After the Minnesota Vikings wrapped up their season, Mike Zimmer sentenced himself to an offseason of exile. While some fans wanted him to run as far as he could and never come back, Zimmer stopped at a familiar place that allowed him to reflect on 2020. Sitting at his Kentucky ranch, Zimmer proudly boasted over his offense from last season.
“Fourth in yards, explosive plays, and Dalvin Cook?” Zimmer grunted in amazement. “If I can just get this defense turned around, there’s no way we can’t make a run to the Super Bowl!”
But the three packets of Red Man he dipped were a little too much and Zimmer decided to take a nap. When he woke up, Zimmer gazed at the stars and compared them to runs up the middle that could be used on 2nd-and-1. Just as he thought to call it a night, the clouds rolled in and Bill Parcells himself appeared in the sky.
“Your offense was pretty good this year, Mike,” Parcells admitted. “But you need to adapt. Let me tell you a little story about how I was able to do it.”
Zimmer was confused because he wondered why Parcells made him call his landline if he could appear in the sky, but also because he thought his offense was fine. There was no reason not to run it back in 2021, but that changed when Parcells took him on a tour down memory lane.
It all started back in 1983 when Parcells took over as head coach of the New York Giants. Enamored with the pass in a league that loved to run the ball, Parcells team’s ranked in the top 10 in passing yards in each of his first three seasons. The formula helped get New York out of the NFC East’s basement, but it wasn’t until 1985 when Parcells had a shift in philosophy.
While the Giants ranked 10th in passing yards, they also ranked second in rushing attempts and fourth in rushing yardage. With Joe Morris leading the way, they ran their way to their first Super Bowl in 1986 and found a new blueprint for success. Although there was a hiccup in 1987 and 1988, Parcells finished his stint in New York with back-to-back seasons of ranking second in the NFL in rushing attempts.
With a tenacious defense led by Lawrence Taylor, the Giants suffocated their opponents and took home another Super Bowl title before Parcells retired in 1990. That retirement lasted two seasons before Parcells resurfaced with the New England Patriots in 1993.
Parcells didn’t have the dominant defense he was known for with the Giants in Foxboro. But he did have Drew Bledsoe, who was probably better than any quarterback he had in New YorkParcells still ran the ball with the defense having its issues, with the fourth-most attempts in the NFL in 1993, but turned Bledsoe loose in the 1994 season.
There was no doubt that Parcells gritted his teeth through a year where Bledsoe led the NFL with 27 interceptions, but that risk had to be taken with a defense that that was in the middle of the road in terms of points (12th) and yardage (18th) allowed. The end result was a 10-6 season and the beginning of an era where Parcells began to embrace the pass.
Beginning with that 1994 campaign, Bledsoe led the NFL in pass attempts in three consecutive seasons. While the Patriots’ defense was one of the worst in the league in 1995, things came together as Parcells rebuilt the unit ahead of the 1996 season.
With Bledsoe chucking the ball to Terry Glenn (90 catches, 1,132 yards, 6 TDs on 167 targets) and Ben Coates (62 catches, 682 yards, 9 TDs on 100 targets), the Patriots used the pass to bury teams early. Once the game was in hand, Parcells turned to Curtis Martin on the ground, as the Patriots went 11-5, before losing to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
His philosophy didn’t change with a defense that ranked 24th in yards allowed when Parcells jumped to the New York Jets the following season. Neil O’Donnell and Glenn Foley threw the eighth-most attempts in the league and willed the Jets to a 9-7 season, just barely missing the playoffs.
The pendulum shifted back to the running game in 1998 when Martin and Vinny Testaverde arrived in New York, but the precedent had been set. While Parcells never abandoned the run, he was able to use it in a different way to help his team win no matter what kind of defense they had. For an old-school, grind-it-out, lean-on-defense coach, it’s a surprise to see that Parcells’ teams ranked in the top 10 in passing attempts eight times during his career.
This brings us back to Zimmer and the current state of the Vikings’ offense. On paper, there are plenty of reasons that Zimmer should be happy. Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook both had career years and Justin Jefferson had the greatest season by a rookie receiver in the Super Bowl era. With other weapons such as Adam Thielen and Irv Smith Jr., there’s a good case for the Vikings to run their system back for 2021.
But there also felt like there was untapped potential. While the Vikings rode Cook to a brief revival in the second half of the season, the Vikings didn’t turn Cousins loose until they were well behind on the scoreboard. That situation played out frequently for a team that owned the 27th ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yardage and 29th in terms of points.
Although the Vikings will get several key pieces back on the defensive end next season, it might be too much to expect those pieces to vault the Vikings back into a top-10 defense. Hence, a more aggressive approach could do wonders and could mirror what Parcells did throughout the 90s.
While Cousins is more athletic than Bledsoe, he’s still a stationary quarterback who does his best work when he has a clean pocket. With dynamic weapons on the outside with Thielen and Jefferson, the Vikings can air it out early and even have Smith as their red-zone target (assuming Kyle Rudolph doesn’t return). Jumping ahead of an opposing team through the air would help soften the defense up, which would help Zimmer create a more efficient ground game with Cook.
This sounds like a pipe dream but is more realistic when you consider Zimmer already has used this gameplan to perfection during the 2017 season opener against the New Orleans Saints.
As Sam Bradford rolled up 382 yards and three touchdowns through the air, the Vikings were able to build a 26-9 lead early in the fourth quarter. While the Saints didn’t have trouble moving the ball thanks to 291 passing yards from Drew Brees, the Vikings turned to the ground game and watched Cook pile up 127 yards to kill the clock in a 29-19 victory.
The win set the tone for the season as the Vikings ranked 11th in passing yards, but still found a way to rank seventh in rushing yards and second in rushing attempts. That team went 13-3, made the NFC Championship Game and established the best argument for why Zimmer shouldn’t be fired anytime soon.
With Zimmer’s job on the line heading into the 2021 season, his offensive adaptation should be a key focal point. A lot of the elements are in place to have the same success they had last season, but like Parcells learned, it’s better to have that success before the game gets out of hand. Otherwise, Zimmer could spend a lot more time stargazing at his ranch.
[h/t to Matthew Coller, who came on The Homer Horn recently and brought up Parcells’ offensive record]