Following the evaluation of Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman, let’s move on to head coach Mike Zimmer and the job he’s done this year for the Vikings.
As an NFL head coach, Mike Zimmer is responsible for every aspect of planning, analyzing, coaching, preparing and motivating his team to perform at their best each and every game. Nobody can do all that himself, so it’s up to the head coach (and GM) to hire a staff to help in all these tasks, directing them himself and being the focal point for decision-making.
The head coach is involved in every aspect of game planning, oppo research, team and player evaluation, coaching, practice schedules, media relations, scouting, schemes, play-calling, and game management. Often head coaches rely on trusted staff to complete many of these tasks and then report to them with their plan, problems, etc. for the head coach to pass judgment on. It’s also more common these days for an offensive or defensive head coach, particularly new ones, to take charge of their side of the ball, calling plays and effectively becoming the de facto coordinator as well, leaving the other side mostly up to the other coordinator.
Such has been the case with Mike Zimmer, who’s always been the de facto defensive coordinator in addition to head coach. He’s more or less always left the offense to his offensive coordinator, trusting him to run that side of the ball. There have been many head coaches that have been successful with this model, and it’s becoming more of the norm now for head coaches to call plays on one side of the ball.
Be that as it may, the head coaching job is still that of CEO of the whole team, not just his side of the ball, and that’s how he should be evaluated.
Off-Season Coaching Changes
Around this time last year, it was reported that Mike Zimmer was contemplating some coaching changes, and either said or hinted that he would not be retaining defensive coordinator George Edwards. That turned out to be true, and Edwards, whose contract had expired, was not retained. Additionally, Zimmer decided to part ways with long-time defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, who was hired by the Green Bay Packers.
Zimmer did not replace George Edwards, but instead split the role of defensive coordinator between two position coaches - defensive line coach Andre Patterson and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, his son. Zimmer hired Daronte Jones as his new defensive backs coach, along with Roy Anderson as assistant defensive backs coach.
Additionally, Zimmer took on long-time defensive coach Dom Capers as an advisor, basically looking for new ideas/perspectives on his defense from sort of an elder-statesmen in the business. That led to speculation that maybe Zimmer was considering a move to a 3-4 scheme, or other changes, but Zimmer said he was concerned his defense was becoming a bit stale, and he wanted some new ideas he could possibly implement into his scheme.
Offensively, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski became the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns, leaving a vacancy there. Zimmer had hired Gary Kubiak and his long-time coaching staff - offensive line coach Rick Dennison, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, and tight end coach Brian Pariani - to implement his scheme and tutor Kevin Stefanski as a rookie offensive coordinator. With the OC job open, Zimmer turned to Kubiak to fill the job, and he accepted, making the transition a fairly seamless one.
Zimmer, undoubtedly on recommendation from Kubiak and Rick Dennison, transitioned assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko to wide receiver coach, replacing Drew Petzing, who followed Stefanski to Cleveland. He also brought on Phil Rausher as the new assistant offensive line coach, replacing Janocko. Rausher had been assistant OL coach under Bill Callahan in Washington, and had also worked previously with Kubiak and Dennison in Denver. Kennedy Polamalu continued as running back coach.
Marwan Maalouf also continued as special teams coordinator, with long-time assistant special teams coach Ryan Ficken.
Overall, the new coaches seem to be doing reasonably well. Daronte Jones in particular has been singled out for his work getting the rookie cornerbacks ramping up with little off-season time to coach them. Andrew Janocko, whose background is more appropriate for offensive skill positions than offensive line, has done a good job getting Justin Jefferson acclimated to the NFL and Kubiak’s scheme. Lastly, Phil Rauscher seems to be doing well coaching up the rookie offensive linemen, judging by how Ezra Cleveland has been able to ramp up his performance. It will be interesting to see how others like Oli Udoh and the other backups and practice squad guys have been progressing.
I suspect that Dom Capers’ role has been somewhat sidelined this year, however, as Covid, injuries and developing rookies have overtaken applying new wrinkles to the scheme. I’m not sure Zimmer will continue with Capers in any case, but we’ll have to wait and see. I believe he signed on for just one year.
