The Vikings season is over. They’ve officially been eliminated from the playoffs, or put out of their misery, depending on how you look at it. They still have to play out the string next weekend, and there’s probably no more appropriate place to play a meaningless NFL game than at Detroit.
But the way the Vikings played defensively at New Orleans, moving to 6-9, and currently near the bottom in points and yards allowed on the season, likely has more than a handful of Vikings fans raising pitchforks and calling for heads to fill them: Mike Zimmer. Rick Spielman. Kirk Cousins.
After all, Zimmer is supposed to be a defensive guru, and the team is set to finish defensively a lot like 2013, when his predecessor and defensive coach Leslie Frazier was shown the door. Kirk Cousins has failed to make the playoffs in two of his three $84 million guaranteed years. Rick Spielman is responsible for hiring them both. Off with their heads. Clean house. Hire a new coaching staff, GM and scouting staff, draft a new QB with the first pick and turn the page. These guys have been around long enough and have nothing to show for it. Get someone young who knows what they’re doing. Like Robert Saleh - defensive coordinator of the 49ers or Eric Bieniemy - offensive coordinator of the Chiefs. After all, those are the leading head coach candidates on defense and offense. Then draft the next Patrick Mahomes. He went 10th overall, and the Vikings should be picking around that spot. Could trade up like the Chiefs did if needed too. Duh.
Firing Everyone Makes So Much Sense. Until You Dig a Little Deeper.
Since the 49ers injuries began to mount this season, Robert Saleh’s defense has given up 31 points a game, and the 49ers have lost six of their last seven. Not so much different than Mike Zimmer this year- certainly not any better. Saleh has had a top ten defense in points allowed once in the last four years since he became defensive coordinator for the 49ers. Zimmer has done it five straight seasons prior to this one. Is Saleh really a better defensive coach? Or is he just riding the eight first-round pick acquisitions plus Richard Sherman the 49ers have assembled over the past several years?
And who is the genius behind the Chiefs offense? Is it Eric Bieniemy? Is it Andy Reid? Is it Patrick Mahomes? Reid has been the primary play caller, and it is his scheme, while Bieniemy has called plays and is credited, at least in part, for its success. But Patrick Mahomes, along with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, are the playmakers. Andy Reid won only a single playoff game in five seasons with Kansas City before Mahomes became the starting QB. And then of course there is Gary Kubiak, the bird in hand, who has won more Super Bowls as a coach than Reid and Bieniemy, and has coached top ten offenses in 15 of his 23 seasons as offensive coordinator or head coach. Hmmm- is Bieniemy really an upgrade?
But why not draft the next Patrick Mahomes? Can’t go wrong there. Picking up a generational talent at the most important position in professional sports is a no-brainer. Except QBs like Mahomes only come around... once in a generation. And none of the other QBs drafted since Mahomes have done better than... wait for it... one Kirk Daniel Cousins. In fact the vast majority of QBs taken since Cousins back in 2012 haven’t done as well. What are the odds the Vikings draft a generational QB talent next April? Or one that’s immediately or even eventually better than Cousins is now? Not so good. Maybe ten to one, maybe longer, judging by the success rate over the last several years. Meanwhile the QB bird in hand is top ten at least in most passing metrics, despite being one of the most pressured QBs in the league and having one of the worst pass blocking offensive lines every season since joining the Vikings.
You Don’t Have to Dig Too Deep to Find Where the Vikings Real Problems Lie
It’s often been sort of a rule of thumb for the Vikings, going back many years if not six decades, that if the Vikings could hold the other team to around 20 points or less, pretty good chance the Vikings win. Scoring is up a bit on average this year, but even allowing for that, Kirk Cousins and the Vikings have scored 26 or more points in 11 games this season- only the Chiefs have done that in more games than the Vikings. The Vikings record in those 11 games: 5-6. There have only been 3 games when the Vikings failed to score at least 23 points this season.
That’s one way of illustrating the problem. Another way is this: the Vikings defense has gone from 5th in points allowed last season to currently 31st this season - although they’ve played one more game than contenders for the worst defense. In raw numbers, the Vikings have already given up 132 more points this season (435) in 15 games than they did all of last season (303). That’s an average of 29 points allowed per game - 10 more than last season.
By contrast, the Vikings offense is on pace to score more points than last year, and also amass more yards - despite being saddled with a much worse defense - and special teams too for that matter.
And so the problem for the Vikings is not the offense generally, but the defense.
Has Mike Zimmer Lost It, Or Has He Simply Lost His Best Players?
