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Will Continuity Bring a Vikings Championship?

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It may seem like an odd time to talk about continuity for the Vikings - they’ve had more player turnover this year than in the past several - but in the midst of that, the Vikings have been extending some key personnel.

The Vikings have had some continuity in key personnel as Mike Zimmer enters his 7th year as head coach, and Rick Spielman his 9th year as general manager, but quarterback and offensive coordinator have not been so constant over the past several years.

However, the Vikings may be entering an era of continuity among key personnel for at least the next few years. Often times periods of continuity translate into success for a sports franchise, but not always - and continuity doesn’t bring championships by itself.

But the Vikings ownership appear to be pushing in their chips on some key personnel in hopes of bringing a first-ever Lombardi trophy to Minnesota.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins

The Vikings paid top-dollar (at the time) to bring Kirk Cousins to Minnesota and end the QB carousel. They doubled-down on their investment by extending Cousins earlier this year, and the way that deal was structured makes it more likely than not that he’s extended again next year. Cousins becomes a $45 million cap hit for the Vikings in 2022 on the third day of the league year in 2021, when his 2022 salary becomes fully guaranteed. Cutting him at that point would bring a $41 million dead cap hit. Trading him would bring a $20 million dead cap hit. Neither seem a likely course for the Vikings to pursue next spring, barring some collapse or injury.

They both seem unlikely because the Vikings have been dealing with either below-average quarterback play, quarterback injuries, and/or a QB carousel for most of the past decade, if not longer, so extending a quarterback that has been both a top 10 performer and durable was an easy decision for the Vikings front office. His passer rating since joining the Vikings is 103.0, including 107.4 last season, and he hasn’t missed a game due to injury. He’s currently 7th on the all-time career passer rating list, and a repeat of last season could bump him up to 3rd.

Critics of Cousins argue that he’s not a top quarterback, despite stats suggesting so, because he doesn’t have the improvisational play-making ability of a Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers in his prime, and he doesn’t carry his team to win big games like a Tom Brady or Russell Wilson.

But for the Vikings front office, they seem satisfied that Cousins is able to take what the defense gives him, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, and has been able to deliver in a few situations like the playoff game against the Saints, and the comeback against the Broncos. They like his stats and the character he brings to the position. In short, he brings the stability and solid play to the position that they’ve lacked for years, and can build around.

Head Coach Mike Zimmer

The Vikings also recently extended head coach Mike Zimmer through the 2023 season, citing his character, leadership, the culture he’s brought to the Vikings, and the respect he’s earned throughout the league and within the Vikings organization.

As the de facto defensive coordinator and defensive play-caller for the Vikings, he’s made the Vikings defense into a top five unit only a year after taking the reins in 2014, and has more-or-less maintained that ranking since then. Only the Patriots under Bill Belichick have had that kind of consistent top 10 ranking on defense in terms of points allowed over the past five years.

Critics say as a head coach he’s been learning on the job since 2014, not just in terms of game management and planning, roster management and preparing for the season, but also in dealing with key injuries and setbacks. He’s been inconsistent in his ability to out-general opposing coaches, and prepare his team for big games, including against division opponents and winning teams. Most importantly, he hasn’t brought a championship to Minnesota, and after six years on the job, and at age 64, it may be too late for him to do so.

From an ownership perspective, at the beginning of last season, Zygi Wilf expressed very high expectations for the Vikings, and particularly the upcoming season, fully expecting the Vikings to make the playoffs and do well in the post-season. As it happened, the regular season was a bit disappointing, but beating the Saints on the road before losing convincingly in the trenches to the 49ers, who went on to the Super Bowl, was good enough for Zimmer to earn an extension.

Certainly part of the equation was if not Zimmer, who? Available head coaches would be either unproven or past their prime. Moving on from Zimmer would also mean starting over on defense in terms of scheme, which would be a setback for the strength of the team and compromise the expensive talent developed on both sides of the ball over the past several years.

At the end of the day, teams seldom move on from coaches that got them within a game or two of the Super Bowl in two of the past three seasons. And so the Vikings ownership and front office gave Mike Zimmer a three-year extension, which expressed a lot more support than the one-year extension they did previously.

From an ownership evaluation perspective, I suspect the worst thing Zimmer (and Spielman as GM) did, and the reason for the subsequent one-year extensions (which served as more of a warning than an endorsement), was the hire of John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator.