Critiquing the Defensive Coaching Structure
Somewhat more suspect , however, has been Zimmer’s decision to split the defensive coordinator role between his two position coaches, Adam Zimmer and Andre Patterson. From the outside, it’s difficult to know how the two co-defensive coordinators allocated their time, but one thing is certain: to the extent they spent time as defensive coordinators - game planning and opposition research - the less time they had to be position coaches.
That means they had less time to coach the players in their position groups, and more of that had to fall to their assistants. Normally assistant position coaches spend more time working with backups and young players to develop their fundamental skills and readiness, while the position coach works with the starters. Of course there is overlap, but that’s generally how it breaks down. Position coaches work with starters on opposition research- film study - and game planning, scheme, alignment and play design. Assistants focus on fundamentals and technique, particularly with younger players. In the off-season position coaches spend more time on developing fundamentals and technique as well.
What we know from the results on defense this year, is that there has been a significant fall off in every aspect of defense - run defense, pass rush, coverage, and especially tackling. We also know from Mike Zimmer’s post-game and Monday press conferences, that part of the problems on defense had to do with players not aligning properly, not controlling their gap, being slightly out of position, etc. and these things contributed to the fall off in the main aspects of defense - run defense, pass rush, tackling, coverage. What is unclear is to what extent that was due to increased playing time for rookies and backups, less off-season and game week preparation time due to Covid restrictions, and to what extent it may be due to position coaches being stretched too thin.
We also know that the offense, who had new players only at the guard positions, in addition to Justin Jefferson, did not suffer declines in most aspects of offense, except pass blocking grade went down slightly, and with it so too the passing grade slightly - mostly during the early part of the season. Everything else improved over last season- run blocking, receivers and rushing grades.
That suggests the slight declines on offense were largely due to the new guys playing guard, which passes the eye test as well, particularly early on in the season.
Defensively, however, it’s a bit more complicated to attribute the decline, but I suspect coaches being stretched too thin contributed to the decline. A couple reasons. First, none of the Vikings rookie defenders fared particularly well, even among other rookies, when it comes to tackling efficiency. Keep in mind the Vikings have been the best tackling team in the league, according to PFF grading, the past two seasons. Moreover, as a team there wasn’t any discernable improvement in tackling as the season progressed. Even with a shortened off-season, which may have contributed to a lower starting point generally, you’d expect some improvement over the course of the season, from rookies and perhaps veterans alike, as they get into the swing of things. But as a team that didn’t happen.
To me, that suggests coaches may have been forced to cut corners in terms of time spent on fundamentals like tackling, as a couple position coaches were taking on defensive coordinator duties, and/or with Covid restrictions early in the week (Monday and Tuesday) there was less time to spend on them during the week.
Looking at the broader context of this season, in terms of Covid restrictions and limited off-season, the median (16th ranked) team overall PFF defensive grade this season has declined from 73.3 a year ago to 65.3 this year. Moreover, this year only 6 teams are graded above last year’s median team grade. Overall team offensive PFF grades have gone up slightly, but only two points, which is not an unusual variance. That suggests NFL defenses have suffered more from changes due to Covid restrictions than offenses have.
But even in that context, the Vikings’ overall PFF defensive grade going from 85.7 (4th) last season to 53.7 (25th) this season is pretty dramatic. The team tackling grade went from 88.8 (1st) to 47.4 (28th) - even more dramatic. Clearly a good part of this outsized decline, compared to the smaller overall decline league-wide, is attributable to the Vikings having more rookies and backups playing more snaps (due to injuries) than average this season. But again, the fact that there hasn’t been improvement over the course of the season, except for coverage grades improving from the first to second half of the season, suggests defensive line and linebacker position groups could’ve been helped by more coaching, although the linebacker group was hit harder by injuries the second half of the season.
All that leads back to Zimmer’s decision to split the defensive coordinator duties between himself as play-caller and his position coaches Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer.
At the time Zimmer made that decision, in mid-late January, not many were figuring that Covid would have the impact it did. He did know that he would be training in a new crop of cornerbacks, and presumably wanted someone other than Jerry Gray to do it. That person, Daronte Jones as it turned out, would have all of his time to devote to that task.
What he didn’t count on, presumably, were all the injuries and opt-out in the front seven, and what that might mean from a coaching standpoint. Between Covid and the need to play more rookies and backups, it would’ve been better to have all position coaching hands on deck this season, with hindsight, than have a couple of them splitting time between position coaching and coordinator duties.
