As the Vikings progress through OTAs, Mike Zimmer begins his fifth year as head coach. A lot has happened over the last four years, most of them good. Let’s take a look back at how the Vikings have progressed under Zimmer, the changes, the good and bad, and what’s yet to be done.
Taking Over From Leslie Frazier
When Mike Zimmer took over from Leslie Frazier following the 2013 season, the Vikings defense was ranked worst in the league in points allowed and second-worst in yards allowed. There were some key injuries that contributed to that (Harrison Smith was lost for the last half of the season, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson and Chad Greenway were dealing with injuries as well and missed games), but there was also a defeated air as the season went on after a 1-7 start, Frazier’s status in doubt, morale poor, and any post-season hopes having died early on.
There was talent on the defensive roster, but Frazier’s Tampa-2 scheme was outdated, coaching was questionable, and a few key players- Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, and Chad Greenway - were all on the down-slope of their careers. Add to that the play-caller on defense - Erin Henderson - was showing up drunk to practices and nothing was done.
Offensively, the Christian Ponder experiment had ended in failure, the receiving corps consisted of a has-been and a few never-had-beens, and Matt Kalil began his fall from grace. There was Adrian Peterson and a couple good linemen, all of which had one more good season left with the Vikings as it turned out, but not much else.
That left a lot of rebuilding. Even the Vikings stadium needed rebuilding, as the Metrodome (aka Mall of America Field) was demolished beginning three days after Mike Zimmer was hired.
Rebuilding the Defense
And so Mike Zimmer had his work cut-out for him. Fortunately he brought some good people with him to help, particularly on the defensive side: DL Coach Andre Patterson and DB Coach Jerry Gray. George Edwards became effectively the Asst Defensive Coordinator, and also helped Zimmer’s son coach the Linebackers and help teach/implement Zimmer’s overall scheme and fundamental techniques.
There were also significant roster changes on the defensive side. Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, Erin Henderson, Marvin Mitchell, Jamarca Sanford and Letroy Guion were all gone.
Everson Griffen and Shariff Floyd were promoted. Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes were back from injury. Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn were acquired in free agency. Jasper Brinkley was re-acquired. And Anthony Barr was Zimmer’s first pick in the draft.
Along with the massive overhaul to the coaching staff and defensive roster, Zimmer completely overhauled Frazier’s scheme with his own. It was a huge undertaking.
But after Mike Zimmer’s first season as head coach and de facto defensive coordinator, the Vikings defense went from dead last in points allowed to nearly top 10 - 11th overall - in just one season.
Rebuilding the Offense
Offensively, the rebuilding process did not go as well. Zimmer entrustred long-time offensive coach Norv Turner, an old colleague from his Dallas days, to run the offense while Zimmer focused mainly on defense. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater as the QBOTF. But early on, the offense suffered a major loss as Adrian Peterson was suspended for the rest of the season.
Major personnel losses on offense to begin the season would become a trend that would haunt Zimmer every year since taking over as head coach.
But with Peterson’s loss, and a fledgling Bridgewater learning the ropes, the offense took a step backward in the rankings after Zimmer’s first season, going from 14th to 20th in points, and from 13th to 27th in yards. Passing yards went from 23rd with Ponder to 28th with Bridgewater. Without AP, rushing yards went from 8th to 14th.
Second Season - More of the Same
The 2015 season, Zimmer’s second as head coach, had the same theme as his first: the defense got better, the offense not so much.
The Vikings had what has turned into an excellent draft, picking Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter with their first three picks, and Stefon Diggs in the fifth round. They picked up has-been Mike Wallace to replace has-been Greg Jennings at WR in free agency. They also acquired Terence Newman to bolster their defensive secondary while Trae Waynes learned the ropes.
Once again, a couple of key injuries were suffered early on- this time before the season started- as both center John Sullivan and right-tackle Phil Loadholt suffered season-ending injuries in training camp.
The defense improved from 11th to 5th in points allowed. The offense improved to 16th from 20th in points, with the return of AP and TB in his 2nd year, but nevertheless total yards dropped to 29th in the league. Despite that, Zimmer took a last place NFC North team to his first NFC North division title in just two seasons, going 11-5 before losing his first playoff game as head coach on a fluke missed 20-odd yard field goal to end the game.
Third Season - Still More of the Same
After the 2015-16 season, Zimmer decided on some coaching changes on the offensive side- letting OL coach Jeff Davidson go and bringing in former head coach and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to coach the OL. He also brought in former head coach and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as TE coach. While not much was made of either move at the time - perhaps some speculation that Shurmur could be in-line to replace Turner when he retired - in retrospect it seems likely that it was Zimmer’s move to introduce some new thinking into the offensive scheme. That may have been something of a shot across the bow for Norv Turner, who had been operating basically his version of the Air-Coryell scheme throughout his NFL coaching career. Zimmer continued to express his support for Turner, but also mentioned that both Shurmur and Sparano brought experience with them and would share their input with Turner. At the same time, Zimmer began to participate more in the offensive meetings.
