Minnesota Needs a Makeover

The Minnesota Vikings franchise needs to purify itself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer entered the 2021 NFL season with a regular-season record of 64-47-1 or a 57.59 winning percentage. However, it’s fair to point out Zimmer missed the Week 13 match-up against the Cowboys during the 2016 season that saw special teams coordinator Mike Priefer step in as interim head coach1. They lost that game 17-15, but Zimmer’s “true” record of 64-46-1 bumps his winning percentage up to just 58.11%. Now, let’s take a cursory glance over his record against teams that finished the year with an overall winning percentage above 50.0%.

Once we trim out the fat, his record is 14-34 or 29.17%. Let’s be fair and eliminate the game he didn’t coach against the Cowboys in 2016; his winning percentage still doesn’t even crack 30%, petering at 29.79%. Selecting data in this fashion doesn’t provide context, such as what was each team’s record was when they played, if anyone from either side was injured, etc. However, it does paint a picture of what the Minnesota Vikings have become during the Zimmer era; a paper tiger.

When Zimmer first arrived in Minnesota, there were expectations to help guide the third-youngest defense and sixth-youngest team overall2 to improve their 5-10-1 record from 2013 and their bottom-ranked defense in points allowed and passing touchdowns allowed. They were also ranked second-worst in yards allowed and passing yards allowed, but their defense was 11th in snap-weighted average age3 in 2013; they were losing some veterans and filling their spots with some younger players. A 7-9 record in 2014 was fair to fan expectations, and a solid identity was forming as their defense improved to 11th in points allowed, 14th in yards allowed, and 7th in passing yards allowed. However, they were 17th in passing touchdowns allowed and 25th in rushing yards allowed, a decline from 16th in the previous season in rushing yards allowed; I suppose Zimmer can hang his hat on improving the defense in rushing touchdowns allowed by improving from 18th to 11th, though. They only moderately improved in rushing yards allowed in 2015, ranking 17th, and took a step back in passing yards allowed by falling to 12th, but did continue improving defensively in 2015, ending the season ranked fifth in points allowed, 13th in yards allowed, and 12th in passing touchdowns allowed.

They were also third in rushing touchdowns allowed, giving up only seven rushing touchdowns all season. They also possessed the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL that year, as Adrian Peterson won his third rushing yard title with 1,485 rushing yards and his second rushing touchdown title with 11 rushing touchdowns. However, three other players also ran in 11 touchdowns that year, and this lack of explosiveness proved to be an issue for the team as they finished 29th in offensive yards, 31st in passing yards, and 31st in passing touchdowns for an overall 16th-ranked offense in points scored. Ultimately, the Vikings 11-5 record and first-place division finish ended with their flaccid offense producing only nine points and kicker Blair Walsh missing a game-winning 27-yard field goal as time expired in the Wild Card Round at home against Seattle. Their tepid offense continued to be their undoing in 2016, as the now Adrian Peterson-less Vikings had the worst rushing attack in terms of total yards and yards per attempt and were 26th in rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, new quarterback Sam Bradford, received in a trade after Bridgewater suffered a season-ending ACL injury in training camp, could only lead the Vikings to an 18th and 21st ranked finish in passing yards and passing touchdowns, respectively. Unfortunately, despite better passing numbers, their overall offensive yardage improved only one spot, 28th, and they regressed to 23rd in points scored.

Thankfully, their defense continued to improve, finishing third in rushing touchdowns allowed once again. While they were 20th in rushing yards allowed, they did finish third in passing yards allowed and 11th in passing touchdowns allowed for an overall third-ranked defense in yards allowed and sixth-ranked defense in points allowed. 2016 was disappointing due to the team regressing to an 8-8 record and missing the playoffs after trading a first and fourth-round pick to the Eagles for Sam Bradford, but in 2017, Zimmer’s vision came to fruition as the core he developed culminated with a 13-3 record and No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Bradford sat out in Week 2 of the 2017 season after the Vikings 29-19 win in Week 1, citing sore knees, allowing backup quarterback Case Keenum to come in and start for nearly4 the remainder of the season. Bridgewater remained injured to start the season, but behind Keenum, however, the passing offense improved to 11th and 12th in passing yards and passing touchdowns and provided a boost to a moderate running game that did rank seventh in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, but only 23rd in rush yards per attempt. The defense powered this unit, ranking first in yards allowed, points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, second in passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed, and ninth in rushing touchdowns allowed. The Saints nearly disrupted their season in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, but the “Minneapolis Miracle” allowed the Vikings to continue to the NFC Championship Game, where they got demolished by the Eagles 38-7.

