The Vikings season is over, except for a meaningless game against the Bears, and so it’s not premature to begin looking at what the off-season may bring for the Vikings franchise. Zygi Wilf and the Vikings ownership are undoubtedly not satisfied with the results of their football team, and back-to-back seasons of losing records where the team never got above a .500 winning percentage.
I don’t believe the Vikings ownership feels maintaining the status quo is the answer, as Zygi Wilf has expressed clearly that he expects the Vikings to compete in the post-season, and for two seasons running the Vikings have failed to even make the post-season. The Wilfs have always been supportive financially of putting the best team on the field for the Vikings and haven’t micromanaged football operations or otherwise got in the way of coaches and players doing their jobs as they see fit. But now comes the evaluations, and what could be an off-season of massive changes for the Vikings organization.
Let’s break it down. I’ll begin the first part of this series with the Vikings coaching staff.
After eight seasons as head coach and de facto defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer’s ability to lead a top defense has waned significantly. Yes, there have been injuries, but every team faces injuries. The Vikings weren’t hit any harder with defensive injuries than the Green Bay Packers, and yet the Vikings defense ranks near the bottom of the league, while the Packers defense is right near the top ten. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of difference in rankings comes from pass defense, and a Packers secondary coached by Jerry Gray, whom Mike Zimmer let go after the 2019 season.
That aside, there haven’t been a lot of significant development successes among young defensive players in recent years either. All that is something of an indictment of the defensive coaching staff that Zimmer leads. The play of defensive veterans, many of them approaching or over 30, has not been particularly encouraging either.
A good head coach and coaching staff starts with player development. And at this point Zimmer simply isn’t producing. The only young cornerback in recent years that’s looked promising is Cameron Dantzler, and his development was dealt a blow this season as he was replaced as a starter, without competition, by Bashaud Breeland despite a promising end to his rookie season. Breeland was one of the worst performing cornerbacks in the league this season. MacKensie Alexander, who Zimmer brought back this year, has been the worst performing cornerback in the league according to PFF. Zimmer started as a defensive backs coach in the NFL.
The second thing a good head coach and coaching staff does is put together a solid week of preparation and a good game plan every week. Zimmer has been inconsistent in that respect, both this season and throughout his tenure in Minnesota. Sometimes his team is ready with a good plan of attack, other times he appears caught off-guard or the team is not as prepared as it might be. This past off-season, Andre Patterson, as co-defensive coordinator, said Zimmer and the defensive coaches did a complete overhaul of their defensive scheme, and had implemented according to Zimmer, one big change and a few ‘tweaks’ in preparation for this season. Patterson said it was the first time Zimmer had done such a significant overhaul of his scheme in nearly 20 years. And yet not much seemed to have changed this season, either in scheme or results. Zimmer has led a bottom tier defense in each of the last two seasons, the first time in his career as either a defensive coordinator or head coach that has happened. The Vikings gave up 27 or more points in ten games this season, creating a high bar for the offense to clear to win games.
Lastly there is game management. On that score Zimmer has improved when it comes to going for it on 4th downs, which he has been one of the better coaches in the league in making the right decisions in that situation. But in other areas he hasn’t fared as well. Scoring allowed at the end of halfs has been terrible. And clock management has been so-so at best. Something that should be much better after eight seasons.
In terms of coaching assistant hires, particularly on the defensive side, we haven’t seen much from any of the position coaches outside of Andre Patterson the last couple years. Between that and the scheme overhaul that wasn’t, it begins to feel like a defensive coaching staff that is struggling with ideas and what to do scheme-wise to get ahead of the curve and improve defensive performance.
Offensively, this was Klint Kubiak’s first season as an offensive coordinator. The Vikings were a top ten offense prior to the Packers game, largely based on how well they passed the ball- which was the strength of the team. Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson were easily the best two players on the team this season among starters according to PFF, offense or defense. They were able to do that despite an offensive line that ranked near the bottom in most pass blocking metrics, whether PFF grades, pass blocking efficiency, or pass blocking win rates. The run game and run blocking both were mediocre for the Vikings this season, which was a significant decline from the top five run game the Vikings had a year ago. Despite some perceptions as an overly committed run offense, the Vikings under Klint Kubiak passed about 58% of the time, middle-of-the-pack in league rankings, along with Green Bay and Cincinnati, for example, and more than Arizona at 55%.
But the younger Kubiak still has plenty of room for improvement in play-calling, and in game planning, as can be expected for a first-year coordinator. Often the failure was in not doing enough other stuff, in terms of passing or other creative plays, to take the defense’s attention away from the run game, for the latter to be successful. And being less predictable on specific down-and-distance play calls. But some of that flexibility is limited by an offensive line that, while improving, still fails to control the line of scrimmage most of the time. Longer developing passing plays are a particular limitation here, but more creative play-calling, including a larger playbook, would be helpful too.
The Vikings have some good position coaches offensively, including running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, who’s developed a steady string of good backs, and while only in his first season, Keenan McCardell as wide receivers coach. Offensive line coach Phil Rauscher, also in his first season, I would give credit to for developing Christian Darrisaw, who looks like he could develop into a solid left tackle for the Vikings for years to come, and in Ezra Cleveland, who improved this season. I also credit him for getting Mason Cole into the starting lineup, who could be a solid center or guard for the Vikings going forward if he’s extended. Even Garrett Bradbury improved finally. While still a lot of improvement is needed, Rauscher seems like he’s on the right track.
Beyond that, the Kubiak clan of assistants- Brian Pariani and now Senior Offensive Advisor Rick Dennison seem of more questionable value. I doubt Dennison will be back in any case.
But overall, the assistant coaching decisions Mike Zimmer is responsible for in recent years aren’t particularly compelling. Paul Guenther and Dom Capers as special assistants seems like Zimmer needs help but is going to the wrong people to get it. I’m not sure how much credit I’d give Adam Zimmer in developing linebackers either. Certainly Eric Kendricks has developed into a top linebacker under Adam Zimmer, but Anthony Barr regressed if anything, and there hasn’t been any others of note, really.
Bottom line here is that Zimmer simply hasn’t done much in recent years with stuff he can control to merit a passing evaluation. Particularly after eight years on the job. He clearly is a respected coach, from both his players and other coaches and players around the league, but he’s shown diminishing returns in recent years, and at his age and tenure, it may be time to call it a career. I don’t see any compelling reason why the Wilfs would choose to keep Zimmer as head coach, and fully expect them to release him at or by the end of the season. Whether a new head coach will choose to keep existing position coaches or coordinators or not will depend on the hire, but there are at least a few coaches worth keeping on the Vikings staff.
In part two of this off-season series, I’ll evaluate General Manager Rick Spielman and his staff.