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Vikings Year-End Evaluation: Part I - Overview

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Wm. Glasheen-USA TODAY Sports

It's a long season.

You hear that a lot from veteran coaches and players, but this season for the Vikings seemed longer than most- despite the fact it ended too soon.

Starting 5-0, only to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs- something only a few of the teams that started 5-0 have done- gives you the feeling that there wasn’t enough in the tank to get deep into the post-season as was expected early on in making the Bradford trade.

Listening to coach Zimmer’s final press conference, he said it was on him for not getting his team out of the slump after a couple losses. I give him credit for being right and being able to see his role and shortcomings clearly. It’s a good sign. Many coaches fail because they don’t see the problem, or are unwilling/unable to correct it. Zimmer sees the problem, now it’s up to him to correct it.

Leadership

Let’s be clear. The season was not lost due to injuries. Every team has injuries- it’s a part of the game. New England went to the Super Bowl a couple years ago with more injuries and offensive line combinations- twice as many I believe- as the Vikings this year. It’s about leadership.

Mike Zimmer is a good leader as head coach. He may not be as experienced and adept in every respect as a head coach, but he can lead the team. The problem is a lack of real leadership among players.

As a head coach, you need help leading from among the ranks. You need at least one veteran field general on either side of the ball. The Vikings don’t have those guys right now. It’s not just about helping manage the ups and downs of a season, it’s about finishing out games and getting the best out of players in key situations. A coach can help prepare players, and emphasize it in practice, before the game and at halftime, but players in the huddle and on the field can have a bigger impact at key moments during a game.

The only season-long captain on offense, voted on by players at the beginning of the year, was Adrian Peterson- who was out most of the year. Defensively Chad Greenway, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen were selected as captains. Obviously Greenway had a reduced role, and was off the field in most key situations. To a lesser extent, Robison’s role was also reduced. Griffen tends to be more outspoken than most, but I’m not sure how well that translates on the field, and he committed his share of stupid mistakes in key moments as well.

The Need for New Leadership

As a new-comer, and perhaps temporary replacement for Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford had some obstacles to being the leader on offense a quarterback is expected to be. Those obstacles should be removed next season. That may be a controversial statement in regard to Bradford replacing Bridgewater on a more permanent basis, but Zimmer effectively said as much today in his last press conference of the season. He said Bradford has earned the right to be the starting quarterback, more or less regardless of Bridgewater’s injury status/recovery. I don’t see how he loses it at this point, given the season he had this year. Solidifying Bradford’s status as starting QB will help him solidify his status as the leader on offense as well - which will help tremendously going into next year and beyond. Bradford himself may feel more comfortable calling the shots when his status has been confirmed by coaches and the front office.

The offensive line also needs a new leader. Ever since John Sullivan was injured, and later replaced, there has been a lack of leadership along the offensive line. Alex Boone is the most outspoken, but like Everson Griffen, I’m not sure that translates into leadership as well among players. It’s difficult to say at this point who the leading candidate is right now.

Defensively, it’s time to move on from the old guard, although I have to say Brian Robison has served the team well as captain, perhaps more than the others.

Top candidates to assume leadership on defense include Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks and Linval Joseph. It would be nice to see guys like Xavier Rhodes and Anthony Barr step-up as well, but not sure if that’s in the cards for them personality-wise. Harrison Smith could use to be more vocal, but I think Kendricks is well-suited- and Joseph too- but in different ways.

In any case, it may not be as important who emerges to lead the team on the field, so long as someone emerges to lead the team effectively in key situations on the field and during the season.

Coaching - Offense

While head coach Mike Zimmer was right in faulting himself for not getting the team out of it’s funk after the bye-week, he wasn’t helped by some of the coaches under him during the course of the season.

First among these is offensive line coach Tony Sparano. Granted he had a lot to deal with in terms of injuries, but it says a lot that none of the offensive linemen playing last year had better years this year under his coaching. I also blame Sparano for the Willie Beavers draft pick, as I think he had a lot of say in that 4th round pick who didn’t make the 53-man roster after training camp.

I also blame Sparano for mismanaging the line after the bye-week- switching Clemmings back to the right-side and starting Long way too soon, among other questionable decisions. The fact that the offensive line did so poorly in run-blocking, in addition to it’s more established weakness in pass-protection, also reflects poorly on Sparano.

Beyond that, I don’t see Sparano as a good fit if Pat Shurmur has the ‘interim’ removed from his offensive coordinator title. Sparano is an old-school power-blocking scheme coach, and both personnel, scheme and league-trends point to using more of a zone-blocking scheme. I hope Zimmer won’t take too long in naming a new offensive coordinator - whether Shurmur or someone else- and allowing him to make changes - including getting rid of Sparano. Perhaps Zimmer will do the deed himself beforehand. Either way is fine by me.

Obviously losing Norv Turner shortly after the bye-week didn’t help either, although I tend to agree that his decision to resign may have helped the Vikings offense under the circumstances, knowing Shurmur would likely replace him. Given a poor offensive line, no big deep-threat receivers, and no power-running game, the Vikings were not well-suited to Norv’s Air-Coryell scheme. My guess is that during the bye-week when the coaching staff conducting a self-scouting evaluation, Norv was asked to do some things differently, which he felt unsuited/unable to do. For the most part I think Shurmur did a good job picking up the reins half-way through the season, but that also created some stress on the offense that was already near the bottom of the league in production.

Looking at the other offensive position coaches, I’m more indifferent to skeptical of their value. George Stewart, long-time wide-receivers coach, and generally very well thought of, can claim some success in the emergence of Adam Thielan this year, and perhaps even Cordarrelle Patterson’s improvement, but in both cases that development has been slow. Stefon Diggs last year seemed like a feather in Stewart’s cap, but now this year that development seemed a little stalled. And first-round pick Laquon Treadwell an obvious disappointment. Is it time for new blood at wide receivers coach? Maybe so.

New Running Back coach Kevin Stefanski is a decided ‘meh’ after a season with a seemingly franchise record low rushing game (not sure if that’s true, but it seems like it) even given the weak line. Stefanski was TE coach for two years prior to this year, which saw TE production decidedly ‘meh’ as well.

Not sure as well what quality control Andrew Janocko brings to the offense either. I think Scott Turner has done a good job as QB coach, but he may be out-of-place under a new offensive coordinator, and he may go where Norv goes, if Norv doesn’t retire.

In any case, a naming a new offensive coordinator and allowing him to choose his position coaches may bring welcome changes to the offensive across-the-board.

Coaching - Defense

Defensively, while Mike Zimmer has two good position coaches in Andre Patterson (defensive line) and Jerry Grey (defensive backs), I’m increasingly wondering what Adam Zimmer and, to a lesser extent George Edwards, brings to the table. Both would be difficult to replace- for different reasons. Obviously Adam Zimmer is the head coaches’ son, so there’s that, and George Edwards knows Zimmer’s system better than most, having worked with him so long in the past. Be that as it may, I’m not sure Adam Zimmer is getting the most out of Anthony Barr to be sure, and other LBs seem not to have developed much this year too. It would also be nice to see a stronger defensive coordinator that could assume a little more of Mike Zimmer’s role as effective defensive-coordinator. Bottom-line, there seems like there could be a better coaching structure on the defensive side of the ball to some extent, although you could also say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But having more capable leadership other than Zimmer on the defensive side could help ease the burden on Zimmer to be more of a head coach.

Front Office

Some disagree, but I think GM Rick Spielman deserves a lot of credit for making the Bradford trade- even Executive of the Year or whatever they call that. Bradford had easily the best year of his career, with personal bests for completion % (NFL record), ANY/A, QB rating (6th best), QBR, yards passing, and INT % (2nd best). He also made it through the season without missing a game due to injury, which he’s only done in 3 of his 6 seasons in the league so far. And all this behind a terrible offensive line. Just think what he could have done behind an average line? Or even a good one?

Obviously Spielman didn’t spend a first- and a fourth-round pick for an 8-8 record and no playoff birth, but US Bank stadium’s debut would have been much worse behind Shaun Hill, and so would the Vikings record. Be that as it may, it wasn’t Bradford who held the Vikings back this year, and he may become a capable, veteran fixture at QB that could help the Vikings offense climb back to respectable or better, given some improvements in his supporting cast - particularly the offensive line. Ultimately the Vikings will get back a good deal of their draft capital if Teddy Bridgewater comes back strong, as either QB would be worthy of a top draft pick when the time is right to part ways with one of them. And if Bridgewater isn’t able to come back strong, then the trade for Bradford will allow the Vikings to not skip a beat, rather than have to start yet again from scratch at the most important position in professional sports.

Beyond that, this past draft may not have been Spielman’s best, but the last few have been pretty good overall, and he did succeed in picking up some additional picks for this coming draft, which will be all the more valuable given the loss of the first-round pick.