DeFilippo proved to be a disaster who didn’t even last a full season. He failed not only because his ideas and coaching led to a notable decline in offensive production, but also because there appeared to be very little coordination between him and Zimmer as far as the plan and direction for the offense.

Zimmer himself admitted later after he fired DeFilippo that he didn’t ask enough questions of him in the interview process, which was strange as DeFilippo had just a one-year stint as offensive coordinator in Cleveland in 2015 before getting fired and becoming a quarterback coach for the Eagles. While I suspect Spielman is generally inclined to let his head coach fill his staff as he sees fit, as is typical protocol, Spielman also didn’t ask enough questions of Zimmer’s rationale and specifics for wanting DeFilippo, what direction he intended for the Vikings offense, and why he was the best man for the job. That hire, along with the death of OL coach and Zimmer confidant Tony Sparano, derailed the 2018 season for the Vikings, which was a year they were expected to again contend for the Super Bowl after going 13-3 and making it to the NFC Championship the previous year.

General Manager Rick Spielman

When the Vikings extended Mike Zimmer this past week, Vikings co-owner and President Mark Wilf issued the following statement: “We value Mike and Rick’s leadership and we have every intent of Mike continuing as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Rick leading our football operations, next year and beyond.” That statement leaves no doubt the Vikings will be extending Rick Spielman as general manager, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that announcement was made in the coming days.

I’ve documented in the past that the Vikings have been the best drafting team in the NFL since Spielman became GM in 2012, which makes the decision for the Vikings ownership to extend Spielman, and effectively his staff and scouts, a relatively easy one. Spielman has also worked well with Mike Zimmer on identifying roster needs, and there has been nothing but agreement between them regarding roster moves, the draft, and free agency. I’m not aware of any disagreements between them over the past six years. Spielman, with the extensive help of Rob Brzezinski, has done a good job of handling the increasingly difficult job of managing the salary cap as well. I don’t know that the Vikings have lost a player they didn’t want to lose due to salary cap issues except maybe Everson Griffen.

Critics of Spielman point to his numerous misses in the draft, or why didn’t he draft (insert name of star player here) with the benefit of hindsight, over-paying for Kirk Cousins, not drafting his replacement and moving on from him, and most importantly not winning the Super Bowl.

The Vikings ownership has been pretty steady in its support of Spielman however, now in his ninth year as general manager and a senior member of the Vikings front office for 15 of the 16 years the Wilfs have owned the Vikings. In the past they’ve been pleased with how Spielman has run his drafts, his preparation, and management of football operations- which they just recently reiterated.

And while I suspect the hiring of John DeFilippo did no favors for either Zimmer or Spielman in the eyes of the Wilfs, returning to the post-season and beyond a one-and-done, along with the hire of Gary Kubiak and his staff, seems to have atoned for that mistake.

Offensive Coordinator/Asst. Head Coach Gary Kubiak

When the Vikings hired Gary Kubiak last year, a few days after naming Kevin Stefanski offensive coordinator, it was clear Kubiak was the more important news. It was the more important news because in addition to employing Gary Kubiak, the Vikings were also employing his scheme, and his long-time coaching staff- Rick Dennison, Klint Kubiak, and Brian Pariani. It was a Kubiak offensive overhaul.

Mike Zimmer glowed about Kubiak’s experience and football knowledge, and later said hiring Gary Kubiak was the best thing he’s done since becoming head coach. And so it was no surprise that after Kevin Stefanski left, that Zimmer offered Kubiak the job of offensive coordinator and second in command in his coaching hierarchy, undoubtedly extending his contract in the process.

It’s early to call this continuity - it’s only the beginning of the second year running Kubiak’s scheme - but that’s more continuity than the Vikings have had in a few years on offense. But more to the point, it seems pretty clear that Kubiak, who was also named Assistant Head Coach by Mike Zimmer, is probably going to be running the Vikings’ offense for the foreseeable future.

It’s clear that Gary Kubiak enjoys Mike Zimmer’s full confidence, and that of the Vikings organization. Players have a lot of respect for him because he’s won Super Bowls with his offensive scheme and coaching. Normally Kubiak would be on the short list of any team looking for a new head coach, given his experience and success. But Kubiak got out of coaching in 2016 due to health issues - basically early warning signs of stroke. He got into scouting for the Broncos after stepping down from being head coach in 2016. He decided he wanted to get back into coaching last year, however, but Vic Fangio and John Elway didn’t have the same vision, and turned him down for the offensive coordinator job. A couple days later he signed on with the Vikings, and a couple weeks later his staff did too. But despite getting back into coaching, and now assuming the Vikings offensive coordinator job, Kubiak has said he doesn’t want to be a head coach again- presumably worried the added stress may lead to a reoccurrence of his health issues.