Unfortunately, it’s been downhill since that blowout 2017 NFC Championship Game loss. The best record the Vikings have managed to put together since 2017 was a 10-6 record in the 2019 season. Their 8-7-1 record in 2018 and 7-9 record in 2020 prevented them from making the playoffs those years, and their 10-6 finish in 2019 meant they were the sixth seed for the playoffs that year. While the Vikings secured an overtime victory over the Saints in the Wild Card Round, the 49ers stonewalled them the following week in the Divisional Round in their last postseason appearance to date. What exactly has Zimmer been building?

I noted the Vikings’ young overall age upon Zimmer’s arrival in 2014 and the culmination of that nucleus’ potential in 2017, which I can perfectly illustrate with their snap-weighted average age over the last several years. They went from the sixth-youngest team on average and the fourth-youngest average defense in 2014 to the 13th oldest team the following season5, while their defense slid down to the 4th oldest. While they did have the 17th oldest offense (or 16th youngest if you prefer) in 2014, they wound up with the 14th youngest offense in 2015 before becoming the fourth-oldest team on average overall in 2016; behind the fourth-oldest offense on average, as well as the tenth-oldest defense on average6.

The shrewd offseason free agency moves and roster shuffling led to the team repeating as the fourth-oldest team on average in 2017 behind their now third-oldest defense, but their 17th oldest offense on average increased to 13th in that statistic the following season, while their defense became five spots younger; eighth-oldest in 2018. Their finish as the twelfth-oldest team overall in 2018 increased to eleventh in 2019 as the offense got considerably younger, finishing as the tenth-youngest on average, while the defense became the third-oldest on average once more. Last season saw them become the 13th youngest team on average7 as injuries saw the Vikings defense become the tenth-youngest on average in the NFL while the offense was 16th oldest on average. Zimmer and longtime Vikings executive and general manager Rick Spielman have built a nucleus with a stable identity around the injuries, trades, drafting, and free agency acquisitions. However, to further illustrate their moves, I’ve created the graph below to visualize how the starting lineup has changed over time in the Zimmer era.

They’ve kept some staples, notably on the defensive side of the ball, such as Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffin, and Linval Joseph, and promoted players up or shifted them around the lineup when necessary. Dalvin Cook most notably was a backup running back his rookie year and received seven fewer rushing attempts than Latatvius Murray in 2018 despite starting in four more games before becoming their primary running back. Adam Thielen was a backup wide receiver for two seasons before shifting to the third wide receiver position in the lineup. Zimmer dropped the two tight end sets as the primary offensive formations once Kyle Rudolph became the clear-cut best option at tight end but then inserted C.J. Ham in at fullback in 2019 and removed the third wide receiver from the lineup. The defense has seen some players shift around as well, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris swapping safety positions and Anthony Barr sliding over to “share” middle linebacker with Eric Kendricks in 2019 quickly coming to mind. Two backup players stepped up to “share” injured veteran Danielle Hunter’s left defensive end position in 2020, while left outside linebacker Ben Gedeon started in only nine games in 2017, with cornerback Terence Newman starting at nickleback for the other seven games. While Gedeon receiving more starts makes my chart seem inaccurate, Newman received the nod over Gedeon in both playoff games, so I will do the same and reflect that in my chart.

None of that compares to the Yu-Gi-Oh! level of shuffling that is the Vikings offensive line, as only one of the five offensive lineman positions had under four men occupy the starting spot for an entire season in that seven-year timespan. Both guard positions had a different starter every year, while the right tackle and center had five and four different starters, respectively. Five men shifted to four offensive lineman positions, with only the right tackle untouched by positional shuffling. For a team that formed its identity around rushing the ball and had the eighth-most wins in the NFL from 2014 to 2020, you’d think they would have more consistency in this area. The sporadic offensive line is partially responsible for the team just missing the top ten in rushing yards in that same period, finishing at eleventh. While they were tenth in rushing touchdowns, they were also tenth in rushing attempts, ending up just 14th in rush yards per attempt during this time. More quick proof of how the offensive line hasn’t been getting the job done consistently has been with the Vikings’ passing attack; even with the fourth-fewest passes attempted during this time, they ended up with the 17th most sacks allowed and 13th most sack yardage allowed.