Going forward, it would not seem ideal to have position coaches split their time either, considering the youth on defense and the value of developing young players, even in normal years.
I suspect that Zimmer may have wanted to bring in a new defensive coordinator this year, but there wasn’t anyone he wanted and fit his scheme philosophy, who also would accept effectively being the junior, non-play calling defensive coordinator. Splitting the job between Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer may have been something of a political compromise as well. Patterson is the senior man on the defensive coaching staff, well respected, and would’ve felt slighted had he given the job exclusively to his son, which would also bring accusations of nepotism. Giving it exclusively to Patterson, however, would mean getting a new defensive line coach, which I suspect he didn’t want to do, given how well Patterson has done in that job over the years.
In any case, Zimmer’s choice this year to split the defensive coordinator duties between two position coaches isn’t ideal, and may well have contributed to the decline in defensive performance, although other factors like rookies and backups playing more, and Covid restrictions, may have played bigger roles.
Looking back on all the games this season, I’m not sure there was a clear case of Zimmer clearly getting ‘outcoached’ this year, as was the case in the 2017 NFC Championship game, for example. Normally the most obvious ‘outcoached’ game comes when two relatively evenly matched teams play and the result is a blowout, or an over-matched team beats a superior opponent. There can be other explanations, and sometimes one team is out-coached for a half, either with a better game plan to start, or better adjustments at halftime, but in general when the final score doesn’t reflect the relative strength of each team compared to the other, good chance coaching and game plan had something to do with it.
The blowout loss to the Saints wasn’t so much about game plan as it was a decimated Vikings defense simply not having the horses on the field to compete with the Saints attack. Certainly that group of largely backups and rookies could’ve managed to allow fewer points and yards, but it was one of those games late in the season where one team has nothing to play for (having pretty much or completely been eliminated from the playoffs), and the other team is ramping up for the post-season.
The other blowout loss for the Vikings this year was week 2 against the Colts, 28-11, with the Vikings having a total of 175 yards of offense that game, may have been a case where the Colts had a better plan on that side of the ball, and the Vikings defense still in a more ‘prevent’ mode that wasn’t ideal.
The defensive game plans for the early games this year, and the Packers game week one in particular, come to mind as simply plans that were bound to fail. Zimmer was clearly looking to protect his young cornerbacks from getting beat deep, and had them giving huge cushions, allowing Aaron Rodgers to throw 10-yard out routes at will. Understandable, perhaps, given no pre-season and everything else, and maybe that was better than having them get shell-shocked by getting burned deep, but it wasn’t a plan to win - it was a plan to limit explosive plays and hope for the best.
It wasn’t until at least a few games later in the season before Zimmer started using more Cover-2 shells, giving the outside cornerbacks help over the top and playing tighter coverage. He did that against the Packers the second time around, to good effect.
There were games during the season when Zimmer blitzed more, which was helpful to an otherwise anemic pass rush, but he seemed to back off of it later in the season after he got burned a time or two doing so. It was a risk worth taking, and probably should have taken more often, considering the time QBs had to throw down the field all season. In any case, having to blitz because your front four can’t get there in five seconds, let alone 2.5, is a situation where you’re bound to get burned on occasion, one way or another.
One area that Zimmer continues to excel as a defensive coach, and the Vikings in general this year on both sides of the ball, is in the red zone. Even in a year when the defense fell of a cliff in most areas, it has still remained top 10 (and until recently top 5) in the red zone. It’s definitely an area that is practiced, and also Zimmer has been pretty good in his calls in the red zone most of the time.
Offensively, while Zimmer is ultimately responsible for the game plan on that side of the ball too, I’ll cover that more when I evaluate Gary Kubiak, as I believe Zimmer pretty much left him to run the offense.
While Mike Zimmer has improved from his early years as head coach in managing a game, this remains an area of improvement. In fact, this is the area most in need of improvement, and would likely have the biggest impact on his win-loss record going forward.
Still needing to make a lot of improvement in this area after seven years on the job is not a ringing endorsement for Mike Zimmer’s head coaching prowess, but this is something he, and the team, can get a lot better at if they focus on doing so.
