Mike Zimmer's final news conference of the regular season usually kicks off a sequence of media sessions (his season-ender, followed by the NFL combine in late February and owners' meetings in late March) that find the coach at his most candid.
Zimmer's look back at the 2020 Vikings season — the team's first with a losing record since his first year in Minnesota — centered on two themes: a continuation of his look at how much injuries affected the defense, and a call for consistency on offense, whether or not Gary Kubiak returns to call plays in 2021.
In short, the Vikings might go into next season betting they can return to the playoffs simply with a better-executed version of the approach they took in 2020.
"I think if you look at the track record of the past seven years, we've been pretty solid defensively," Zimmer said Tuesday. "So I do think we need to look at everything in that aspect. We have to get much better on special teams. But I do believe offensively, we've gotten to the point where we have a chance to be a really, really good football team. Now if we can get the guys back that we had injured this year, we continue to look at things with how people are trying to affect us defensively, come up with some ideas."
There's some logic in staying the course on offense, after a season in which the Vikings scored the third-most points in franchise history (430) and quarterback Kirk Cousins rebounded from a disastrous start to post some of the best numbers of his career. Cousins threw 10 touchdowns against 11 interceptions before the Vikings' bye in Week 7; he threw 24 TDs and was intercepted only three times in the 10 games after it.
Not counting garbage-time throws, the only NFL quarterback more effective than Cousins this season was Aaron Rodgers, according to NFLFastR's expected points added per play data.
Cousins will return with Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook leading a group of weapons that should include a consistent Adam Thielen and an improved Irv Smith Jr.
If Kubiak decides to retire, Cousins would be playing for his sixth offensive coordinator in as many years, but Zimmer spelled out the reasoning for sticking with a play-caller in the Kubiak schematic tree (or perhaps the genealogical one).
"I love the scheme that we're running offensively," Zimmer said. "I love the wide-zone offense, I love the play-action passes. All those things. 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 kinds of things are what makes him really good. So to me, that is really important."
The 2020 Vikings also gave up the third-most points in franchise history, trailing only the 1984 and 2013 teams with 475 points allowed. It is the first Vikings team to score more than 400 points while being outscored for the year.
The coach came to his news conference Tuesday with detailed numbers from head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman about just how many defenders the Vikings had lost to injuries, furthering a point he'd raised after each of the team's last two games.
"Look, we had over 130 missed games to defensive players that were on IR this year," he 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."
Taken together, the two themes could suggest to whoever might be listening — maybe in Minnesota, maybe in New Jersey — the Vikings need only rearrange the furniture, not raze the house, to get back to the playoffs next season. And Zimmer's history in Minnesota has been to miss the postseason in even-numbered years (2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020) before making them in odd-numbered years (2015, 2017, 2019).
Whether that premise proves correct, though, could be decided in the details of what the Vikings do this offseason.
If Kubiak retires (as expected), does a new play-caller stick with the Vikings' 2020 philosophy to the letter, or get the freedom to deviate from this year's tendency toward runs on both second-and-short and second-and-long? Even with Dalvin Cook running for 1,557 yards, the Vikings ranked 11th in the league in points and 10th in expected points added per play — pretty good, but not elite. How much will they adapt to improve in 2021?
Zimmer said he expects leaguewide scoring to drop in 2021 — from a 24.8 points-per-game average in 2020 that shattered the previous NFL mark by 1.4 points — as teams presumably have more time to practice in the offseason and officials perhaps call more penalties.
"I think this [scoring] thing will get back under control," he said. "I know the penalties were way down this year. There was a lot of things that teams got away with, I guess is the best way to say it."
But there's little doubt the league likes high-scoring games and the entertainment value they produce; will holding penalties return after a lack of them gave quarterbacks more room to operate, or will pass rushes continue to operate at a disadvantage?
The Vikings have enjoyed good health the years they've made the playoffs; can they count on having it again after losing Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks for a combined 35 games?
The Vikings need to replenish what Zimmer calls the two most important commodities on defense — players who can rush the passer and players who can cover receivers. They face a decision on left tackle Riley Reiff's contract, and possibly at one of the guard spots. Zimmer also will be looking for his third special teams coordinator after he said Monday he decided not to renew Marwan Maalouf's contract.
Consistency, once again, might be the Vikings' guiding principle this offseason. But as they chase a Packers team that's gone 26-6 the past two years and face a schedule that includes seven games against teams that won at least 10 games this season, consistency can't be confused with inertia.
"We're looking forward to getting a lot of these other guys back that missed a large portion of the season," Zimmer said. "I'm going to work like crazy on getting a couple of areas fixed and coming back with a vengeance."
Ben Goessling • 612-673-4033