One of the characteristics of a successful football team is that they’ve taken on the personality of their head coach. This was evident in the 2017 Minnesota Vikings when a group of underdogs led by Mike Zimmer made their way to the NFC Championship game.
But Zimmer’s personality has a much different effect on this year’s team. After a 20-16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, the Vikings are no longer the loose, vigilant group that sent Minnesota into a frenzy. Instead, they’re a conservative group expecting the worst, and a big reason for that is the decision-making of their head coach.
The process started last offseason when Zimmer needed to re-tool his roster for a playoff run. Coming off a brutal 2020 season, he could have ventured into the great unknown and taken the opportunity to lean into his offense. But that would be a risk, and Zimmer decided to stick to what he knows best.
Instead of hiring an innovative mind to run the offense, he turned to the son of his former offensive coordinator, Klint Kubiak. Instead of upgrading the offensive line and other weaknesses, Zimmer chose to add a bunch of veteran defenders. And when the games started, Zimmer decided to focus on the same ball-control- and-defense philosophy instead of opening things up and scoring some points.
The decisions trickled down to the players, who are now a reflection of their head coach. The preseason was a glaring example as the backups played tight and made plenty of mistakes. With everyone from Tyreek Hill to KJ Hamler torching his defense, Zimmer got even more stubborn and went all-out to get a defensive touchdown.
Like many of his decisions, Zimmer isn’t aggressive when he should be, but he’s aggressive when he needs to play conservatively. Trotting out his starters in the third preseason game took out Irv Smith Jr., and the Vikings were left to scramble heading into their opener in Cincinnati.
With his safe decisions slowing down the offense, Kirk Cousins also embraced the overall vibe of the team by consistently throwing short of the sticks. Cousins would rather throw a checkdown to C.J. Ham than throw it up to two of the best receivers in the game to limit turnovers.
That approach has produced a beautiful stat line but also creates games like Sunday. On the opening drive, the Vikings were aggressive and marched down the field for a touchdown pass to Adam Thielen. Even on the second drive, Minnesota got off to a good start before Cousins overthrew a wide-open Justin Jefferson.
But things tightened up as the pressure began to mount. According to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin, Dallas pressured Cousins on 39.5% of his dropbacks, the highest percentage in a game this season. With Cousins sensing pressure that wasn’t there, he couldn’t find the deep routes, which led to the safe play.
The tight play that handcuffed the Viking offense was evident in their final two drives. After marching inside the 10-yard line, the Vikings ran the ball with Cook before a screen pass lost yardage on second down. With the Cowboys pushing back, Cousins rolled away from pressure but couldn’t pull the trigger on a touchdown, so he dumped it off to Thielen, and the Vikings settled for a field goal.
The Cowboys presented a sharp contrast. They played like they had nothing to lose after benching Dak Prescott. Backup QB Cooper Rush was given the freedom to average 10 air yards per attempt, more than double what Cousins put up. With a fade to a contested Amari Cooper, Dallas took the lead.
Cousins had one more chance to lead the Vikings to victory, but it was more of the same. A Garrett Bradbury false start and two check-downs that landed in bounds later, Cousins had one more play to make something happen. Instead, Cousins heaved a Hail Mary out of bounds, and the Cowboys ran away with the victory.
There’s something to be said about Zimmer’s presence looming over this team. They don’t appear to be in the right mindset to win games. It’s something that can happen when everybody’s job is on the line.
Zimmer’s conservative ways have gotten the best of the Vikings, and they need to make a change before it’s too late.