Head coaches can be more difficult to evaluate - there aren’t so many stats or objective measures to go by - other than the all important win-loss record. But sometimes a mediocre coach can be helped by an elite quarterback, or an otherwise good coach hamstrung by a poor one, or a rash of injuries, or poor organization. Bill Belichick went 36-44 over his first five years as a head coach in Cleveland before winning 74% of his games and six Super Bowls over 19 years with Tom Brady in New England.
Mike Zimmer has done somewhat better than Belichick in his first five seasons as head coach, but what happens from here remains to be seen.
Defensive Master and Trusted Leader...
When Mike Zimmer came to town five years ago, he brought with him as impressive a resume as a defensive coordinator as any coach in the NFL. He had coached, coordinated and called the defensive plays for top defenses in Dallas and Cincinnati over many years, and developed many Pro Bowl caliber players along the way.
Since he’s been in Minnesota, he’s only cemented his reputation in that regard, installing his scheme, coaching up his players and forging the Vikings into a top defensive unit in short order, where they’ve remained ever since - and earning his players’ respect in the process.
The Vikings defensive ranking in points allowed went from #32 (last) in league rankings in 2013, to #11 in 2014 (Zimmer’s first season), to #5 in 2015, to #6 in 2016, to #1 in 2017, and #9 last season. So basically top 10 or better since he came to town.
...But Offensive Bystander
And yet for all Zimmer has built on the defensive side, the offense has remained inconsistent, as has his year-to-year win-loss record- fluctuating alternatively between roughly .500 and double-digit wins each year.
Zimmer has largely let his offensive coordinators run the offense with a free hand, while he tends the defense - where his knowledge lies. But when the offense struggled, that led to the exodus of two offensive coordinators (in mid-season) in three years. Add to that the loss of a third offensive coordinator to a head coaching job, along with perennial changes at quarterback, and the lack of continuity on offense has been substantial.
While Zimmer can’t be blamed for the injuries that led to most of the QB changes since he became head coach, the disconnects with his offensive coordinators - leading to parting ways with Norv Turner and John DeFilippo in mid-season - can be. Those disconnects were a leading cause in both of Zimmer’s regressive seasons as head coach.
Mike Zimmer hired John DeFilippo shortly after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. He met with him on the following Thursday and his hire was announced the next day. At the time Zimmer said:
“We took our time with the search and made sure we left no stone unturned to get the right fit. He has a track record of success and has proven to be a great teacher. We feel John will have good chemistry with our team and we are all eager to get to work.”
DeFilippo had become a hot prospect based on his help improving Carson Wentz’s performance from his (disappointing) rookie year to spectacular 2nd year. His only previous experience as an offensive coordinator was a one-year stint in Cleveland, going 3-13 in 2015. DeFilippo’s offense ranked 27th in rushing attempts that year, running the ball about 38% of the time.
Early in the season, after the loss to Buffalo week three, a rift between Zimmer and DeFilippo was beginning to open as Zimmer wanted to run the ball more, as reported by SI in their season-long story of the Vikings last year.
But then following the win over the Eagles, with the Vikings ranked 31st in rushing yards, and averaging 16 rushing attempts over the previous four games (Packers, Bills, Rams, Eagles) and a 1-2-1 record, Zimmer said:
“I don’t really care about statistics. I just want to get wins. I don’t care how we do it. Obviously, I have a philosophy, but we have to do what we have to do to win football games. If you watch some of these teams have been great throughout the years, they may throw it 60 times per game, then they may run 50 times per game. Whatever we have to do to win the football game is really what is important to me.”
But later in the season- following the bye week- Zimmer changed again. He said several times during a crucial stretch of games that he wanted to run the ball more. And yet except for the home Packers game (the only win), the Vikings once again averaged only 16 rushing attempts over the three other games (Bears, Patriots, Seahawks) before DeFilippo was fired.
Zimmer’s re-prioritizing his philosophy of wanting to run the ball on offense, which he had done and expressed in previous years - seemed to have led to the disconnect with DeFilippo - who hadn’t changed much in his play calling - and ultimately to his firing.
But DeFilippo’s play-calling shouldn’t have been a surprise to Zimmer, based on his track record.
In 2015, when DeFilippo was calling plays in Cleveland as offensive coordinator, the Browns ranked 27th in the league in rushing attempts- about 38% of their total offensive plays.
In 2018, with DeFilippo calling plays for 13 games, the Vikings finished.... wait for it... 27th in the league in rushing attempts- about 37% of their total plays.
After last season, reflecting on the John DeFilippo hiring, Zimmer had this to say:
“I’ve learned a lot about the questions, the interview process, about things that I should probably do a lot better than I did. Hopefully I’ll do better this next time. I don’t think I asked enough questions as far as what we were trying to get done.”
