If Nick Saban Can Adapt, Why Can't Mike Zimmer?

Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson (USA Today Sports)

Two weeks ago, legendary Alabama head coach Nick Saban made headlines for a certain admission. Despite garnering iconic status for his defensive mastery after winning seven national championships, Saban couldn’t help but acknowledge the current state of football.

After taking the Crimson Tide job back in 2007, Saban orchestrated defenses that ranked in the top five in opponents’ points per game throughout all of college football in eight of his first 11 seasons. But over the past three years, Alabama has seen their opponents score an average of 18.1, 18.6, and 19.4 points per game, pushing his defenses outside the top 10 in each one. And as Saban alluded to in his soundbite, the 19.4 points per game that his defense allowed this past season was the worst defense he’s had since his first season in Tuscaloosa back in ’07.

While his defense began to show cracks in the armor the year prior, the final straw for Saban came during the 2019 season. After starting the year 8-0, Saban and No. 1 Alabama hosted No. 2 LSU. At the time, LSU was led by a brand-new hotshot 30-year-old passing-game coordinator, Joe Brady, who was responsible for revolutionizing the Tigers’ previously archaic offense. Brady, Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Justin Jefferson went into Tuscaloosa and hung 46 points on Saban’s vaunted defensive unit, coming away with the victory that legitimized their championship run.

Three weeks later, against bitter in-state rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Saban’s defense surrendered 48 points in a loss that would knock the Crimson Tide out of the College Football Playoff for the first time since the playoff’s inception back in 2014. While Saban was forced to take a hard look in the mirror following those crushing defeats, a slight culture shift to his program, which he admits to above, can largely be attributed to his team capturing another national title this past season, despite coaching a defense that saw its opponents’ points per game increase for the third straight year.

Those philosophies that Saban mentioned he was raised on sure sound familiar to the current brand of football that Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings continue to put forth, eh? Play good defense. Run the ball. Control field position. Blah blah blah. And as Saban so eloquently conveyed two weeks ago, you’re not going to win anything doing that now.

My question is: if Nick Saban — who has accomplished far more throughout his career by sticking to his guns and his defensive philosophies — can admit that defense no longer wins championships, why can’t Mike Zimmer?

Let’s not forget, Saban and Zimmer are cut from the same cloth as old-school, elite defensive masterminds. While Saban’s defenses aren’t the same dominant force they used to be five or so years ago, he still fields the best defense in his conference. But instead of relying on an offensive identity that was largely comprised of playing ball control, Saban understood that he needed his offense to have 60 minutes worth of urgency to keep up with the current state of the game. Since 2018, Alabama’s offenses have seen their points per game skyrocket to 45.6, 47.2, and 48.5. The Crimson Tide averaged anywhere from 27.1 to 38.8 points per game from 2007 to 2017.

Imagine what a similar shift in culture could do for the Vikings, with Zimmer taking the training wheels off his offense. The only thing holding this unit back is the identity that Zimmer continues to demand from the side of the ball that he doesn’t coach. Over the past two years, Minnesota has ranked 27th and 30th in pass attempts across the entire league. It’s impossible to have an offense that keeps its foot on the gas for the entirety of the game when you run the ball with that much volume.

Don’t fool yourself, the Vikings have the weaponry to be a league-leading offense. They have the ability to play the role of aggressor, as opposed to the brand of offense we’ve seen over the past two years. For all the commentary that surrounds Kirk Cousins, the fact of the matter is that since Justin Jefferson was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 3, only Aaron Rodgers — last year’s NFL MVP — had a higher passer rating than Cousins’ 109.7. Cousins outperformed other MVP candidates Patrick Mahomes (108.9) and Josh Allen (104.6) over the final 14 weeks of the 2020 season.

For this franchise to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender, Zimmer needs to acknowledge that the game of football orbits around the offense, and everything else — including his beloved defense — is secondary.

Let’s be honest here. Playing ball-control offense isn’t playing to win. By implementing that philosophy, you’re playing not to lose. The time is now for Mike Zimmer to take a page out of Nick Saban’s playbook from his dynasty in Tuscaloosa and hand the keys of his franchise over to the offense.

Because as Saban said two weeks ago, “You gotta outscore ’em.”

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