The Vikings ended up in overtime for the second consecutive week, this time against the Chicago Bears. After a quick Bears' three-and-out, the Vikings drove down field to the Bears 21-yard line. The game is now in sudden death format, so a field goal wins it. Unfortunately, in the NFL there is the myth of field goal range. The summation of that article is in bold at the bottom: "Closer is always better."
I first want to mention that field goal kicking has improved dramatically over the last few years, and the two kickers involved in this game (Robbie Gould and Blair Walsh) are among the very best in the league. The Vikings, facing a 3rd-and-10 from the Bears 21, opted to attempt a 39-yarder rather than try to get closer. For Blair Walsh, this is seen as a gimme. In today's NFL, that is about an 87% proposition. Very likely, although still more than a 1-in-10 chance he misses.
After drilling the field goal, Vikings' tight end Rhett Ellison was flagged for a flagrant face mask, pushing the team back to the 36-yard line (a 54-yard field goal, which converts just under 60%). On 3rd-and-25, the Vikings pounded the ball where Adrian Peterson lost 3-yards, making it a 57-yard field goal attempt (~50% conversion). At 50% (and possibly higher as Blair Walsh had previously made 12 of 13 kicks over 50-yards), the field goal is still the right fourth-down decision. Walsh missed the field goal and overtime continued.
I give credit to Leslie Frazier for making an attempt to get closer on third down and you cannot fault him for putting the ball in his best player's hands. In general, on the long distance-to-go, a screen, short pass, or delay is probably the more efficient option than just running up the gut. Frazier took a conservative approach, not wanting to ruin his current field position, rather than making a legitimate effort to get closer to the end zone.
Let's look at field goal conversion rates by distance to show why closer is always better. In the blue, we see estimates for field goal conversion based on the season and distance. The green highlights estimates for 2013 (kicking has improved significantly since 2000). In pink, we see a smoothed estimate not-adjusted for season and includes data from 2000 through last week.
Gould's kick squeaks just wide of the post and the game continues with the Vikings getting the ball back; this time they made sure to get closer. The Vikings did not stop at the Bears 42 or the 31 or the 27. They drove down to the 16 before attempting a 34-yard field goal with just under 2 minutes remaining in overtime. A 34-yard field goal converts around 92%, again leaving an 8% (although probably less with Blair Walsh kicking) chance that the Bears would get another chance to win the game - so you're telling me there's a chance!
Neither team had a timeout remaining, and the Vikings had a 1st-and-10 from the 16-yard line. The Vikings foolishly risked losing the game when they did not have to. Why not kneel down and run the clock down to guarantee a tie at the very worst? Or better, keep rushing to run the clock out while being mindful of fumbling. Walsh nailed the field goal, sealing the game for the Vikings. Eight percent is very low, but it is still a possibility. Just ask Alabama how those low probability events turn out.
Keith Goldner is the Chief Analyst at numberFire.com - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform - and creator of Drive-By Football. Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook.