We all know the offensive line has been the weak link for the Vikings the past couple years. Mike Zimmer fired Jeff Davidson after last season, and newcomer Tony Sparano has been anything but effective.
Granted there were injuries, but even the healthy players regressed generally, and guys you’d hope would benefit from a year under their belt- like TJ Clemmings- who has prototypical size, length and athleticism for a LT- struggled immensely with his technique. And as a unit the offensive line also struggled in their assignments and working together as a group to keep Bradford clean. More than that, there was a general regression in run blocking efficiency leading to the worst running game in the league- down from 4th best the previous year.
Clearly this position group is in urgent need of attention, and once again should be the main focus during the off-season.
But before we go looking for available free-agents, draft picks, who to keep, and who to let go, let’s start with perhaps the most important factor in turning this position group around: the coach.
Tony Sparano Needs to Go
Clearly Tony Sparano is not getting it done. Among his questionable decisions- drafting of Willie Beavers in the 4th round only to have him not make the 53-man roster; starting Jake Long before he was ready, switching Clemmings to RT in the process mid-season - which may have been the biggest factor behind the Vikings skid after the bye-week. Andre Smith was awful throughout training camp but still given the starting job. In addition, guys like Fusco have not gotten back to the level they played at, despite returning to their former position and being healthy, and TJ Clemmings did no better this year despite having a year under his belt. In fact he may have done worse- if that’s possible. And despite having plenty of competition along the line, only Boone and Berger played reasonably well this year, which isn’t saying much for Sparano as they are both well established veterans. Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles were uneven at best, and Matt Kalil never looked good before bowing out to injury.
Beyond Sparano’s lack of effective coaching, he’s more of a power-scheme guy that fit better with Norv’s offense, and not necessarily the current offensive line players. He needs to go.
The Case for Bill Callahan
Clearly there is a need for new players along the Vikings offensive line, but they’re not all going to be expensive free-agents- and let’s face it the best one’s are re-signed with a few exceptions. In any case, Spielman is not gonna go on a spending spree for cast-off offensive linemen when there are a lot of top players coming to the end of their rookie deals in the coming years that the Vikings want to keep. And Bradford will need to get paid too. So, as always, there is a need to develop young talent and make it productive.
Enter Bill Callahan.
Like Mike Zimmer, Callahan is 60, and has been coaching for nearly 40 years. They both grew up in Illinois too. Pretty much everywhere he’s coached offensive line, he’s turned it into a top unit in short order.
His first FBS gig was at Wisconsin as offensive line coach, where Barry Alverez cited him as a big reason why the Badgers were able to turn their program around and win 3 Rose Bowls in the 1990s.
He’s been in the NFL about 20 years or so, took the Raiders to the Super Bowl his first year as head coach back in 2002, but more recently worked as offensive line coach for the Jets, producing 3 Pro Bowl offensive linemen in each of his first two seasons there- 2008-2009.
After his third season with the Jets, he moved to Dallas in 2012, and basically made the Cowboys offensive line what it is today, developing Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zach Martin into All-Pros by 2014. He had been offensive coordinator there, but was stripped of his play-calling duties and later left to join the Redskins as offensive line coach in 2015.
Four of the five Redskins’ starting offensive linemen have PFF ratings of 80 or higher this year.
Interestingly, when Callahan got to the Cowboys, he moved from a power- to a zone-blocking scheme. When he arrived in Washington, he went from a zone- to a power-blocking scheme - in each case adapting scheme to suit his players. Here is a good comparison of zone vs. power blocking schemes.
Like coach Mike Zimmer on the defensive side of the ball, Callahan is a teacher- exactly the type of coach Zimmer prefers. He is meticulous in his preparation schedule and practices, and very detail oriented. He has been said to be the best offensive line coach in the league- and certainly he has the track record to back it up.
This quote is from Callahan, but it could have come from Zimmer as well:
“Coaching is teaching, I’ve never looked at it as anything but teaching — especially with linemen, because there are so many intricacies and so many variables that have to be detailed.
Callahan’s resume is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to fixing the Vikings offensive line. He has the track record, and he is the type of coach Mike Zimmer likes - a teacher.
“You have to teach skills. You have to take five guys and get ’em to play together. And you have to get ’em focused and bring confidence and toughness out of them. That’s what Bill has been noted for.”
So How Can the Vikings Acquire Callahan?
Well, Callahan is under-contract with the Redskins for another year, and reportedly is well-paid and not unhappy. So getting him to leave won’t be easy.
But the Vikings do have something that could entice Callahan- an upgraded job title.
Normally in order to hire away an assistant coach under contract with another team, you have to offer that coach some sort of upgraded coaching position. That could be offensive coordinator, or it could be Assistant Head Coach - but it would have to be something more than offensive line coach, even if that were his primary responsibility.
I suspect Callahan would get on well with Mike Zimmer, and hopefully Pat Shurmur as well. Both Callahan and Shurmur are West Coast Offense guys, and I suspect if Callahan was brought on board, he may oversee the offensive line and running game, while Shurmur may be QB coach and call plays. A similar structure to how Zimmer runs the defense between him and George Edwards in some respects- goofy, but if it works on defense...
Having a top 5 defense, and now a top QB, a new state-of-the-art stadium with, you know, a decent field, and a more competent owner and GM situation... a good offer could bring him to Minnesota.
I can’t think of a better addition to the coaching staff, or a better cure for ails the Vikings offense.
Now, Mr. Spielman and Mr. Zimmer- go out and get him.