Kubiak is 59 - 5 years younger than Zimmer, but has the age and experience Zimmer seems to trust and value most. Zimmer hired Norv Turner to be his first offensive coordinator, then Pat Shumur and Tony Sparano- all long time coaches with head coaching experience. So in that sense Gary Kubiak is just another former head coach Zimmer signed on.

But in another sense Kubiak is a bit different. Zimmer had good relationships with both Pat Shurmur and Tony Sparano, and Norv Turner for a while, and relied on them for insight into the offense, as he was typically hands-off, allowing his offensive coordinator to run the show. That is the case with Gary Kubiak as well. Only Zimmer seems to have an appreciation and comfort level with Kubiak as a coach and person that seems to go beyond what he had with any of the others.

In his glowing praise of Kubiak after sitting in some offensive meetings last year, Zimmer said he learned a lot from Kubiak about the offensive side of the ball, how they prepare and read defenses, which in turn caused him to think about some of the things he does on the defensive side of the ball. He also praised Kubiak for his teaching ability - Zimmer has always valued coaches who can teach well, as opposed to more playbook-type coaches- and for his lack of ego, despite his experience and success as a coach.

Beyond that, I suspect Zimmer also sees more value in Kubiak’s scheme, how it fits his players, and how it agrees with his own ideas about offense and the notion of complimentary football we often hear mentioned in press conferences.

Kubiak’s scheme is also in vogue again, in the what-was-old-is-new-again nature of NFL schemes, as the 49ers under Kyle Shanahan, the Packers under Matt LaFleur, the Titans under Mike Vrabel, the Rams under Sean McVay, the Chargers under Anthony Lynn, and the Bengals under Zac Taylor all use it. Three of the four teams in the conference championships last season ran a flavor of Kubiak’s scheme, which was developed by Mike Shanahan in the 90s, which in turn was one of the off-shoots of Bill Walsh’s west coast offense.

The Core Quartet

The Vikings ownership appears determined to build continuity, and now seems to have established a core quartet which they believe gives them their best shot at a championship in the coming years: Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman, Kirk Cousins, and Gary Kubiak.

I suspect the intent is to roll with this quartet for the next few years, in hopes that they can deliver a championship to Minnesota. Clearly there is some basis for hope in that plan, both on paper and in practice, if the team can stay healthy.

Zimmer and Kubiak are two of the most respected coaches on their respective sides of the ball, and have the street cred among both players and coaches around the league. Zimmer’s coached one of the best defenses in the league for the past ten years, and Kubiak has won Super Bowls with his coaching and scheme as recently as 2015. Rick Spielman has been the best drafting general manager in the league over the past eight years, and Kirk Cousins has, at least statistically, been one of the best performing quarterbacks in the league since he became a starter, and even more so since joining the Vikings.

Of course each member of the quartet brings their own question marks too, as anyone who hasn’t won a Super Bowl is questioned whether they have what it takes, and even those that have a ring or two may be questioned whether they have what it takes to do it again.

But these four have all been among the top performers in their respective jobs, so it stands to reason that putting them together and maintaining some continuity could lead, with a little luck, to something super.

Lombardi trophies have certainly been won with less - just ask the Giants.

The Value of Continuity

Every team values continuity as the store of knowledge and experience that makes a team gel and operate better together. Teams that are consistently cycling through coaches after short stints are typically among the worst performing teams as they miss out on building that collective store of knowledge and experience, instead being forced to start from scratch every couple years.

All the NFL dynasties are marked with continuity. The Patriots and Brady-Belichick. The 49ers and Walsh-Montana and Siefert-Young. The Steelers and Noll-Bradshaw. Most other franchises that have enjoyed periods of success have done so after building continuity. It’s no secret.

For the Vikings, the value of continuity has been on display on the defensive side of the ball since shortly after Mike Zimmer came to town. He developed a group of core players that, after Zimmer’s first year, have basically been a top 5 defense ever since. They’ve worked through some player changes, but like this year, most starters are returning veterans, and coaching and scheme terminology will remain the same.

