The Vikings are not wasting any time in trying to reverse course from an unsatisfying 2018 campaign as they prepare for the 2019 season.
The NFC Championship Game will be played this weekend — a game the Vikings played in last season and had every intention of reaching again — and that disappointment isn’t lost on owners Mark Wilf and Zygi Wilf, General Manager Rick Spielman or coach Mike Zimmer. They were the only NFC squad with a positive point differential to miss the postseason.
But if you want an indication of how intent they are on improving, look at their moves to solidify their offensive coaching staff.
Kevin Stefanski, who was named Vikings interim offensive coordinator after Zimmer fired John DeFilippo on Dec. 11, was given the permanent position after interviewing for the Browns’ head coaching position.
And while Stefanski will run the offense, the hiring of Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach and offensive adviser to Zimmer on Monday might be just as big a move.
The Vikings have thrived on defense since hiring Zimmer in 2014, and finished this season ninth in points allowed (21.3 ppg) and fourth in yards per game allowed (309.7), but they have never really developed an offensive identity. Zimmer has had four offensive coordinators in that short time: Norv Turner (resigned midseason in November 2016), Pat Shurmur (left to become Giants head coach after 2017 season), DeFilippo and Stefanski.
The thought has to be that Kubiak — an inventive offensive mind who has won four Super Bowls as a Broncos and 49ers assistant and as Broncos head coach in Super Bowl 50 — can coordinate the offense with Stefanski and let Zimmer continue to focus on defense.
In five years under Zimmer, the Vikings’ average ranking in points scored per game has been 18th out of 30 NFL teams, and their average finish in yards per game has been 23rd. In contrast during that time, the Vikings defense has ranked sixth in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed.
In Kubiak’s 22 years as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, his teams have finished in the league’s top five in yards per game 11 times. The Vikings haven’t finished in the top five since 2009, with Brett Favre at quarterback.
Also joining the Vikings will be Kubiak’s son, Klint, who will replace Stefanski as quarterbacks coach. Klint was the Vikings’ quality control and assistant receivers coach in 2013-14 under former head coach Leslie Frazier and Zimmer.
Dennison will run
The other big hire the Vikings are hoping to make is Rick Dennison as offensive line coach. Dennison, who also is getting some interest from new Packers head coach Matt LeFleur, worked under Kubiak with the Broncos and Texans (including nine seasons as his offensive coordinator) and spent last season with the Jets.
There’s no question the offensive line was one of the Vikings’ biggest problems this season. One of the reasons DeFilippo was fired was because Zimmer believed the team wasn’t getting enough out of their run offense.
They finished 30th in rushing offense (93.3 yards per game), despite having two talented backs in Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook. The Vikings’ 357 rushing attempts ranked 27th and were the second fewest in franchise history, trailing only the 1982 team under Bud Grant.
Dennison could help change that.
In Dennison’s lone season as Buffalo offensive coordinator in 2017, the Bills finished fourth in rushing attempts (487) and sixth in rushing yards per game (126.1), marking the fourth time in Dennison’s 10 years as an NFL offensive coordinator that his team finished in the top 10 in rushing attempts and the sixth time in the top 10 in rushing yards per game.
So if that’s any indication, Dennison could try to transform the offensive line into a more dominant run-blocking unit.
Already aboard is new tight ends coach Brian Pariani, another longtime disciple of Kubiak. They worked together for nearly 22 consecutive years from 1994 to 2016, and Pariani had great success utilizing tight ends Shannon Sharpe in Denver and Owen Daniels in Houston.
The last big staff question to answer is who will take over for departing special teams coach Mike Preifer, who went to the Browns after his contract expired. He was never blamed by the organization when drafted kickers Blair Walsh (sixth round, 2012) and Daniel Carlson (fifth round, 2018) didn’t pan out, but the team was dead last in field-goal percentage in 2018 (68.8) and special teams play cost them at least one game and maybe a playoff spot. Replacing him with a fresh coach can only help the team.
Yes, it might have taken a disappointing season to prompt Zimmer and the Vikings front office to realize they needed to turn the offense and special teams over to new coaches with new ideas.
• There are rumors U.S. Bank Stadium will soon be announced as the host site for WrestleMania in 2020. Minneapolis and Atlanta are the finalists, along with a Florida city, speculated to be Miami or Jacksonville. Last year’s event in the Superdome in New Orleans attracted 78,133 fans; the record attendance is 101,763 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in 2016. It’s worth noting WrestleMania also brings several related events to the host city during the extravaganza, which would mean additional revenue for other local venues such as Target Center. Look for the announcement of the 2020 location to come in March.
• The latest ESPN college basketball bracketology has the Gophers as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament and playing their opening weekend in Des Moines at Wells Fargo Arena. If the Gophers can make the field, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them play only four hours from the Twin Cities.
• Former Twins reliever Craig Breslow has joined the Cubs front office as director of strategic initiatives for baseball operations. Breslow, 38, pitched in 12 major league seasons and had a 2-5 record and 3.75 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Twins.
• The East-West Shrine Game will be held Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Princeton wide receiver and former Roseville standout Jesper Horsted will play for the East. University of Sioux Falls (S.D.) and former Apple Valley offensive lineman Trey Pipkins will play for the West.