But the 2016 season began in familiar fashion for Zimmer - with a major injury on offense. This time is was QB Teddy Bridgewater, who suffered what might have been a career-ending knee injury at the end of training camp, and effectively ended his career as franchise QBOTF for the Vikings as it turned out.
Rick Spielman scrambled to find a decent starting quarterback days before the regular season began, coughing up a 1st and 4th round draft pick - having no negotiating leverage given the timing - to the Eagles for Sam Bradford.
It looked like a great move early on- the Vikings went 5-0 to start the season with Bradford at the helm.
But this time the injuries didn’t stop. Adrian Peterson was lost after the first game. Guard Mike Harris was lost before the season began. Mike Kalil after two games. Then Andre Smith. Jake Long came and went on IR. Shariff Floyd was lost early on defense. But all those OL injuries took their toll, and following the 5-0 start, the Vikings offense was unable to score more than 20 points in 6 of the following 7 games, ultimately leading to an 8-8 finish after a 5-0 start.
The other thing that contributed to the failing season was Norv Turner. Shortly following the week 5 bye-week, typically a time of self-scouting for coaches, Turner unexpectedly resigned. It was never really clear what led to his resignation, but Turner mentioned at one point that he was being asked to do something he wasn’t able to do. That may have been to make adjustments to his scheme. We will never really know for sure, unless Zimmer or Turner opens up more about that period. In any case, it would not have been a surprise for Zimmer to call for changes- as injuries to AP and most of the OL made it difficult to run Turner’s scheme. Zimmer himself is known as an innovator, so perhaps that was what he was looking for on offense.
It may also be why Zimmer chose Pat Shurmur to succeed Turner. Shurmur had been OC under Chip Kelly, who was an innovator on offense, and was otherwise a west coast offense guy, which would eventually bring a new scheme to the Vikings offense. He also was familiar with Sam Bradford- the Vikings had consulted him prior to signing Bradford - who was under contract for another year and the presumed starter.
Fourth Season - Finally Hitting on All Cylinders
Entering the off-season, improving the offense was once again a focal point. Pat Shurmur now had the off-season to install his scheme. Sam Bradford had an off-season to get up-to-speed. The Vikings parted ways with Adrian Peterson, and ended up drafting his replacement and arguably the best running back in the draft in Dalvin Cook - in the second round.
But the glaring weakness for the Vikings- for some time now- was their offensive line, and with Matt Kalil deciding to move on in search of excellence, Rick Spielman acquired Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency. He paid market price for a couple of mediocre offensive tackles, which was also overpaying when it comes to value for money.
They weren’t huge upgrades- as it turned out- but combined with 3rd round draft pick Pat Elflien, Nick Easton and Rashod Hill, they managed to stop the bleeding along the offensive line- with a lot of help from a surprisingly elusive Case Keenum.
And so everything finally began to gel for Zimmer on both sides of the ball.
But not before yet another major injury early on. Once again, Zimmer lost his starting QB. This time Sam Bradford - once again for the season as it turned out. And once again Zimmer lost his star running back early on- this time Dalvin Cook to an ACL injury week four.
But this time, Pat Shurmur was able to roll with the punches - with massive help from backup Case Keenum who, like Bradford the year before, had a career year. Rick Spielman had picked him up for $2 million in an afterthought about this time last year to shore up the backup QB spot. Shurmur was adept at adapting scheme to personnel, but was also helped compared to years past by having better personnel to work with. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs proved to be the best receiving duo in the league, while Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray were able to pick up the slack for the loss of Dalvin Cook.
Overall, the offense made massive improvements- despite the injuries - going from 23rd in the league in the prior season in points to 10th. Total yards improved massively in the league rankings as well- going from 28th to 11th in just one season - and with a backup QB. The offense also went from 18th in the league on 3rd down to 3rd best, and from 28th in the league in the red zone to 9th best.
But while the Vikings offense may have come away last season as the most improved, the Vikings defense did even better - becoming the top ranked defense in the league in both points and yards allowed. Mike Zimmer had never achieved that as head coach or defensive coordinator prior to last year. They were also the best defense on 3rd down since Zimmer first came into the NFL, and 3rd best in the red zone.
Aaron Rodgers, prior to facing the Vikings in the game he got injured, had this to say about Mike Zimmer’s defense:
“They got great players. You know when you got a great pass rush, you got one of the top linebacker duos in the league, and you got a lock-down corner on one side, and two other really talented corners, and two great safeties... you know the window is already small in the red zone... so you’re talking about a great defense, small windows, execution is at an absolute premium- and teams haven’t been able to do it against ‘em.”
