“The Future of the Vikings” is a series of articles looking at everything from strengths and weaknesses to draft and free agent options to schemes and trends heading into 2017 and beyond. Read Part 1 on quarterbacks here, Part 2 on the running backs, Part 3, the wide receivers, Part 4, the offensive line, Part 5, the defensive line, Part 6, the linebackers, Part 7, the defensive backs. And for Part 8, the head coach…
The Minnesota Vikings went into the bye week feeling like the playoffs were a foregone conclusion. They were 5-0 and had just bludgeoned the Houston Texans 31-13 at home. Minnesota had the best defense in the league and long-time NFL writer Peter King dubbed Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford the MVP of the first quarter of the season. At that time, head coach Mike Zimmer was the runaway leader for the Coach of the Year award.
We didn’t realize at the time that problems were lurking.
During the offseason, Zimmer sought out advice about his offense, presumably looking to find whether offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s scheme was a good fit for his roster. The Vikings’ head coach elected to hire Pat Shurmur as “tight ends coach,” but it was clear that the former Rams and Eagles offensive coordinator was there to bring new ideas. Shurmur came with him an extensive background in the West Coast offense that dated back to the Andy Reid days in Philadelphia – and a scheme that is a far cry from Turner’s philosophy.
“I think it’s just good to get more guys in that have input,” Zimmer told Scout.com last January.
When the Vikings traded for Bradford, Turner deferred to many of Shurmur’s concepts because he had coached Bradford the previous season in Philadelphia and for several years in St. Louis. Against the Texans, the Vikings had the quickest passing game in the NFL – a staple of the West Coast offense – getting the ball out in just over two seconds.
That all changed coming out of the bye. The Vikings went back to a familiar look with seven-step drops, deep-developing routes and a reliance on good blocking from the offensive line.
The results were disastrous.
In losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears, Bradford was sacked 11 times and the offense produced just 20 points. Turner resigned the day after the Vikings were embarrassed by the Bears 20-10 on Monday Night Football. Shurmur was named interim offensive coordinator.
If Zimmer could do it all again, he would have fired Turner in the offseason or taken charge of the situation during the bye week and stuck with the West Coast offense. But he who hesitates is lost.
The drama with Turner did not cause the Vikings’ season to fall apart. It It just removed the parachute if things went wrong.
Three of the first five wins came with a lot of help from unsustainable events, like Eric Kendricks’ pick-six when the Tennessee Titans were on the doorstep of victory or Marcus Sherels’ punt return for touchdown against Carolina. The Vikings were bound to have some of those bounces go the other way. And when they finally did, in the form of a Blair Walsh missed extra point against Detroit or an Adam Thielen fumble at the goal line against Dallas, the Eagles and Bears losses loomed large.
Zimmer played his cards wrong with the handling of the Turner situation, which could be viewed as a one-off error, but his ability to manage personalities was brought into question on more than one occasion in 2016 (more on that later). But the bigger concern should be that the Vikings have ranked toward the bottom of the league in offense each year that Zimmer has been in charge.
|Vikings Offense under Zimmer|
|Offense Rank||Passing Yards||Rushing Yards|
His team’s passing offense ranked 21st in Yards Per Attempt adjusted for sacks and interceptions. Zimmer praised Shurmur for Bradford’s improved numbers after Turner’s resignation, but he averaged fewer Adjusted Yards Per Attempt (7.67 vs. 7.10) under Shurmur and the QB ratings were nearly identical.
While injuries on the offensive line were at the root of the Vikings’ problems, there was culpability on the part of the head coach. The statistical analysis website Pro Football Focus ranked TJ Clemmings 78th out of 80 tackles this season, yet the Vikings continued to start him at left tackle despite having other options like playing Alex Boone at tackle or giving backup Rashod Hill, who was signed off Jacksonville’s practice squad, an opportunity.
Boone suggested that he move to left tackle after a season-ending injury to Jake Long. He ranked as the 30th best guard in pass protection via PFF and played tackle in college and early in his career with the San Francisco 49ers. When Hill played in Week 17, he managed a solid 77.0 rating from PFF (Clemmings scored a 28.3).
The Vikings will go into the offseason with their No. 1 goal to improve up front, but when they do rebuild the O-line, excuses for a lack of production will be gone. Bradford will have another year with his coach and receivers and Shurmur will have all offseason to make adjustments.
Without significant improvements will be incredibly tough to make a deep playoff run, especially when you consider that NFL’s No. 1, 2, 4 and 7 ranked offenses in Pro Football References Expected Points stat are the final four in the playoffs (the Vikings ranked 22nd).
So the Vikings’ head coach must press his offense to find more ways to get playmakers like Jerick McKinnon or Cordarrelle Patterson (if he returns) the ball. McKinnon’s fall in yards per carry and lack of effectiveness in the passing game cannot entirely be blamed on the offensive line. And Patterson has averaged nearly 11 yards per rush in his career, but ran just seven times in 2016.
Also Bradford was the third worst quarterback in terms of Yards Per Attempt on third down. It should be one of the Vikings’ top priorities to solve that problem.
Whether Zimmer is directly in charge of the offense or not does not matter toward his accountability for it in 2017. He decided to keep Shurmur as offensive coordinator, so the Vikngs’ offensive performance ultimately falls on his shoulders.
Until Week 16, the perception surrounding Zimmer was that he was dealt a very bad hand in 2016 and gave it the old college try. He did everything he could, including risking his own health to coach on the sidelines in a key game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But Cornerback Gate changed the way Zimmer’s 2016 was viewed.
