One of the primary reasons for the downfall of the 2018 season for the Minnesota Vikings was the play of the offensive line. Week after week, they showed themselves as unable to open holes for the running game and unable to provide adequate time in the passing game. During his season-ending press conference last week, head coach Mike Zimmer fielded several questions about the offensive line, and one specifically about the effect that the sudden passing of offensive line coach Tony Sparano just before the start of the season may have had on the team.
Q: Is it a priority for you to bring someone in that has that mentality and approach like Tony Sparano?
A: Well, that’s part of it, yeah. I really felt like a year ago with the players we had there we had that mentality with the players. I’m not saying things about the offensive line this year, but they were tough guys too. But I think you need that kind of a leader in that room that can help with those things and Tony was very innovative in the running game. Like I said before, he was extremely influential in that room. I used to talk with him every morning. When I’m talking to the defense during the game he would be influential throughout the series offensively and getting them going about what they’re going to do the next series. That was a little bit of a factor. I do think that Clancy [Barone] and Andrew [Janocko] for the situation that they were put in did an unbelievable job. It’s tough. I got that phone call we’re coming back and going to have a kickoff party on Monday. I got that call Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. from Kim [Klawiter] that he [Tony Sparano] passed away, so we’re getting ready to go to training camp in two days. The whole thing was another one of those sections for my book, I guess.
Q: How did you navigate the season without him personally without having that voice and ear of Tony Sparano?
A: The other part that people don’t realize in this job is you get close to people’s families and lives. His wife, I would text her once in a while and see if she’s okay, making sure their family is okay. That’s part of it too, it’s not just about the football even though that’s what everybody wants it to be. Every time you put that pin on that said “TS” you’re thinking about him and things that you miss about him as well. I know the offensive line room was devastated when that happened because they really loved the guy, as did everybody that worked with him. He was a grumpy little Italian guy that was very, very good at his job and a good friend of mine. I think there’s no book on it, on how to do it, but you just got to figure out how to do it the best way and if it works, it works and if it don’t, it don’t.
Now, in some corners of the internet, this is being interpreted as Zimmer using Sparano’s passing as an excuse for the low level of play on the offensive line this season. Such interpretations are, quite frankly, ridiculous. After all, the personnel on the offensive line didn’t change very much, and it’s hard to say how much Sparano’s presence and/or coaching would have changed that.
The bigger effect, quite frankly, probably would have been on Zimmer himself. It was clear that Sparano was someone that he had come to trust, not just as far as the offensive line is concerned, but on other matters based on Sparano’s previous experience as a head coach. While I’m sure that Clancy Barone and Andrew Janocko did everything they could given the circumstances, there are certain aspects of what Sparano brought to the sideline that they weren’t going to be able to replace.
Sparano’s passing wasn’t the first time in Vikings’ history that the team lost an important member of the coaching staff. Following the 1998 season, offensive coordinator Brian Billick moved on to become the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens after the Minnesota offense set records that season. In his place, the Vikings promoted quarterbacks coach Chip Myers to the offensive coordinator spot. Myers was considered an ascending star in the organization, and it was thought that he could have carried on what Billick had started.
However, less than a month after getting the job, and less than a week after he was with the team’s staff scouting prospects in Indianapolis at the Scouting Combine, Myers had a heart attack and passed away at the age of 53.
While the passing of anyone is tragic. . .and I’m in no way attempting to minimize the passing of either Chip Myers or Tony Sparano by saying this. . .the Vikings had plenty of time to make adjustments prior to the start of the 1999 season. They were able to get Ray Sherman, who Myers replaced as the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach when Sherman took the job as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1998, to come back and step into the offensive coordinator job in Minnesota. The team really didn’t have the ability to do that with Sparano, who passed away just days before the start of Training Camp. Again, the team did what they could by promoting internally, but as I mentioned earlier, there were some aspects of what Sparano brought to the table that nobody was going to be able to replace.
The passing of Tony Sparano was, undeniably, a tragic event for the Minnesota Vikings organization, and it had to have been even more so for Mike Zimmer and the coaching staff in particular. But to say that he’s using it as some sort of an excuse is a bit disingenuous. He was asked about it in the season-ending press conference, and he answered the question as thoroughly and truthfully as he could. It’s not as though it was constantly brought up week after week as a reason for the play of the offensive line. The offensive line was bad in 2018 because they were bad. They were bad in August, they were bad in October, and they were bad in December. I don’t ever recall Zimmer. . .or anybody else. . .invoking Sparano’s name as the reason behind that.
Mike Zimmer knows that his primary mission for this offseason. . .again. . .needs to be fixing the offensive line. With that being the case, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him bring in someone similar to Sparano with a lot of experience and cachet to bring to the table. But it’s a bit insulting to say that he’s using the death of his former colleague to excuse the play of the offensive line in 2018.