The Vikings had a 16-10 lead with 3:07 left in Sunday’s game. They had the Bills backed up on their own 20-yard line. They had been playing decent defense most of the game. And then … the drive that killed their hopes and sunk their ship to 2-5.
Sure, the final drive was reminiscent of the five scores in the final minute of five games last year that resulted in losses, but this was the first one under the defensive-minded Zimmer.
“We did some great things even during that drive. But we reverted back to some of the things that allow us not to win,” Zimmer said. “We rushed the quarterback all day great. We were in the right places, did things correctly, and then for some reason we do something different in the crucial part of the game.”
The Bills converted plenty of plays on that 15-play drive that took 3 minutes, 6 seconds. They converted second-and-6, second-and-10 and third-and-12 into first downs. But for Greenway, none hurt more or sticks with him more than fourth-and-20 with 1:27 to play.
“For me, certainly, just because I was the guy on the ball. I’m never going to be somebody to back away from criticism. I understand the nature of the beast at this point,” Greenway said Monday. “I really, looking back at the tape, considering how the snap started, how it ended, I thought I recovered actually pretty well, but not well enough. And then my college teammate has to catch it so that’s always frustrating. I might lose his number.”
The Vikings had just gotten two sacks of Bills quarterback Kyle Orton in the previous three plays, as well as being the beneficiary of a dropped pass.
Coming off a sack from Linval Joseph, the Bills rushed to the line of scrimmage and the Vikings were scrambling to get the defense set. Greenway was turned and signaling to get cornerback Captain Munnerlyn closer to the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. But by the time Greenway turned toward the play, tight end Scott Chandler was already in his route and a few yards away from Greenway, who turned to the sideline to run in coverage with Chandler, who then broke inside and got just enough separation for Orton to get the ball in Chandler’s hands 19 yards downfield.
Greenway dove to get to Chandler but was trailing too far behind to get either the ball or Chandler. It was a 24-yard gain that both Greenway and Zimmer were trying to forget less than 24 hours later.
“You look back – I watched the tape a couple times now – you wish you could change something, but it’s hard to stop the clock when a team is driving on you in two-minute,” Greenway said. “Timeout, that’s not my decision. All I remember is looking back and seeing that Captain was real deep from trying to get back from the last snap and we weren’t lined up. I just tried to give him the call and the ball was on top of us. I got to a good spot, but you’ve got to make the play in that situation.”
“I certainly wouldn’t have been in that position, I don’t think, had I been lined up. That’s on me. You can’t blame anybody else for that.”
Zimmer acknowledged that Greenway wasn’t deep enough, but, with time to stew on that play, the head coach said he should have called a timeout.
“I should have called timeout and settled the team down a little bit. They were going on the ball. I think we miscalculated the down and distance they were in. We all knew it was fourth down,” Zimmer said.
“It’s more hindsight. I probably should have. Thinking on the plane last night and after the play, I should have done it. And we still had a chance to stop them there at the end. Just because we gave up a fourth-and-20, we still had a third-and-12 later on and they had a 10-second run-off. We still had chances there.”
But none of them was quite in the Vikings’ favor like fourth-and-20.
The hectic nature of the moment caught up with the Vikings on several levels. The defensive backs were hurrying to get back in position after covering downfield. The sideline was signaling in the defensive call. Greenway was trying to get Munnerlyn lined up. But all that mattered was the conversion.
“The conversion rate in the NFL is very small in that. Fourth-and-20, you’d think the odds are pretty good in our favor,” Zimmer said. “So, I probably should have used a timeout. … It’s another unfortunate learning experience that we’ve got to go through.”
Several times during his Monday press conference Zimmer lamented not calling the timeout. And, yet, it went against his nature, having learned under several other defensive-minded head coaches.
“I’ve always worked for a lot of guys that don’t like calling timeouts on defense because you don’t like wasting them. That is a little bit of my mentality, too, is, hey, let’s get lined up, do what we’re supposed to do and everything will be good, whereas probably in that situation, the hecticness of everything that was going on, I probably should have used it and explained to them,” Zimmer said. “We saw all their two-minute routes before, so the routes they ran were not any surprise.”
The result, however, was a surprise, considering the situation with 3:07 to play. So was the final, given how relatively well the defense had played to that point.