Their passing attack has been a clear weak point for them during the Zimmer era, but even with lowered expectations, finishing 23rd in passing yards, bottom ten in the NFL, is simply inexcusable. Even with the second-highest completion percentage and fourth-fewest passes attempted in this time, they wound up with the fifth-fewest interceptions thrown and sixth-lowest interception percentage. While that, alongside their seventh-highest passer rating in that time, sounds efficient at first glance, ruminating on those statistics a bit longer in tandem with their 19th ranked finish in passing touchdowns should lead you to the conclusion that they’re not incredibly proficient. Even finishing with the 17th most completions and tenth-highest passing yards per attempt in those seven years wasn’t enough to propel their passing touchdown percentage beyond a three-way tie for 14th place with the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins. The only other teams in the top ten for wins in that period below the Vikings in passing touchdown percentage were the Baltimore Ravens, who tied with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders at 17th place, and the Buffalo Bills, who tied with both the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals at 21st place.

The Vikings were thought of as a team “just a quarterback away” for a few seasons; some have noticed the facade8, but it didn’t stop Zimmer and Spielman from trading draft picks to acquire Sam Bradford or making exorbitant signings like the one for Kirk Cousins. They made all those moves to wind up ranked 15th in points scored and 17th in yards per game for those seven years under Zimmer. I’ve compiled a brief slideshow below to illuminate the lack of proficiency amongst their starting quarterbacks. The graphs themselves in the provided images display the leaderboard for the searched result, in this case, passer rating in the timeframe for whoever was the Vikings starting quarterback; however, I’ve sorted the detailed list below the graphs in the images by passing yards per game. You’ll find two things that stand out most in this bundle of statistics; Bridgewater is the low outlier in passer rating amongst his peers at Vikings starting quarterback during their tenures, and the starting quarterbacks for the Vikings are in the lower percentiles of passing yards per game. Zimmer’s hardnosed approach and Spielman’s consistent tinkering resulted in a franchise that finished as the definition of average in the NFL, 16th, in total touchdowns (offense, defense, and special teams). For the money they’re investing into their quarterbacks to be a souped-up game manager and guide a steady, efficient offense, they haven’t sown incredible returns on investment.

I’m not utterly cantankerous; despite those negatives, I will point out how the Vikings finished sixth in points allowed, fifth in passing yards allowed, and fifth in yards allowed under Zimmer in those seven years. Their pass defense, in particular, is worthy of praise, as they also tied at fourth for average yards per attempt allowed, third in passing touchdowns allowed, ninth in sacks, eighth in sack yardage, seventh in opponent passer rating, and tenth in interceptions. They were 16th in completion percentage allowed and ninth and eighth in completions allowed and pass attempts allowed, respectively but, their inability to consistently stop the rush, generate fumbles, or gain yardage from interception returns largely hindered their defensive output. They ranked fifth-worst in forced fumbles but 17th in fumble recoveries, capitalizing on the little chances they did punch the ball loose. However, the Vikings’ 20th ranked finish in interception return yardage in tandem with their inability to generate fumbles meant teams able to rush well, spread the ball out in the passing game, and take their shots sparingly, could methodically pick apart this defense.

It may be surprising to you that the Vikings ranked just 18th in rushing yards allowed, 14th in opponent rushing attempts, and wound up in an eight-way tie for ninth place in yard per rush attempt allowed in that span. I know I said I would not be so curmudgeonly in the previous paragraph but, it’s been frustrating to watch a talented defensive core routinely lose to elite quarterbacks or teams utilizing short passes and sustained runs. Meanwhile, the supposedly vaunted Vikings defense fails to generate enough turnovers to assist their typically workaday offense. They did allow the third-least amount of rushing touchdowns, but, as noted by others, Zimmer’s defensive-oriented, run-heavy clock management scheme hasn’t even been effective against other teams with a similar style since 2018, the start of the Kirk Cousins era9. If you’re not putting up enough points to secure wins routinely or fielding a defense that can prevent opposing teams from moving down the field and putting points on the board, then surely the Vikings kicking must be a strong point? How else could they keep up with these teams on the scoreboard if they’re not gaining enough yards or scoring touchdowns at a significant rate? Unfortunately, kicking is also something the Vikings haven’t done well.

