ARLINGTON, Texas -- During the Minnesota Vikings' 27-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier had a trio of key decisions to make on fourth down in Cowboys territory. On the first, he chose to be aggressive, running Adrian Peterson on fourth-and-1 from the Cowboys' 16. He did the same on the second, running Peterson on fourth-and-1 from the 11. And on the third, he "went against my instincts a little bit" and initially sent the offense out to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Cowboys' 36, before deciding to punt after the Vikings failed to draw the Cowboys offside.
Peterson was stopped in the second quarter, but surged 11 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. But on the third, Frazier got gun-shy, and the Cowboys drove 90 yards for a touchdown after Jeff Locke punted in the fourth quarter. In all three cases, Frazier said he had a gut feeling the Vikings needed a touchdown, not a field goal, which made his decision to punt in the fourth quarter a little perplexing.
"Down 3, chance to tie it, I felt like we needed to get a touchdown, not a field goal," Frazier said about the first fourth down. "Felt that same way on the fourth-and-5 and went against my instincts a little bit, but that was the mindset -- we needed a touchdown. I didn't think a field goal there was enough."
Kicker Blair Walsh, who has been battling a left hamstring injury, would have had to try a 54-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. He had his first career miss from more than 50 yards two weeks ago against the Giants, and missed his first career extra point on Sunday.
"Surprise to him, surprise to us," Frazier said of the missed extra point. "Just knowing where he is physically, that did play into my mindset."
But had Walsh been successful from 54 and the Cowboys still gone on to score a touchdown, the Vikings would have still lost the game by a point. They had a 73.7 percent chance of winning the game when they lined up to go for it on fourth down, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but by punting, the Vikings dropped that probability to 67.4 percent. They wound up putting the game in the hands of a defense that was missing four members of its secondary at that point.
Let's say, for a second, the Vikings had decided to go for it and hadn't gotten hit with a delay of game. Since 2001, teams convert fourth-and-5 situations an average of 37.5 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Assuming the Vikings had gained five yards and taken the clock down to 2:51, their win probability would have jumped to 87.8 percent. Failing in that situation -- which the Vikings had a 62.5 percent chance of doing -- would have dropped their win probability to 58.7 percent.
All told, the expected win probability of going for it on fourth-and-5 was 69.6 percent, which means Frazier would have made the right choice by going for it, but just barely (69.6 to 67.4 percent). And given his track record, it was a bit surprising Frazier was thinking about it at all.
According to Football Outsiders' Aggressiveness Index, Frazier was the 27th-most aggressive coach in the league on fourth down last season, going for it just four times 104 opportunities. With the Vikings at 1-6 and trying to get a win on the road on Sunday -- in other words, playing with much more to gain than they had to lose -- he broke from that mold twice, only to play it safe with a chance to put the game away.
"I was surprised we were going to go for it," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "We were excited about it, and then to try to draw them offside. We weren't able to do it and we saved our timeouts and then just punted away. Our defense had been playing great the whole game. Hats off to Dallas for going down and scoring."