.
We can see this again last year with Frazier's polar decisions. We blamed Chris Cook and Harrison Smith for being out of position and allowing the Bears to score; and yet, we still considered Frazier's later decisions to stop the play on the field and set his defense against the Redskins as ‘risky' or even downright dumb. All despite the fact that his decision to not call a timeout cost us a potential win, and his decision to do so twice in a later game may have preserved one.
Zimmer openly admitted in the above linked article that he probably should have called a timeout, which in my opinion is great. Zimmer is still a rookie head coach, so one can't knock him for sticking with tradition right now. But it's a pleasant sign to see him publicly acknowledge that doing so was likely a mistake. And it is notable that he called a timeout on the Bill's final play, hoping to set his team properly for the goal-line stop (although it did not work, and the clock was stopped regardless at that time).
Fans will have a long time to come with grips over the fact that stopping a running clock when you're ahead and the other team is driving may be the best idea. But when the offense is simply running faster than your defense, and you're able to see that it's leaving you out of position to prevent a big gain or an important conversion, it is likely far smarter to let the clock stop and to ensure you prevent the play. Would calling a timeout yesterday to set the defense have prevented the 4th-and-20? Maybe, maybe not. Sammy Watkins is a very good receiver, and he'd been making his plays all day even when our defense was set. But leaving a defense unprepared for a guy who'd been doing that certainly did not help the situation, and that's more than just hindsight speaking- that's plain and simple logic. Also logical is this- had we made the stop and prevented the conversion, any extra time on that clock would have been moot because we would have had the ball and easily could have just kneeled down to finish it off. It is true that had they converted despite a timeout, they would have had likely enough time for one additional play than they had- and that too could have backfired. But in the risk-reward scenario here, it seems indisputable that tradition had no place at that moment, and Zimmer should have hearkened back to the lesson Frazier had learned a season ago- sometimes, you want to stop that clock.