After a devastating loss in the NFC Championship Game following the 2017 season, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made a classic mistake. He hired someone from the staff that beat him, assuming he was gaining the right kind of intelligence.
Minnesotans had seen that strategy employed by the University of Minnesota, which hired basketball coach Dan Monson shortly after he beat the Gophers in the NCAA tournament. Monson had one good season as the Gophers coach but never fully adapted to living in the Midwest, much less coaching in the Big Ten.
Like Monson, Zimmer’s hiring of Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to be his offensive coordinator failed. DeFilippo became the second offensive coordinator to depart during a season under Zimmer.
In 2018, the Vikings lost three of their last five games to miss the playoffs, as Kevin Stefanski replaced DeFilippo with three games remaining. In the season’s aftermath, Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman made the Stefanski hire permanent. They added former Super Bowl winning head coach Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach and offensive advisor. Kubiak brought with him offensive line and running game coach Rick Dennison.
Kubiak loves running the ball. Dennison is thought to be a running-game expert. When Kubiak won the Super Bowl with the Broncos, he did so not with the version of Peyton Manning that set records as Denver’s quarterback, but with Manning having his worst season.
The 2015 Broncos won with an exceptional defense and a ball-control offense.
Are the Vikings making another mistake based on overreaction?
There is nothing wrong with these hires. Stefanski is bright and promising. Kubiak is highly regarded in NFL circles and does not possess the kind of ego that will make his presence problematic. Dennison is a key Kubiak ally at a position of dire need.
The question of the offseason is whether Zimmer is overreacting again.
After the 38-7 title game loss, the Vikings hired DeFilippo and signed Kirk Cousins to an expensive deal.
During the second half of the 2018 season, the Vikings’ passing offense slumped, seemingly because of a combination of poor offensive line play and Cousins’ struggles against quality defenses.
The defining moment of the season may have arrived in Foxborough on Dec. 2. Playing against a Patriots defense that had struggled statistically, the Vikings offense stumbled in a 24-10 loss during which Cousins looked rattled. Dalvin Cook rushed nine times for 84 yards and Zimmer was miffed that Cook didn’t get more carries.
Zimmer was right: Cook should have carried it 20 or more times in that game.
In an attempt to ensure that his running game is more effective and prominent, Zimmer hired Kubiak and Dennison.
What Zimmer needs to guard against is imposing a philosophy on his offense instead of finding ways for his best players to thrive.
Cousins is the team’s most expensive player. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are two of the four best players on the roster at the moment, along with Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith. The Vikings need to run the ball more effectively, but should they become a run-first team?
After the 2017 season, Zimmer chose to emulate the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback and an odd assortment of offensive players. Now he seems intent on emulating the 2015 Broncos.
He should be emulating the Bill Belichick Patriots.
Belichick and his staff are willing to design radically different game plans for every opponent. He’ll win with the running game one week, downfield passing the next, passes to running backs the next.
Stefanski has a running back who is more talented than the Patriots’ Sony Michel, two receivers who are better than any two Patriots wideouts and a quality tight end.
Zimmer should allow Stefanski to attack opponents’ weaknesses, not play to old-school clichés about the importance of running the ball.