This is a good challenge for us, every time we play against a Mike Zimmer defense, because he’s a fantastic coach- and now we see that with the kind of players they got- guys who’ve been there four, five, six years now in the scheme. You look at their youngest guy, playing on the back end is Trae, and I think this is his third year, but you got T. New who’s been there forever, you got Xavier in his fifth year I believe, you have Sendejo and Harrison, sixth and seventh year respectively- that’s the kind of defense he wants. These guys have been in the scheme so long, they know each other’s body language, they have their own calls... this is an extremely, extremely intelligent defense.”
- Aaron Rodgers 10/11/17
Those improvements on 3rd down and in the red zone - on both sides of the ball - did not happen by chance. Last off-season and in training camp, Zimmer focused on those two key situations, spending a lot of time in practice to improve. And it paid off handsomely.
All that resulted in a Vikings team with the best offensive rankings since Favre’s first season with the Vikings, and the best defense since the Purple People Eaters of the 70s, and the Vikings best record since Randy Moss’ rookie year of 1998.
But the post-season was something of a let down. For the second time in as many playoff games as a head coach, it came down to a fluke play - this time going in Zimmer’s favor. Advancing to the NFC Championship, however, Zimmer quite frankly got out-coached. Zimmer didn’t vary defensively from the film the Eagles coaching staff had studied, and the Eagles had game-planned for it. Offensively after the Vikings scored the first touchdown, the Eagles changed their coverage and the Vikings struggled thereafter. Losing 38-7 to a team roughly equal in talent, and without the benefit of a lot of fluky plays and turnovers, and in a game in which the Vikings were favored going in, often means you were out-coached. And that was the case in Philadelphia.
Zimmer’s Come A Long Way in Four Seasons
Four years ago, Mike Zimmer inherited the worst defense in the NFL. It is now the best defense in the NFL. That has come primarily from continuity, good drafting and development- and a few key free agent signings- since Zimmer became head coach. There have been few missteps and disappointments in the development of the defense from worst to first, and those have been minor and have been overcome in time.
He also inherited an offense in serious need of an influx of talent in the passing game. Through trial and error in coaching, draft picks, and free agents, and working through key injuries, that talent has been acquired and/or developed at the skill positions. Coaching improved mostly, and the liability of the offensive line mitigated.
Special teams have also been generally good throughout Zimmer’s tenure, and last year PFF ranked the Vikings special teams unit, under Mike Priefer, as the best in the league as well. The number one ranking, in this case, is a tribute to special teams coaching and players outside the punter and kicker as much as those two key specialist positions, as it came largely on the strength of return coverage, rather than big returns or an All-Pro kicker.
Mike Zimmer deserves most of the credit for the fast development of the Vikings defense from worst to first. He developed the scheme, oversaw it’s installation, and helped coach players in their technique and knowledge of the finer points. A big part of that credit is also for the coaches he brought with him- Andre Patterson, Jerry Gray and George Edwards in particular. They have done a good job developing the talent under their direction. But Zimmer knew what he wanted to do defensively, the players he needed, and how to get there - and he did it.
Offensively it’s been more of a learning curve for Zimmer, and he’s had to deal with a steady stream of major injuries he has been fortunate to avoid, for the most part, on defense. His luck hasn’t been all bad on offense, however, as he managed to solve his wide receiver talent shortage not with first-round picks or high-priced free agents (which they tried and failed), but with a 5th round pick and a walk-on UDFA. He was also fortunate to get the kind of years he got out of Sam Bradford and especially Case Keenum, without which he’d probably have a .500 record as a head coach.
As it stands, Mike Zimmer has a .600 record as a head coach (.597 to be more precise) including the post season, coming in at 40-27 so far. His regular season winning percentage is .609. That’s the top tier of Vince Lombardi (.738) and John Madden (.759), George Allen (.712), and the next tier of Bill Belichick, Don Shula, Tony Dungy, Paul Brown and George Halas all around .675, and a group including Mike Tomlin, Mike McCarthy, and George Siefert around .645, but also right there with Bill Walsh (.609), Andy Reid (.604) and Tom Landry (.607), and ahead of Bill Parcells (.569) and all the other Vikings coaches except Bud Grant (.621). He’s also won two division crowns in four seasons.
Interestingly, among active head coaches with 50 or more games under their belt, Zimmer’s .609 regular season winning percentage currently ranks 4th in the league - behind Bill Belichick (.679), Mike Tomlin (.659), and Mike McCarthy (.633) - all of which have enjoyed future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks for all, or most of their head coaching tenure (remember Belichick had a stint in Cleveland).