With playoff hopes on life support, the Vikings’ cornerbacks decided to go against Zimmer’s game plan against the Green Bay Packers. Instead of having Xavier Rhodes shadow Jordy Nelson, the defensive backs elected to play their own sides. Rhodes admitted the plan following the game after Zimmer revealed that his corners had gone against him to open the game.
Some in the locker room had been unhappy with Zimmer’s comments about players in the media throughout the season. The Vikings’ head coach accused linebacker Anthony Barr of “coasting” and had taken several hard jabs at injured defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Zimmer’s defense was also coming off a game in which the Indianapolis Colts badly out-schemed the Vikings.
To add insult to injury, when Zimmer addressed the media to explain what happened with the cornerbacks against Green Bay, he chose to dodge questions rather than being straight forward. He said that Rhodes, “gets nervous,” when speaking with the media and made a mistake. He also said it was simply a miscommunication. It went over like a lead balloon.
When a team loses eight of its final 11 games, nobody is happy and there is always friction. The echo of Rogue One Cornerback, however, will last until next season if Zimmer does not reconsider some of the ways he handled players through the media – which also included calling them “soft” after the loss against the Eagles.
At his end-of-year press conference, Zimmer said he did not have plans to assess how he handles the locker room. Maybe he only said that so as not to admit there was ever a problem. There have been rumblings that the Vikings will ask their head coach to take advice on handling the media next season. It seems like a necessary step.
Clock management and challenges
One thing Zimmer said he will look to improve is clock management. In the Vikings’ first loss to the Lions, Zimmer could have wound the clock to a point where there was no chance of a Detroit comeback when the Vikings scored to take a three point lead. Instead, he called timeout with 27 seconds remaining, just enough for Matthew Stafford to put Matt Prater in field goal position.
The Vikings may want to follow the footsteps of the Tampa Bay Bucs , who added another coach to handle clock management.
“Because I’m going to stay as the play-caller, and there are plenty of guys in the NFL who stay as play-callers as head coaches,” Koetter said in a Q&A with Bleacher Report. “There are just so many situations that come up in an NFL game, whether it’s clock management or just game-ending situations, to have someone that they’re fully dedicated to that preparation in leading up to the game and on game day made sense.”
The process of challenges also needs to be analyzed as Zimmer has only won six of 15 challenges since taking over as head coach in 2014.
An area where Zimmer showed progressiveness was on fourth and short. While the Vikings didn’t have much success, Zimmer often made the right call, going for in on fourth down and less than three yards on 44.4% of chances. The league average was 29.6%.
The Zimmer defense
Of all the questions about the Vikings’ future, one you will never hear come up is whether Zimmer is a good defensive coach. In 2003, his Dallas defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in yards against and No. 2 in points against. In Cincinnati, his defenses ranked in the top 10 in points allowed four out of six years and in Minnesota the Vikings have ranked in the top 10 in points against two of the three years he has been on the job – and the other year they were 11th.
That doesn’t mean Zimmer is perfect, though. The aforementioned error against the Colts was his most glaring mistake. Indianapolis coaxed the Vikings into using their base defense on 53% of plays, then took advantage of a huge mismatch between their three tight ends and the Vikings’ three linebackers.
The Colts also burned backup safety Anthony Harris, who is a much better tackler than cover safety. They might have been better served moving Newman to safety and having Trae Waynes play the No. 2 corner spot.
Even the ’85 Bears had one bad game, but the Colts game was indicative of a change Zimmer may have to make, which is to reduce his time in the base defense even more. The Vikings played three corners on 62% of plays. Patriots head coach, speaking with ESPN, said his team runs nickel or dime about 80% of the time. The Seahawks played nickel corner Jeremy Lane on 71% of total snaps. That isn’t the only option the Vikings can use to further adapt to pass heavy offenses and versatile tight ends. The Arizona Cardinals regularly used three safeties.
Zimmer will also have to deal with changes in personnel. The Vikings might
not bring back nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn, who was a valuable piece of his defense, and Terence Newman could retire or go elsewhere. That could mean adapting to two young corners in Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes or teaching the system to a free agent.
Confidence is high in Minnesota’s 2017 defense, but as you can see from the chart, defenses often bounce up and down with schedule, injuries and changes in personnel. The Vikings’ head coach will have his work cut out to maintain a top tier defense, even if he is bringing back the likes of Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph and Harrison Smith, all elite players at their position.
The hot seat
In three years, Zimmer has gone 26-22 and appeared in one playoff game. Yes, he should have at least two playoff games if not for Blair Walsh, but that’s how it goes. In his first two seasons, the Vikings either met or exceeded expectations. In 2016 they fell short. General manager Rick Spielman traded for Bradford because he felt (as did everyone else) that the team could be a legitimate Super Bowl contender with solid quarterback play.
When expectations are not met in the NFL, changes are often made. The last time a head coach went 5-0 then finished 8-8, which was Josh McDaniels in 2009 with Denver, he lost his job the following season.
Before the 2016 season, NFL.com ranked Zimmer as the 13th best coach in the NFL. Fans felt like they had one of the best in charge. The team was on rock solid ground with their man in charge. None of those perceptions have greatly changed, but there are cracks in the foundation that weren’t there before.
So Zimmer won’t be making anybody’s “hot seat” lists at the start of the 2017 season. However, if the Vikings don’t get off to a good start and some of the same problems persist, pressure on Zimmer could mount quickly.
Thursday Night Lights at Mystic Lake. Click here for details