Over those seven years, the Vikings once again finished average in field goals made, 16th, but finished sixth-worst in field goal percentage, made even worse since they attempted the eighth-most field goals in that same time. Compounded with the distinction of being the worst team in extra point percentage and the only team below 90% at 89.7%, while also being ninth-worst in extra points made and ranking 19th in extra point attempts, and it’s clear they’ve been flat-out horrible at kicking the ball. Not only have they been atrocious when kicking the ball, but teams have had more success kicking field goals against the Vikings than any other team in the NFL during this time. Teams made the third-most amount of field goals against them while also finishing in a tie with the Denver Broncos with the fifth-most amount of field goals attempted against them for an NFL-worst 88.4 opposing field goal percentage. Their kicking woes don’t end there, as teams also racked up the eleventh-most kick return yards against them, and even their punting hasn’t been up to snuff, as they tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for worst average yards per punt despite punting the 13th fewest times. They did finish in an eight-way tie for first place in punt return touchdowns allowed and an eight-way tie for second place in kick return touchdowns allowed. However, 17 teams gave up one less kick return touchdown, and only four teams had one or two kick return touchdowns allowed below the second-place teams in the kick return touchdowns allowed category.

Thankfully for them, their special teams weren’t a complete bust, as they did rank third-best in average kick return yards, eleventh-best in kick return yards per game, sixth-best in average punt return yards, tenth-best in punt return yards per game, and also tenth-best in punt return yards allowed. The Vikings finished in a six-way tie for sixth place in punt return touchdowns and a five-way tie for third-place in kick return touchdowns; factoring in their defense, they tied the Jacksonville Jaguars for fifth-best in total return touchdowns. They also ended up in a four-way tie for third place in return touchdowns allowed. Overall, they missed out on yet another top-ten finish in an undervalued statistical category, finishing eleventh in return yards, more statistics indicating they’re nothing more than a talented team succumbing to mediocrity. While they’ve continuously ranked high in certain areas, they’ve also just as continuously ranked mediocre to poor in others; this type of inconsistency starts at the top.

As I currently write this, the Vikings have been true to form this season; hovering around .500 and fighting for dear life to sneak in as the final wild card team. They’re currently 7-8 and looking forward to closing the season against the Green Bay Packers on the road and at home against the Chicago Bears. Zimmer possesses a 7-7-1 record against the Packers and an 8-7 record against the Bears, so he’s at least competitive with his divisional rivals, but how is this supposed to make people hopeful for a team ultimately scraping by at the eleventh hour to try and make the playoffs? Long-term, what is he going to implement to consistently get more victories against divisional rivals that he couldn’t but already should’ve done? When do we look at the fact Zimmer has had five offensive coordinators since Norv Turner resigned from the position in the 2016 season and start accrediting Zimmer’s coaching ability to the team coming out incredibly slow to start the season and coming up short in crucial moments? Zimmer can try to add new tricks to his kit of shrinking returns, but as a few women have told me throughout my life, a bad foundation job will ruin the rest of the look. If the base isn’t satisfactory, then trying to pretty things up with eye shadow, mascara, highlighters, etc., will only make your appearance more garish; when will the Wilfs learn the same and kickstart their team’s makeover?

Editor’s Notes

  1. ESPN – 12/1/2016 – Mike Zimmer has emergency eye surgery, won’t coach Thursday
  2. Football Outsiders – 4/22/2015 – Snap-Weighted Age: 2014 NFL Rosters
  3. Football Outsiders – 5/20/2014 – Snap-Weighted Age: 2013 NFL Rosters
  4. Bradford’s only other start came in Week 5 against the Bears; he ended up leaving the game right before the second half.
  5. Football Outsiders – 5/19/2016 – Snap-Weighted Age: 2015 NFL Rosters
  6. Football Outsiders – 4/20/2017 – Snap-Weighted Age: 2016 NFL Rosters
  7. Philly Voice – 8/31/2021 – Ranking NFL teams by age after 53-man cutdowns: 2021 edition
  8. Zone Coverage – 2/4/2021 – The Vikings Were Never Just a Quarterback Away
  9. Zone Coverage – 10/15/2021 – What Is Mike Zimmer’s Record Against Teams That Mirror His Ideology?

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