Practicing the same scheme, next to the same players, with the same coaches, brings a wealth of knowledge and ease of communication among players and coaches. Players have learned some of the finer points in terms of positioning and their role on a given play. Guys know how their teammates will react in a given situation. Players can audible and adjust on the fly because of the experience they’ve had playing together. Coaches have a wider array of play options in some cases because of the extensive installation over the years, and adjusting scheme is easier because players are well versed in how it works. Players don’t have to think on the field. They know the scheme and can simply react. Veterans who’ve mastered the scheme can help younger teammates on the field.

The Vikings defense enjoys those advantages. What they have to guard against is becoming stale and predictable. Every year brings some adjustments as the league evolves, and the cat-and-mouse game continues. Self-scouting, understanding your own tendencies, and varying them becomes more important in pressing the advantage.

Building Continuity

But for the Vikings, the advantages of continuity have been limited to the defensive side of the ball in recent years.

On offense, each of the past four years have brought scheme and coaching changes. And prior to last season, a new starting quarterback three years in a row. In fact, the Vikings offense hasn’t had continuity of both scheme and quarterback since 2015, and even then both starting wide receivers were new.

Offensive coordinators continue to change as well. Norv Turner. Pat Shurmur. John DeFilippo. Kevin Stefanski. Gary Kubiak.

But for the first time in five years, the Vikings will have the same scheme and starting quarterback two years in a row. All but one of the skill position players are returning veterans as well, as is the protection-caller on the offensive line.

It’s as much continuity as the Vikings have had on offense under Mike Zimmer.

And while Gary Kubiak is technically a new offensive coordinator, and will be calling plays this year, it was his scheme and coaching staff that was installed last season, and it was he who oversaw everything, including the offensive coordinator. In that way, there is a great deal of continuity in the offensive coordinator position as well, not to mention a whole lot more experience.

Still, it’s early in the process of building continuity on offense for the Vikings. It’s only the beginning of the second year in Kubiak’s scheme, and there could be as many as three new starting offensive lineman this year, although most likely guys that learned the scheme last year. Still, the experience of working together is important for an offensive line to gel, and helps them respond to all the twists and stunts defenses have to offer them.

And while most of the starting skill position players will be back from last season, Kirk Cousins will need to build rapport and timing with receivers outside of Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. Some, like Irv Smith Jr. and Bisi Johnson, he had limited experience with last season, while Tajae Sharpe and Justin Jefferson are entirely new.

They’ll have to do all that, and more, on a short training schedule as well, given the largely lost off-season due to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, they start from a better position than they did last season, with just about all the starters familiar with the scheme, terminology, and assignments- particularly Kirk Cousins and Garrett Bradbury, who are responsible for making the calls. That should allow the offense to build on last season, improve some finer points, and expand the playbook. It may also give coaches more time to develop younger players.

Firing on All Cylinders ?

The question now for the Vikings, as they begin an era of continuity on offense as well as defense, is this what’s needed to go that extra mile and not just make the playoffs, but get to the Super Bowl too and ultimately bring home a championship?

Kubiak & Scheme

We learned last season that Kubiak’s scheme is well-suited for the key players on the Vikings offense, including Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook. We thought it was good for receivers like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but apparently Diggs didn’t agree with that assessment.

We know it gels with Mike Zimmer’s desire to maintain balance and a commitment to the running game, which is central to Kubiak’s scheme. But we also learned that it needs more help up-front, and that the offensive line still isn’t there yet.

We also know that last season the Vikings offense had it’s highest rank in points scored in the Mike Zimmer era, and best since the 2009 season with Brett Favre. It was also only the 2nd time in the last 15 years they’ve scored more than 400 points in the regular season, and it was the 5th highest point total in franchise history.

That’s an auspicious beginning for Gary Kubiak and his scheme. What will a year of continuity bring?

Zimmer & Defense

Defensively, the Vikings were ranked 5th last season in points allowed, and that’s been about their average rank over the past five seasons. Overall, they rank 2nd in points allowed over the past 5 seasons, showing remarkable consistency over that period, despite a number of seasons with mediocre cornerback performance. The last three seasons, they’ve ranked either 1st or 2nd in PFF team tackling grade, one of the basics of football that is often forgotten in evaluating defenses.

This year the turnover at the cornerback position creates both risk and opportunity. Risk because new starters will be largely unproven. But also opportunity as Xavier Rhodes was one of the worst performing CBs in the league last season, and Trae Waynes was below average as well. Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, and Mike Hughes have collectively performed better in terms of passer rating allowed during their limited reps so far, and who knows how quickly the new CBs like Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler will be able to catch-on and contribute. The point here is that while there is turnover at CB, the performance hurdle to replace isn’t so high.

