Mike Zimmer has criticized his offense’s play-calling twice in recent weeks. He has also praised John DeFilippo twice in that span. That math doesn’t equal net zero.
Zimmer’s frustration seems deeply rooted and based on fundamental differences in offensive philosophy.
The head coach desires a run-heavy approach, or at a minimum, a balanced attack. His offensive coordinator abandoned a productive running game Sunday at New England faster than Usain Bolt in the 100 meters.
Zimmer’s repeated criticisms represents a pattern, which hardly makes for a harmonious operation. What remains to be seen is whether this is merely growing pains in a new relationship, or a fundamental divide that creates an unsustainable situation.
The odds don’t favor a lasting partnership if Zimmer and DeFilippo don’t find common ground on philosophy — and more importantly — execution of that vision on game day.
It’s one thing to blow off steam after a tough loss. Zimmer’s disgust following Sunday’s 24-10 loss at New England felt different.
The Vikings ran the ball only 13 times compared to 44 passes. Asked if his team ran the ball enough, Zimmer was curt.
“No,” he said.
When Zimmer was asked what needs to happen to get the offense back on track, his response required minimal effort reading between the lines.
“Same thing I’ve been saying all year,” he said.
Zimmer didn’t pour gas on the fire when he met with reporters on Monday. He said DeFilippo is doing a “good job” and noted that he “tries to do” things that Zimmer finds important.
Zimmer hasn’t concealed his frustration lately though, including a critique about the offense having “too much volume” and trying too hard to “trick” defenses.
If this relationship matches old school-vs.-new school mentalities, an important question lingers: What exactly did Zimmer think he was getting when he hired DeFilippo to replace Pat Shurmur?
In Philadelphia, DeFilippo worked under Doug Pederson, a branch on Andy Reid’s coaching tree. Offensive creativity and volume are a big part of his coaching background. DeFilippo also probably looks around the league at innovative offenses propelled by rocket fuel and sees a new era of football.
Zimmer sees nonsense. His tenets remain unchanged. Run the ball, control the clock, play great defense.
Zimmer praised DeFilippo’s play-calling after the Vikings thumped the Packers last week, but that performance likely revealed more about Green Bay’s players checking out on now-fired coach Mike McCarthy than any breakthrough by DeFilippo’s offense.
Zimmer’s frustration with the play-calling Sunday was understandable. Dalvin Cook gashed the Patriots defense early, rushing for 84 yards on only nine carries, a 9.3-yard average.
The score was close so there was no need to abandon the run in order to play catch-up. But for inexplicable reasons, DeFilippo became one-dimensional.
Zimmer admitted his team possibly “panicked” after the Patriots took a 17-10 lead in the third quarter, thus taking the ball out of Cook’s hands. Not a ringing endorsement for the play-caller.
The Vikings finished seventh in rushing yards last season. They have tumbled to 30th this season. That must drive Zimmer crazy, along with a dramatic increase in turnovers.
Problem is, many times their running game resembles a car smashing into a brick wall. Cook and Latavius Murray take the handoff, get hit at or behind the line and the play results in a minimal gain.
A subpar offensive line isn’t DeFilippo’s fault. The blame for that rests squarely on the shoulders of General Manager Rick Spielman and to a lesser extent Zimmer.
Maybe DeFilippo has arrived at the conclusion that running the ball consistently simply isn’t a viable option behind that offensive line. That leaves him with only one option: Put the ball in Kirk Cousins’ hands.
The Vikings already have attempted 491 passes, third most in the NFL. They attempted 527 passes all of last season, which ranked 21st. That philosophical shift probably drives Zimmer bonkers crazy, too.
But again, what were the expectations before the season when he hired DeFilippo and the organization signed Cousins to an $84 million contract?
It’s awfully late in the season to be searching for common ground on philosophy. If there’s not clarity by now, you wonder if the relationship can survive.