That’s pretty impressive when you consider what Zimmer inherited- rebuilding accounting for a greater part of his tenure compared to active coaches ahead of him- and the quarterbacks he’s had over four years as a head coach - basically three over four years- none of which had a good track record in the NFL before coming to the Vikings.
Makes you wonder where that winning percentage would be with a Hall of Fame QB.
By comparison, Belichick’s head coaching winning percentage prior to Tom Brady was .427, although it was .700 without him once he became the starter in New England. Mike Tomlin’s winning percentage without Ben Roethlisberger is .563. And Mike McCarthy’s winning percentage without Aaron Rodgers is .333.
But all those coaches have enjoyed more post-season success than Zimmer- although with only three games and a 1-2 record, he has a small sample size so far- and each has at least one Super Bowl victory.
But all things considered, Zimmer has done well building the Vikings into a Championship contender from last in the division in just four seasons. He’s gone from 7-9 to 11-5 to 8-8 to 13-3 over those four seasons
Underdog No More - Championship Contender Problems
But having made it to the NFC Championship game last season, and now having assembled one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, there are more advanced coaching issues to tackle, and greater expectations for Zimmer fulfill as head coach.
Chief among those is out-coaching his opponent.
With a young team not familiar with scheme and techniques, or lacking talent in some areas, it is difficult for a head coach to make adjustments and have players execute well.
But with a talented team that can do multiple things well, have worked together for several years, and are well versed in the scheme, adjustments and variants are easier to make and execute. Indeed, failing to extensively game-plan and make adjustments is to throw away big advantages that come with talent and continuity.
On the other hand, undertaking a program of extensive scouting, game-planning, adapting, self-scouting, varying tendencies, and occasional innovation can force opponents to compete at a level most teams are not able to effectively. Even fairly talented teams can struggle if they haven’t played as much together or are not as familiar with their scheme or variations necessary to counter a particular game-plan.
Conversely, less talented teams can beat more talented teams with better coaching and game-plans if the opposing coach doesn’t do as well in his scouting and adjustments.
All this is an area for Mike Zimmer to improve. He’s improved over his four years at the helm, and last year had a couple good games- against the Rams and the Lions on Thanksgiving stand out - but other games he was out-coached as well- the Eagles and Panthers games in particular.
Mike Zimmer has been around long enough where he’s forgot more schemes and play designs than most people know- on both sides of the ball. He also knows well worn tactics like showing a play early in a game only to do something else off the same look later on - and uses them himself. But continuing to scout, game-plan, adapt, self-scout, change, innovate, install and repeat is a never-ending process that requires a good team for him to direct and manage. Optimizing that process, and continuing to get better at it is probably the biggest area of improvement for Zimmer now, as he has done the heavy lifting of building a championship caliber team. It will be difficult for the Vikings to get further than they have without improvement in that area.
The other thing that Zimmer will have to deal with is more of a revolving door when it comes to coaches and players. Apart from quarterback, which hopefully will be more stable going forward, the Vikings roster has been a blessing of continuity for the most part- particularly on defense. Coaching staff too- apart from offensive coordinator most recently.
But that could change going forward, where there is more turnover as the Vikings struggle to keep the players they want to keep, and eventually we see retirements and players on the downside that need to be replaced. And with a successful team, more teams may come calling on coordinators and position coaches with promotion offers. Pat Shurmur and Kevin Stefanski were both approached this off-season, and in the future that may continue, creating more coaching turnover. Getting quality coaches to replace departed ones- players too- is a difficult task, but perhaps less difficult with a more desirable organization - which the Vikings have.
Lastly, Mike Zimmer has to keep the team on task in perhaps a more high profile atmosphere with more distractions. Fortunately the Vikings have assembled not just a very talented team, but also one without any character distractions either. Honestly I can’t think of one guy on the team that brings much baggage with him in the locker room or otherwise. It’s a good thing and helps build and maintain team chemistry, which is important over the course of a grueling season with a lot of adversity. But knowing when to push, and when to ease up, to get the team where it needs to be isn’t always easy either. Zimmer has come a long way in this area from when he first started as head coach, leading to fewer let-down performances and some genuinely impressive stretches, like the month following the bye-week last year.
Going forward, how well Zimmer rises to these challenges- particularly in the post-season- is how he will be judged.
So far, he has done remarkably well forging a last place division team into a championship contender in four years. Implementing scheme and assembling a top roster has been a success, although not without some mistakes and setbacks. Going forward, he’ll need to show he can consistently out-duel his counterpart in the chess match for the Vikings to get to the next level - and potential dynasty if some important pieces gel going forward.
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