This contrasted rather sharply his ‘no stone left unturned to get the right fit’ and ‘track record of success’ comments after he hired DeFilippo.
With Norv Turner, who Zimmer hired in 2014 as his first offensive coordinator, the break came during the 2016 season, after seven games and a 5-0 start. The exact circumstances for Turner’s resignation are still not entirely clear, but Turner said:
“Mike and I just had different ideas about what we needed to do and how we needed to do it. It wasn’t going to work, so I removed myself from it.”
Zimmer said he was very surprised by Turner’s resignation. It had been reported that around the bye-week two weeks earlier Zimmer had asked Turner to make some changes- presumably based on how the offense had run since injuries began to mount on the offensive line, along with injuries to Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson. Changes Turner apparently wasn’t willing or able to make.
In both cases, rather than be more consistently engaged with the offense, as most head coaches are, Zimmer was not that involved in the offensive game plan until things started going south. At that point he called for changes that were not made, which led to parting ways with his offensive coordinator and disappointing seasons.
Zimmer has said, beginning in the 2017 off-season, that he would be more actively involved in the offense. But as the defensive play-caller and de facto defensive coordinator, Zimmer has also acknowledged he doesn’t have the time to be that active with the offense, particularly during games. A couple weeks before he fired DeFilippo, he acknowledged he needed to “do a better job” monitoring the offense.
He went on to say:
“Maybe letting George do a little bit more of the adjustments on defense, maybe, but I don’t know; I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “When things are going smooth (on defense), it’s no issue. Then I can go talk to the offense all I want. When things are helter skelter on defense, I’m spending a little bit more time with them, or with the special teams.”
Zimmer has been contemplating handing play-calling duties to defensive coordinator George Edwards for at least a couple years now, but has never done so except for the game he missed against Dallas in 2016.
The Kubiak Solution
So far this off-season, Zimmer doesn’t appear to be any more involved in the offense than other years, nor has he made any commitment to giving George Edwards play-calling duties so he can spend more time monitoring the offense, particularly during games.
What he’s done instead is to hire Gary Kubiak to take on those duties, over-seeing offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Advisor.
And maybe that’s the best solution, given Zimmer’s more limited knowledge/interest on offense. It also makes sense because Gary Kubiak also has a well known track record for running the ball, and philosophy that seems to be a good fit with Zimmer’s.
In the past Zimmer has shown a preference for older coaches, and former head coaches, on the offensive side of the ball. Norv Turner, Tony Sparano and Pat Shurmur all fit that bill. Gary Kubiak is another.
Only this time, rather than be the offensive coordinator or a position coach, Kubiak will run his scheme, game plan, and assist Kevin Stefanski in play-calling. Similar in most respects to what Mike Zimmer does on defense.
Overall this type of dual-structure is somewhat unorthodox, but not unworkable with the right people. The key is finding someone both good at their side of the ball, and who shares a similar philosophy as the head coach, and not looking to be head coach themselves.
Gary Kubiak looks to be a very good fit in that regard, if not a godsend to fix Zimmer’s blindspot on offense.
While Gary Kubiak may be just the solution Zimmer needs on offense, other challenges remain if the Vikings are to win a Super Bowl under him.
Motivation and Leadership
One struggle head coaches face every year is developing the motivation and for his team to persevere through a season of adversity. Before the season began last year, Mike Zimmer had this to say about his team:
“You’re going to be awfully proud of them in February.”
It was noteworthy from a coach who normally avoids speculation along those lines.
But at the season-ending press conference in January, Zimmer said the team had a different vibe in 2018:
“Quite honestly, this football team through the four years I’ve been here, had that nasty, we’re-going-to-win-regardless-of-what-the-situation-is mentality. I don’t know if we had it this year. … A year ago, I felt like we had a big chip on our shoulder. This year, I don’t know that that chip was there. We’re going to get it back.”
Zimmer said he has a plan to get it back this season, but apparently didn’t have one last season, when he first discovered it. As a long-time coach in the NFL, and in his fifth year as a head coach last season, you’d think Zimmer would have a some sort of plan/system/culture/mantra to instill motivation in his team and players when it’s lacking, as most successful head coaches have. Most don’t depend on motivational speeches, but have developed a culture that motivates. For Bill Belichick, it’s simply the ‘just do your job’ mantra. For Bill Parcells, it was more in your face motivation to challenge his players. And for Bud Grant, whose calm, confident and stoic demeanor was legendary, he developed a culture where players simply didn’t want to disappoint him.
