An honest Mike Zimmer filled up his Zoom rectangle for a final time this season and held court for over 20 minutes as he reflected on a subpar 2020 campaign that matched his worst record as a head coach.
There were myriad reasons given for the 7-9 season, ranging from personal miscalculation, injury hits and special teams struggles. Zimmer also portrayed a sense of optimism that 2021 will be better, and it’s hard not to believe him, considering the head coach is 3-for-3 at reaching the playoffs after non-playoff seasons.
But an unexpected development on the coaching staff sends the Vikings into the offseason with a bit of unease. That’s where we start as we review Zimmer’s final media session of the 2020-21 season.
KUBIAK MAY LEAVE, BUT THE SCHEME WON’T CHANGE
It’s not official yet, but reports are that Gary Kubiak is contemplating retirement after one season as the Vikings offensive coordinator. The thinking went that a veteran play-caller like Kubiak, who didn’t have aspirations to pursue head coaching jobs elsewhere, would allow the Vikings to develop multi-year continuity in an area that’s sorely lacked it. Minnesota has not completed two consecutive seasons with the same offensive coordinator since Norv Turner in 2014-15, and it’s possible they could be hiring their sixth one since 2016 if Kubiak moves on.
Zimmer said Tuesday that Kubiak will be taking some time to evaluate his health before making a decision. Kubiak stepped down as head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2016 due to health concerns and took a lower-stress job as a consultant with the Vikings in 2019 before being asked to fill Kevin Stefanski’s shoes when Stefanski took the head coaching job in Cleveland.
“I know that he’s had some health issues in the past, so it’s always good to take some time and think about where you’re at, mentally and physically,” Zimmer said. “Obviously, this year was a major mental and physical drain on all of us, including the players. We’ll just see how all of that unfolds as we move forward. [He’s] the best I’ve ever been around, terrific person, great coach, and I love him. We’ll just see how he’s doing.”
Whether Kubiak stays or goes, the question of the offense’s direction remains. Kubiak oversaw an offense that finished fourth in yards, but that measure doesn’t hold up against more telling analytics like DVOA (eighth), points per drive (10th) or scoring percentage (18th). The Vikings were probably a top-third offense overall but also had terrific injury luck on that side of the ball, a historic season from Justin Jefferson, a career year from Dalvin Cook, and excellent production from Adam Thielen. Even with all that they finished just 11th in points scored. It’s reasonable to ask whether there is more untapped potential in the Vikings offense, but Zimmer spoke glowingly about the team’s philosophy, saying it was the first time in his tenure that he’s had a “really, really explosive offense,” and he likes how the current system fits quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ strengths.
“I love the scheme that we’re running offensively, I love the wide zone offense, I love the play-action passes, all those things,” Zimmer said. “A coach told me one time that your offense should be what your quarterback is best at, and that’s what I feel Kirk is best at. Those kind of things are what makes him really good. So to me, that is really important.”
Not only does that statement reflect a continued belief in Cousins going forward, but it raises the likelihood of an in-house hire like Klint Kubiak or Rick Dennison if the Vikings make a change. Kubiak has never acted as a play-caller, but Dennison has four career stints as an offensive coordinator, most recently with the Buffalo Bills in 2017. Dennison’s high point came with the 2008 Broncos, who ranked second in yardage but only finished 8-8 behind Jay Cutler and missed the playoffs.
THERE WILL BE A SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR SEARCH
To nobody’s surprise, Zimmer announced that special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf’s contract expired and would not be renewed. Uneven wouldn’t be a drastic enough word to describe the foibles of Minnesota’s special teams units, which struggled in virtually all six phases.
Beyond Dan Bailey‘s obvious kicking struggles that led to a league-worst field-goal percentage, the Vikings failed to get anything going in the return game with the worst punt-return average in the NFL and the 17th-ranked kick return average. In coverage, their net punt average was second-worst in the league, and they allowed a kick return touchdown to the Chicago Bears. They had two punts blocked in a single game, four fumbles by return men, and numerous special teams penalties. Missed tackles were commonplace, and the Vikings failed multiple times to down the ball at the goal line. They were forced to make a long-snapping change midseason and nearly switched kickers following Bailey’s seven misses in two games.
Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
“We obviously didn’t play very well,” Zimmer said. “A lot of the guys that should have been playing on special teams were playing on defense, but we are going to shore up that area. That will be a major emphasis as well.”
Assistant special teams coordinator and 14-year member of the organization Ryan Ficken could be in line for promotion unless he is deemed part of the problem. Detroit’s former special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs could be on Zimmer’s radar since the two overlapped for five years in Cincinnati. Coombs was fired mid-season by the Lions for calling a fake punt without permission, though there might’ve been other factors at play.
The Vikings finished the season with 23 sacks, less than half of last year’s total (48), and their leader in sacks was traded after Week 6. They recorded a meager two sacks in the final four games, a distressing finish to the year that fails to reflect any meaningful progress.
Minnesota didn’t have an impact player at either end position, 3-technique or nose tackle after losing Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly to free agency, Linval Joseph as a cap casualty and Danielle Hunter to injury. The group resembled what the Vikings might toss on the field as their second-string unit in a preseason game — not a set of starters for 16 games. To make matters worse, many of the contributors are unlikely to be part of the roster long-term except rookie D.J. Wonnum. Even Ifeadi Odenigbo‘s future is murky as he enters restricted free agency coming off a down season.
The bat signal has been lit. Minnesota needs pass rushers, stat.
“A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers,” Zimmer said, diverting the subject when asked if the Vikings needed defensive tackle help. “I’ve always said since the day I walked in here that you’ve got to have people that can cover and you’ve got to have people that can rush, and like we’ve done in the past, we’ve had Brian Robison line up in there and rush the passer, Stephen Weatherly or a whole bunch of different guys that can do different things. So we need people that can rush the quarterback.”
The insinuation by Zimmer is that getting more pure pass rushers could allow them to move ends inside on passing downs as they did with Odenigbo and Weatherly in 2019, Griffen and Hunter in last year’s playoff game, or Robison in 2017. Minnesota lacked the defensive end depth to do that in 2020 and was often relying on the undersized Hercules Mata’afa and the oversized Armon Watts on passing downs. Zimmer’s assertion that the Vikings need pass-rushing help could mean drafting a defensive end before Day 3, something the team hasn’t done since 2015 when they found Danielle Hunter in the third round.
COUNTING ON HEALTH
The Vikings fought the injury battle valiantly for three-quarters of the season until a late-season rash of maladies popped up and contributed to Minnesota’s three of four losses to end the year. Eric Kendricks missed the final five games, Kyle Rudolph missed the final four, and Cameron Dantzler and Ifeadi Odenigbo missed time as well.
Injuries (and opt-outs) were the elephant in the room for much of the year as Hunter never played a down, Anthony Barr lasted a game and a half, and Michael Pierce opted to skip the season due to COVID-19 concerns. As additional injuries mounted, the Vikings went from refusing to use injuries as an excuse to accepting the notion that their defense, particularly, was too undermanned. Opponents scored 36.5 points per game in the final quarter of the season against the Vikings.
“I think if you look at the history, we had over 130 missed games to defensive players that were on IR this year,” Zimmer said. “We had eight missed games of offensive players on IR. If you look at the statistics of when we have high injury totals, those are the years that have been the down years. When we’ve stayed healthy, we’ve played really well. But you can look at the injuries, and [Eric Sugarman] gave me a thing on that the other day. It was like very glaring.”
The Vikings had several opportunities to bank more wins and put themselves in the playoff field, but instead, a building trend continued of high injury rates correlating with down seasons in Zimmer’s seven-year tenure. The Star Tribune pointed out Tuesday that they were the sixth most affected team by injuries in 2020, per Football Outsiders, heading into Week 17. Considering Minnesota’s success when they have better injury luck, Zimmer may be within his rights to expect a marked improvement in 2021. But as the coach admits, he might’ve been wrong to assume a team this young would be able to withstand so many lost veterans.
“Obviously salary cap could be an issue, where we’re at as far as injuries, guys coming back for next year, so we’ll look at all those areas,” Zimmer said. “We’ll look at the free agency, we’ll look at the draft, we’ll look at our players and try to figure out the best way to handle this, but I do think if you said, ‘OK, well, Kendricks, Barr, Hunter and Pierce are coming back,’ I think that’s going to improve us automatically, but again, I probably miscalculated some things going into the season when we lost all the guys that we lost the year before.”