In the Mike Zimmer era, the Vikings are 8-14-1 in games where the margin of victory was 3 points or less. That’s a .364 winning percentage. Imagine if the Vikings were able to turn that around - going 14-8-1 instead. That’s one more win in each of Zimmer’s years as head coach. Think of the difference that would’ve made over the years. Think also what difference would be made by managing the end of the first half a bit better as well. How many game outcomes might that have effected?
The point here is that all those nuances that effect how much time you have left at the end of the half to score, how efficient you are, how much time you leave the other team, all make a difference in the game. Controlling the clock to your team’s advantage beginning in the 2nd and 4th quarters, not just with time outs but a much greater array of time management techniques- from play-calling, use of tempo, managing clock run-off between plays, scripting and practicing effective 4 and 2 minute drills, scoring and not leaving the other team with any time to respond. All these little nuances that often make the difference in the outcome. This is an area where Mike Zimmer is a journeyman and really needs to become a master at this stage as a head coach.
These are not things that are beyond him. He can be as good at managing a game as he is calling a red zone defense, he just needs to take the time to put together and practice the scripts, know how much time each play call takes, when it’s better to take a shot downfield, when it better to plod along and move the sticks, when to use tempo, and a bunch of other things. And then practice it time and again on both sides of the ball. The entire off-season. Take a master class from someone who specializes in knowing all the tricks of the trade, study coaches that have been most effective - Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick for example - put together all the analytics, script plays, know when to use ‘prevent’ and when not to, which plays work best against it, etc., etc., etc.
These are all things he does now to some extent, and the team practices on both sides of the ball, they just need to take it a few steps further, incorporate a lot more nuances, and spend more time preparing. He’s gotten a bit better in close games in more recent years- the Carolina game was the first one-point game Zimmer has won as a head coach in seven years- but there is still a lot of room for improvement (including in that game), both for him as head coach, his staff, and the players executing on both sides of the ball. Being good in those types of situation is also something that breeds confidence, and players feed on it, knowing there is a plan that is polished, they know how to execute it, and their coach will put them in a position to win.
So many times in the course of a season, there are basically kind of bullshit games, for lack of a better term, where one team isn’t really playing all that well, but manages to keep it in reach, and pulls of a late minute drive to eek out a win- despite the fact that they were outplayed most of the game. This is classic Seattle football. In some ways it seems like it’s a coached mentality, with Pete Carroll telling his team that every game will be close and will come down to a few plays, and to prepare and be ready when the time comes. And it’s not a bad approach, because often times that’s exactly what happens.
For Bill Belichick, he plans for every contingency down to the last detail, then drills all the details into his staff and players with military-like precision and discipline. Many former Patriot players have said it’s a pretty tough and demanding environment to play in, but players bought into it because he brought them repeated success.
Of course with Belichick and Carroll, you can say they have a common denominator- QBs that excel in these situations, which is true. But the truth is also while they have/had very capable QBs, they’re also teams with coaches that emphasize, practice and manage those nuances with their staff and players. For example, Bill Belichick, in hurry-up mode at the end of a play, has his players run the ball to the umpire who sets the ball to conserve time. They practice it. And many more nuances, play scripts, everything. On both sides of the ball. So when the time comes, they’re prepared and ready to go.
Beyond that, there are other aspects of game management that can be improved, that are more subjective and really come with a good feel for the flow of the game, momentum, and those sorts of things. Mike Zimmer seems like he has a good sense of that after all his years on the sideline, but perhaps could do more to accentuate the positive flow and stem the negative ebbs over the course of a game, and work with players and staff to manage it better. Huddling up with the offense or defense at key moments before they take the field for the next drive, to make sure they’re aware of the situation, what the plan or script is, what to expect in terms of play calls or tempo, and other little nuances particular to the situation, could help make sure everyone is on the same page, knows their assignment, what to do in a given situation, and preparing them mentally to execute the plan. All that may lead to increased confidence and better performance in key situations.
But for Mike Zimmer to do all those game management things more effectively, he would need to hand off the defensive play sheet, so he can focus on all that- and not primarily calling the defensive plays while trying to do all the other game management stuff too as best he can.