Noteworthy Player Performance

Overall, it wasn’t a good year for Vikings’ first-round draft picks. Teddy Bridgewater was lost before the season started. Adrian Peterson played a little over a game and a half and was unimpressive before being injured the rest of the year. Sharrif Floyd and Matt Kalil the same. Anthony Barr took a step backward in his development, and Laquon Treadwell hardly played at all.

That’s a lot of draft stock, and a lot of salary cap, not contributing much to the team.

Even Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes missed some games, but otherwise played at a very high level. Cordarrelle Patterson improved at wide receiver, albeit from a very modest level for a first-round pick in his 4th season. Trae Waynes was uneven, but not without promise, after his second season.

Add to that the first-round rentals the Vikings acquired this year- Andre Smith and Jake Long- who both made quick additions to the scrap heap- and the first round gloom was nearly complete. The one significant exception: Sam Bradford.

Beyond the general first round gloom, there were some positive performances though. Adam Thielan broke through at wide receiver. So did Kyle Rudolph. Xavier Rhodes proved he can compete as a near shut-down corner against top competition, and Kai Forbath didn’t miss a FG after replacing Blair Walsh (although he missed 3 extra points). Jeff Locke wasn’t the worst punter in the league, for the first time in his career, so that’s a plus.

Terrence Newman proved he can still play at a high level at age 38, as did Joe Berger at age 34. In fact, the two oldest starters were also the two highest rated players on their side of the ball, according to PFF. So much for it being a young man’s league.

And yet the youngest player on the team getting significant snaps- Danielle Hunter- also continued to show his superstar potential, with consistently solid performance against run and pass, and finished tied for 3rd in the league with 12.5 sacks.

Overall on defense, with the notable exceptions of Anthony Barr (43.1) and Shamar Stephen (41.7), Brian Robison (46.1) and Chad Greenway (48.5), the Vikings starters on defense rated 75 or higher, with most 80 or higher. Clearly Anthony Barr was the biggest negative surprise on defense this year, as Robison and Greenway’s performance was somewhat expected given their age. Stephen was a step backward though too, particularly against the run.

The defense finished 3rd in yards allowed per game, and 6th in points allowed, making it overall a top 5 defense for the second straight year. Opponent passer rating dropped from 89 last year to 83 this year- 4th in the league.

The team finished tied for 4th overall in turnover differential - the only team in the top 6 not to make the playoffs.

The offense finished 28th in the league in yards per game, and 23rd in points per game, and 28th in yards per play, once again languishing near the bottom of the league in offensive production. Passing yards per game improved notably over last year, moving up to #17 from #31 the previous year.

The Vikings offense continued to disappoint in the red zone, scoring TDs on only 46% of red zone opportunities (28th in the league). Sack percentage, interestingly, was down to 6% (still 23rd in the league) from 9% in 2015-16. Given the state of the offensive line, I’d attribute that to Bradford getting the ball out faster than Bridgewater.

But by far the biggest disappointment came in the running game, which went from #4 in the league to dead last this year. 12% of Vikings rushing attempts were stuffs (#28 in the league) and the Vikings rush yards per attempt was also dead last at 3.2 yards per carry.

Division Record & Post Bye-Week Collapse

Tough to win the division going 2-4. Even tougher to make the playoffs going 2-8 over the 10 games following the bye-week.

Following the bye week, the Vikings offense (as opposed to defense and special teams) only managed to score over 20 points once in 9 games, and averaged only 14.5 points per game. Even including special teams and defensive scores, the Vikings only averaged just over 16 points a game during that stretch.

Meanwhile, the defense weakened some as well, particularly against the Colts and Green Bay, but also giving away key drives late in games that proved decisive. In part that can be attributed to offensive inefficiency wearing down the defense, but also the inability at times for the defense to close out the game.

But at the end of the day, it’s hard to make the playoffs with a losing division record. No team made the playoffs this year with a losing division record. Had the Vikings gone 4-2 instead of 2-4 against NFC North opponents, they’d be in the playoffs.

But losing 3 games to Detroit and Chicago, along with a 34-6 blowout at home to the mediocre Colts, really cost the Vikings their season. Even ignoring the Colts disaster, had they taken care of Detroit and Chicago and prevailed against the Cowboys at home, instead of suffering a narrow defeat, they’d be the #1 seed in the NFC playoff tournament - resting for a week, instead of the rest of the winter.