For the second time in three seasons, the Minnesota Vikings regressed from a division champion to an eight-win team.
While a multitude of reasonable explanations exist for why the Vikings struggled offensively in Year 1 of having Kirk Cousins as their quarterback, the most influential event might have been the loss of offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who passed away suddenly from heart failure two days before training camp at the age of 56.
The loss of Sparano, head coach Mike Zimmer’s confidante and an influential figure in Minnesota’s offensive renaissance in 2017, left long-lasting tremors on the 2018 campaign, as Zimmer explained in his season-ending press conference Thursday.
“Quite honestly, the death of Tony Sparano really kind of threw things into a little bit of a downward spiral,” Zimmer said, “only because of the fact this guy was a type-A personality, he was very innovative in the running game and had a strong voice in that room and a strong voice with me. Yeah, I do feel like we lost a bit of our identity. We’re going to get that back.”
With Sparano on staff, the 2017 Vikings survived the loss of rookie running back Dalvin Cook to injury in Week 4 and still managed to finish seventh in rushing yardage. They regressed to 30th in 2018 with co-offensive line coaches Andrew Janocko and Clancy Barone, while the offensive line struggled to protect Cousins.
“I think there’s a lot of things that go on, and we have to do a better job there,” said Zimmer. “If you look at the five years that I’ve been here, defensively we kind of were going up and maintained where we were, and offensively we’ve been down here. I have to do a better job of creating the defensive mindset and attitude and things on offense.”
Sparano brought a no-nonsense mentality that resonated with the team’s offensive line, and Zimmer lauded his innovation in figuring out how to block talented defensive players. His death not only devastated Zimmer and the O-line corps, but left the Vikings without a singular, dynamic voice for one of their most vital units.
As Zimmer explained, one of Sparano’s greatest attributes was his ability to communicate with the line on gamedays.
“Tony was very innovative in the running game,” said Zimmer. “When I’m talking to the defense during the games, he would be influential while they’re getting going offensively about what they’re going to be doing the next series, so that was a little bit of a factor.
“I do think that Clancy and Andrew, for the situation that they were put in did an unbelievable job, but it’s tough. I got that phone call … Sunday morning at 9 a.m. from Kim that he passed away, and we’re getting ready to go to training camp in two days. So the whole thing was another one of the sections for my book, I guess.”
There’s been no word if the Vikings will make a change at offensive line coach, though it’s safe to assume they will settle on one individual as opposed to the shared arrangement with Janocko and Barone. They’ll also have to evaluate whether the line needs another personnel overhaul after allowing the second-most pressures in football.
The Vikings honored Sparano throughout the season with pins on their helmets, but his absence loomed larger than anybody imagined.
“Every time we put that pin on that said ‘TS’ we were thinking about him and the things that we miss about him as well,” Zimmer said. “I know the offensive line was devastated when that happened because they really loved the guy as did everybody that worked with him. He was a grumpy little Italian guy who was very, very good at his job and was a good friend of mine. There’s no book on how to do it. You just try to figure out how to do it the best way and if it works it works and if it don’t, it don’t.”