Off-Season & Practice Management
For the most part, it seems like Mike Zimmer has a pretty good program for the off-season and practices, at least as far as an outsider can know, as there isn’t a lot of wasted time, and the Vikings haven’t had a lot of injuries during the off-season or in practices (knock on wood). While this off-season was totally different, and really not worth analyzing as hopefully a one-off situation, over the years Zimmer seems like he has improved where he has put his focus during the off-season, and has generally had the team ready to go for the season opener. He seemed to do a good job during the bye-week as well, as the Vikings had perhaps their best game beating the Packers, and beat all three division rivals in consecutive weeks.
Mike Zimmer has a long history of being a straight-talker, but that hasn’t always shown up in his press conferences. It can be frustrating to hear him talk about Danielle Hunter’s “tweak,” leading you to believe it’s no big deal, when in fact it could be season-ending, and not providing much, if any, detail on what the nature of the injury is. There is a reason for that, at times, for not broadcasting to other teams whether a player will be available or not, or to potential trading partners or player agents they’re about to negotiate with in securing a potential replacement.
But other times he seems too defensive about answering questions from the media, which doesn’t always put him in a good light. Of course there are plenty of good coaches that don’t relish their time in front of the media, Bill Belichick comes to mind, and it’s certainly not the end of the world, but it’s refreshing when a coach can be lucid after a loss and not seem to take questions about what went wrong as kind of a personal rebuke, which is how Zimmer can come across at times.
Zimmer is pretty good about not airing issues with players in front of the media, which I’m sure his players and team appreciate, and in general Zimmer’s time as head coach has been relatively drama-free, which speaks well about how he’s been able to set a tone and communicate with players or staff internally to resolve most issues.
Mike Zimmer certainly isn’t the only coach like this, and there are salary cap arguments for this approach, but it seems like there are a few too many cases of Zimmer keeping guys on the roster a year or so too long. Most recently, Pat Elflein and Jaleel Johnson come to mind as examples, but there have been others over the years. Players that have been around for 2-3 years, haven’t really done much, or shown much improvement, and yet continue to occupy a roster spot. It seems like every 4th round draft pick or above is guaranteed a roster spot through their rookie contract, whether they’ve earned it or not.
There is a fine line between allowing a young player the time to develop, and simply keeping him on the roster, hoping for the best. Zimmer has quoted Bill Parcells’ maxim- 3 strikes and you’re out - meaning if after 3 years you haven’t developed sufficiently, you’re off the roster. But he hasn’t always followed that advice, keeping some guys on the roster another year despite not having shown any improvement.
There is some rationale for keeping unproductive guys on their rookie contract around, hoping for improvement, as the team needs backups and replacing a rookie with a veteran free agent off the street, often of similar caliber, is usually a more expensive option. Sometimes the UDFAs they acquire after the draft are competition for underperforming backups, but they don’t always prove to be improvements.
I’m sure it’s at least as frustrating for coaches as fans when draft picks don’t work out, particularly when they’ve been on the roster a few years, but at some point, after 2-3 years and a low ceiling has been established, it’s time to give the reps and coaching to someone else- either a young player with more potential or a veteran who may benefit from a new situation.
While it may not be fair to blame Mike Zimmer for a disappointing season where injuries and Covid restrictions were a significant factor in the outcome, particularly on defense, it is fair and appropriate that he be evaluated on all the things in which he has direct control - like coaching staff decisions and game management. The coaching structure on the defensive side doesn’t seem to be ideal, and needs fixing. Game management simply needs to improve by focusing more on the details and nuances that can lead to better outcomes, and devoting the time to practicing and executing those more detailed plans.
Are these shortcomings fire-able offenses? At this point probably not - there is a realistic chance for improvement in the coming year, given the nature of the problems. But if they’re not addressed and improved over the coming year, it’s fair to consider alternatives and his ability to improve the team as a head coach compared to Zimmer.
In the next week or so there should be an important meeting with Zimmer to discuss plans for improvement in the coming year, what problems need to be addressed, and agree on what changes need to be implemented. Central to that discussion should be how to optimize the coaching staff and improve game management, along with roster development. The Wilfs and Spielman will hopefully be comfortable with the agreed plan, and Zimmer’s ability to carry it out. But if not, pursuing alternatives this off-season is not out of the question.
How would you rank Mike Zimmer as a head coach?
This poll is closed
One of the best in the league
Top half in the league
Bottom half in the league
One of the worst in the league