If the NFL was the Wild West, Mike Zimmer would be its last outlaw. For years, Zimmer succeeded with a defense that suffocated opponents and an offense that kept the ball out of their hands. Zimmer’s style never got the Minnesota Vikings past the NFC Championship Game, but it was enough to maintain his rule over Minneapolis.
But like in any good western, there’s a new sheriff in town. Teams have shifted toward an offensive-minded philosophy. While the old days were about keeping the ball away from the opposing offense, today’s game challenges them to hold serve. Quarterbacks are dual-threat weapons and receivers are dynamic playmakers. Tight ends have become viable weapons and fourth downs have become a showdown at high noon.
In other words, the game has changed. If Zimmer wants to survive, he’ll have to change with it.
The Vikings’ philosophy is to run the ball until it opens up the pass. They couldn’t do that against the Cincinnati Bengals because they were penalized so often, but they ran for 177 yards against the Arizona Cardinals last week. That monster output allowed Kirk Cousins to throw for three touchdowns. Still, Zimmer decided to play it safe and settled for a field goal instead of taking a shot at the end zone.
Contrast that with what the Cardinals were doing. With Kyler Murray leading the way, Arizona threw for 400 yards in order to keep up with a white-hot Cousins. While the Vikings went away from the passing game, the Cardinals kept coming and eventually won.
Even when the Vikings needed to pass, they were running the ball on a drive that set up Greg Joseph’s game-winning field goal attempt. In 1997, the formula would have been to run the ball, control the clock, and get out of Arizona with a win.
Later in the day, Baltimore Ravens were battling the Kansas City Chiefs in a game that resembled a track meet. With 71 points on the board, Jim Harbaugh put the decision of a fourth-down conversion in the hands of Lamar Jackson. His quarterback came through and the Ravens won the game.
There was no reason that Cousins couldn’t have done the same thing, but Zimmer opted for the field goal. The result? An 0-2 record.
With his back against the wall, now would be the time to rely on the offense that Zimmer proudly boasted was fourth in total production last season. Although a lot of that had to do with the defense, the Vikings showed that they could keep up with some of the best teams in the NFL, ones that can’t be stopped even if Zimmer’s 2017 defense showed up.
In other words, this is the time to let the strength of the Vikings come through. Let Kirk throw the ball to Justin Jefferson, who doesn’t seem to be targeted unless they’re down by two scores. Throw deep passes to Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn, who have emerged as top secondary weapons.
By throwing the ball more regularly, not only can the Vikings keep up with teams like the Cardinals, they can pound them into submission with one of the best running backs in the NFL. But the problem is that when things get tight, Zimmer goes back to what he knows. Coming into this season, he demanded a defensive overhaul rather than investing in a third receiver and depth along the offensive line.
Even when talking to reporters on Sunday, Zimmer seemed hell-bent on running Dalvin Cook.
In the Wild West, playing an ailing running back would be like Zimmer busting through the saloon doors with a one-shot pistol, only to find out every in the bar has a machine gun. Even if it’s accurate, one shot may not get the job done.
Of course, if Zimmer doesn’t adapt, he’ll say that he did it his way in true outlaw fashion. Unfortunately, it may mean the Vikings have to find a new sheriff who’s adapted to a changing world.