Linebacker and safety continue to be strengths for the Vikings, and last season even more so. But what will be more of a question mark is how the defensive line will perform without Everson Griffen, and now without Michael Pierce at NT. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings took on a free agent to replace Pierce - we’ll see. But they may also respond to personnel changes by changing their defensive alignment. We’ll have to see about that too in the coming weeks.

Kirk Cousins & the Passing Game

As for Kirk Cousins, he had his best season last year in terms of both passer rating and winning percentage, with a 107.4 passer rating and a .666 winning percentage, .647 including post-season. All of those are better than Aaron Rodgers’ career averages. His passer rating was ranked 4th in the league - ahead of Wilson and Mahomes - and he had the 6th best PFF grade, behind only Wilson, Brees, Mahomes, Tannehill, and Lamar Jackson. Overall, the Vikings had the 3rd highest passing offense grade according to PFF, despite having the 27th ranked pass blocking grade. And since joining the Vikings, Cousins’ passer rating is ranked 3rd, behind only Brees, Mahomes, and Wilson, among QBs with at least 600 pass attempts over the last two seasons.

All that figures well for Cousins entering 2020, but the question hanging over the passing game is the loss of Stefon Diggs. Diggs was Cousins’ main target last year, as Thielen missed a number of games, so whether and how his production could be replaced remains a question. The Vikings were fortunate to draft Justin Jefferson, and at some point down the road he could replace Diggs’ production by himself. But as a rookie, that’s asking a lot. The more likely scenario is that Diggs’ production is not replaced by one receiver, but with a few combining to replace it. For example, if Thielen is healthy for all 16 games, he could replace some of Diggs’ production last year. Justin Jefferson certainly could replace a lot of it even as a rookie. And there’s 2nd year guys like Irv Smith Jr. and Bisi Johnson who could see more action this year, and may also replace some of Diggs’ production. And there’s also Tajae Sharpe. Together, there are a few options that could reasonably combine to replace Diggs’ production. Maybe even exceed it.

Rick Spielman, the Draft & Roster Building

The Vikings have built one of the better rosters in the league since Rick Spielman has become GM, from Cook and Cousins, Thielen and O’Neill, to Hunter, Kendricks, Smith and Harris, there is a strong core to the Vikings line-up. Even the special teams specialists look pretty solid after getting things worked out (finally) last season.

But I suspect the near future of the Vikings will hinge in large part on how the past two draft classes pan out for the Vikings.

Of the 12 picks from the 2019 draft, 11 are still on the roster, and most of those could play an important role this year for the Vikings. Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith Jr., Alexander Mattison, Dru Samia, Armon Watts, Oli Udoh, Kris Boyd, and Bisi Johnson could all be either starters or have significant reps in rotation this year. There is a lot to like about this draft class, but most of them remain largely unproven.

This year’s draft class could have an equal impact, but perhaps not as big an impact this season, if there is a season, because of Covid and the shortened development opportunity this off-season. But a half dozen of this year’s draft picks could see some reps this year, including Justin Jefferson, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, James Lynch, Troy Dye, and K.J. Osborn. Ezra Cleveland figures to be an eventual starter on the OL as well, but perhaps not this year. In future years, however, all these players- and perhaps a few more from this draft class - could have a significant impact on team performance.

A very good draft class, where 2-3 quality starters emerge, can have a significant impact on team results. The Saints has a very good draft a few years ago that propelled them to be a perennial playoff team since. The Vikings are still capitalizing on their 2015 draft with Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks making the Pro Bowl, and the Stefon Diggs trade leading to Justin Jefferson and a couple other draft picks.

How much success these draft picks will fuel remains to be seen, but again there is a lot to like in the Vikings’ last two draft classes.

Bottom Line

The Vikings ownership looks to have put their faith in a core quartet of personnel to deliver on their stated goal of bringing a championship to Minnesota. All the pieces are in place, and for the first time this season- if there is a season - there will be a large degree of continuity in all three phases for the Vikings, in terms of scheme, coaches, and core players. There also seems to be a good fit among the various components, from offensive and defensive scheme fit, the notion of complimentary football, how the former suits Kirk Cousins, and how Spielman is able to fill roster needs to support both.

But will it pay dividends?

Stay tuned.

Poll

Are you all-in with Zimmer, Spielman, Cousins and Kubiak for the next few years?

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  • 89%
    Yes
    (490 votes)
  • 10%
    No
    (60 votes)
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