Michael Pierce. Danielle Hunter. Anthony Barr. Eric Kendricks. Six months ago, all these were expected to be quality defensive starters for the Vikings, along with Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes would most likely start at cornerback, but maybe a rookie would prove to be an upgrade at some point.
But then Michael Pierce opted out, and Danielle Hunter suffered a “tweak” that, rather than simply limiting his training camp, turned out to end his season, leaving the Vikings defensive line without its two best players as the season began. Two games in, Anthony Barr was out for the season. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes went on IR too, leaving a bunch of rookies or new starters to take over all three CB spots. And then four games ago, Eric Kendricks suffered a calf injury in pre-game warmups, and hasn’t played since.
It’s not too much to say that the heart of the Vikings run defense this season was made primarily from career backups, as was the pass rush, while the primary coverage duties were left to rookies or first-year starters. That’s not a recipe for success in the NFL. Backups up front, and rookies behind, with 2-3 quality vets to clean-up and supervise, isn’t gonna make any coach look good.
Vikings Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant said it’s better to have good players than good coaches, and the proof of that wisdom has been on display this season. Bill Belichick, lord of the rings and master of the Patriots dynasty, but faced with the loss of several core players this season, finds himself out of the postseason, as does Kyle Shanahan (and Robert Saleh), who were coaching in the Super Bowl last February. Are these suddenly bad coaches? Shanahan has dealt with more than one injury-plagued season, but somehow regained his coaching prowess last season when his core players returned to health, and were joined by draft picks from a top draft position. Funny how that works.
Mike Zimmer has endured similar cycles. In 2016 he started out 5-0 despite losing his starting QB the week before the season opener. But then injuries ravaged the offensive line and he ended up 8-8 for the season. The following year he once again lost his starting QB early on, but managed to stay relatively healthy otherwise, and ended up 13-3.
The NFL is at least partly a demolition derby, where the teams that make the playoffs and advance the farthest are often the ones with the fewest injuries to core players. This year Covid and opt-outs have added to the inactive lists across the league. Every team has been effected to some degree, but the Vikings defense has been among the hardest hit.
This year, playoff teams are also largely ones with relatively little turnover, the exception being the Bucs- with turnover largely to proven veterans like Tom Brady. Teams that were counting on rookies or new players to fill starting spots were disadvantaged because of the shortened off-season and curtailed new player development. The Vikings probably fared among the best with the rookies they had this year, between Justin Jefferson, Ezra Cleveland, Cameron Dantzler, and D.J. Wonnum. But outside of Jefferson, none of them were top quartile in their position group among veterans as well as rookies over the entire season.
Healing and Evaluation
The rational conclusion here is that injuries happen and can derail a team’s season- especially when they happen to multiple core players on one side of the ball. That’s what happened to the Vikings this season. Injuries are largely out of the control of coaches and front office staff, but they have to prepare for them as best they can. Usually it’s by developing young young players with little NFL experience or veterans with low talent ceilings, with little salary cap to allocate toward backups. A well coached and managed team may be able to manage a couple players missing most of the season on one side of the ball, but more than that and overall performance typically slides as opponents exploit the deficiencies. The Vikings lost 3 core players very early on, and a few others later, at the same time they were transitioning to new draft picks that suddenly had to take starting roles without much in off-season development due to Covid restrictions.
And so the best way forward is to allow injured players to heal and get ready for the off-season, and begin the process of roster evaluation, identifying the weak links, getting rid of the dead wood, and identifying options for bringing in needed talent. This is not an off-season for sweeping changes, but objective evaluations of player performance and future outlook, with the objective of bolstering the weak spots in the roster - which are not so numerous once injured players return. Importantly, it’s also an off-season to catch-up on lost time in developing young players.
The evaluation process should begin with GM and coaching staff, again identifying weak links, and eliminating those after considering and securing better alternatives. Some consideration of overall hierarchy is worthwhile as well.
In the coming days and weeks, I’ll embark on an comprehensive Vikings evaluation, beginning with the coaching staff and GM, and moving on through the Vikings’ roster. There will undoubtedly be areas and positions in need of immediate improvement, but sweeping changes based on this season’s win-loss record would be misguided. A much more deliberate and considered approach may be the best way forward. The team is not broken, like the Jets, Jaguars and Lions for example, where an entirely new organization and approach is needed to restore a competitive franchise. The Vikings are also not a team facing a significant transition in their roster, as the Bears, Eagles, and Patriots are, based on aging players, salary cap considerations, and/or QB issues. They embarked on that process this past off-season, and are unlikely to have/need as much turnover this coming off-season.
But I expect there will still be some tough decisions ahead.
In general, do you feel the Vikings need to make sweeping changes to see notable improvement next season and beyond?
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