Mike Zimmer has a well-deserved reputation for straight-talk, which earns players respect, along with his knowledge and success as a defensive coach and coordinator. He also has a reputation for good sense as a coach whether a few quiet words with a player, or more of a kick in the butt is the right way to get them on track.
But what may have hurt Zimmer’s reputation as a head coach last year, and his ability to motivate and lead them, may come down to this last point.
Outwitting the Best
Mike Zimmer’s best season as a coach - 2017 - ended ingloriously in a 38-7 blowout in the NFC championship. The Vikings had the best defense in the league, and the Eagles the second-best. But after the Vikings went up 7-0 to open the game, the Eagles adjusted on defense. Meanwhile, on offense, head coach Doug Pederson came up with a game plan that exposed Zimmer’s tendency to crowd the line to gain with defensive backs on 3rd down, among other things. That led to Xavier Rhodes to call out, “We’re getting schemed,” during the game - something apparent to most observers.
After the game- and season- was over, Zimmer admitted:
“I could have made some better calls. Sometimes when you’re sticking with things and it’s been successful for you, you continue to do it and maybe I did it a little bit too long.”
So by sticking with his tendencies, he became predictable and Doug Pederson came up with a game plan to beat them. And when a game plan works, it energizes the team, while the team being ‘schemed,’ as Xavier Rhodes put it, gets demoralized.
Zimmer lost that chess match, and with it perhaps some of the confidence he had earned as a defensive mastermind among his players.
Earlier in that 2017 season, Zimmer faced off against Sean McVay, new head coach of the LA Rams and leading new offensive guru. Zimmer had learned that McVay often communicated defensive reads for his young QB until the helmet mic was cut-off 15 seconds before the play clock ran out. Knowing that, Zimmer created confusion by moving players around pre-snap, making it difficult for McVay to give him the right read, and continuing to do so after the 15 second mark. That confused Jared Goff, and helped in holding the Rams, who led the league in scoring that year, to only 7 points. Zimmer won that chess match.
But facing the Rams and McVay again early in 2018, Zimmer found himself being out dueled by McVay - who had designed some mismatches against Vikings linebackers in coverage. That led to 28 points in the first half en route to a 38-31 victory for the Rams. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks gave up over 200 yards receiving between them, while Barr gave up 3 TDs in coverage as well.
Following that game, Zimmer said he had introduced some new things for the defense that were proving too complicated, and vowed to simplify the defense going forward.
And so he did, and for the most part no other game got away from him defensively after that. The defense gave up an average of 19.25 points per game after the Rams game week four, whereas it had given up 27.5 points per game over the first four weeks.
But the question remains, if the Vikings are to make it all the way to the Super Bowl and win it, can Zimmer always win the chess match - particularly in big games and in the playoffs - or at least fight to a draw in that regard?
Being able to make adjustments quickly is a part of winning the chess match, as well as going against tendencies and good opposition research and game planning. Zimmer has said that in a typical game, during the first quarter you execute your game plan, and the 2nd and 3rd quarters you make adjustments, and the 4th quarter you go back to what worked best.
But if you’re slow in your adjustments or the other team anticipates what you may go back to in the fourth quarter, you leave yourself open to counters that can cost you.
Zimmer is fortunate now to have a very experienced team on defense, with nearly everyone having played in his system for many years now. They communicate with him what they see on the field, and often know the adjustments to make themselves. All this makes it easier for Zimmer to recognize and react quickly.
But at the end of the day, it’s up to Zimmer to make those adjustments, and keep the opposing offense guessing, rather than anticipating, what he’ll do. Especially in key games - and in the post-season. So far he’s 1-2 in the post-season, with a fluke loss at home, blow-out loss on the road, and miracle win at home. That’s a pretty shaky post-season record, suggesting Zimmer still has some work to do when it comes to preparing and coaching his team in the post-season.
Firing on Every Cylinder
Mike Zimmer has had the advantage of a strong organization, and now a top roster, around him. He’s also suffered from some growing pains as a head coach, and key injuries that have derailed progress at times. He’s also struggled with continuity on offense, and not being as involved in the offensive side of things - which makes it more difficult to solve problems when they arise.
He may have a solution to his offensive issues in Gary Kubiak, which may also keep him more focused on defense and game management during games, while (hopefully) leaving him with less to worry about during the course of the season.
Hopefully that will give him the time he needs to provide the motivation and gamesmanship to put his team in position to win more consistently - and become a perennial Super Bowl favorite - and champion.
But putting it all together - solid roster, coaching, organization, culture - and firing on every cylinder - has eluded him at times in the past. This season will be a key one for Zimmer to prove he has what it takes to win it all. Another misfire like last season could be fatal to his head coaching career, so the time is now for Zimmer to show he can do it.