A year ago, Mike Zimmer coached the Vikings to a 13-3 record — their second NFC North Division title in four years — and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.

Apparently a lot of the NFL experts believe Zimmer no longer knows how to coach because of the Vikings' 8-7-1 record this season.

But when you look at the NFC North standings for the past five seasons, you find the Vikings have the division's best overall record at 47-32-1. Green Bay is 45-34-1, Detroit 42-38 and Chicago 31-49 after going 12-4 this season to win the division title. The Vikings and Packers are tied with two division titles in that span.

There were a lot of reasons why the Vikings didn't duplicate their 2017 record. Among them:

• Offensive line coach Tony Sparano died July 22, two days before training camp opened, and the Vikings had to replace him with co-offensive line coaches.

• Pat Shurmur, the 2017 offensive coordinator, left to become coach of the New York Giants. The Vikings replaced him with John DeFilippo, who was fired after the Vikings lost at Seattle with three weeks left in the regular season.

• And, the Vikings were hampered by injuries in 2018. In 2017, starters and key contributors missed a total of 62 games. This season, the total games missed by key personnel was 85.

In 2017, the only key starters — not counting the quarterbacks — who missed more than one game were offensive linemen Nick Easton and Mike Remmers (five each), rookie running back Dalvin Cook (12) and safety Andrew Sendejo (three). Of course, QBs Sam Bradford (14 games) and Teddy Bridgewater (eight) didn't play most of the season.

In 2018, 10 players missed at least three games, led by Easton, who spent the entire season on injured reserve. Others include Sendejo (11 games), Mike Hughes (10), Cook (six), Chad Beebe (five), Everson Griffen (five), David Morgan (five), Marcus Sherels (four), Anthony Barr (three) and Riley Reiff (three).

• Sendejo and Hughes are both defensive backs, and as such the Vikings secondary was stretched out. Xavier Rhodes missed only two games, but he dealt with injuries for much of the season. Trae Waynes also missed two games. Undrafted Holton Hill had his moments but was also exposed as a rookie at times this season.

• Getting back to the offensive line, the Vikings also missed right guard Joe Berger, who retired after the 2017 season. The Bears, Rams, Patriots and Saints all were able to stop the Vikings running game.

Cousins, Tark similar

If you want to compare the fact that Kirk Cousins didn't have a great season, his signing was very similar to the Fran Tarkenton situation, when the Vikings reacquired the future Hall of Famer at age 32 for the 1972 season.

The Vikings traded two draft picks (a No. 1 in 1972 and a No. 2 in 1973), quarterback Norm Snead, wide receiver Bob Grim and running back Vince Clements to the Giants to get Tarkenton and everybody was excited and expected the Vikings to get to the Super Bowl. But the 1972 Vikings went 7-7, with five of the losses by three or fewer points.

Tarkenton didn't get a guaranteed $84 million contract like Cousins did, although late in his career he was the highest-paid QB in the NFL at $360,000.

But he did lead the Vikings to three Super Bowls, after the 1973, '74 and '76 seasons. In 1975, the Vikings lost to Dallas in the playoffs on the Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson, otherwise Tarkenton would have been in four Super Bowls.

Gophers persevere

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck credits his team for its perseverance in 2018.

"There were a lot of highs, there were a lot of lows," Fleck said. "Their perseverance is second to none."

After opening the season with three nonconference victories — including one over eventual Mountain West champion Fresno State — the Gophers lost four consecutive games. After a victory over Indiana improved their record to 4-4, the Gophers lost at Illinois 55-31 on Nov. 3.

In that game, the Illini had 646 yards in offense and rushed for 430 yards. The next day, defensive coordinator Robb Smith was fired.

At that point, the Gophers needed two victories in their final three games to become bowl-eligible. Those games — Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin — were against teams that all reached bowl games this season.

"Wasn't looking very good," Fleck said. "We had a lot of guys out. A lot of guys injured. Youngest team in America. Just got beat by Illinois. And all of a sudden, our team found a way to win."

In their first game under interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, the Gophers beat Purdue 41-10. After a 24-14 loss at Big Ten West champion Northwestern, the Gophers went to Wisconsin, where they hadn't won in 24 years. The Gophers won 37-15 — ending their 14-game losing streak to the Badgers — to become bowl eligible.

"Robb Smith is a tremendous football coach," Fleck said. "I think Joe Rossi has done a great job of being able to take it to the next step. Joe Rossi had a tremendous challenge, because he had so many young guys going through the year, the last four games, that were playing, pretty much for the first time."

Fleck said that Rossi, who started the season as Gophers defensive line coach, faced a different challenge from Georgia Tech, the team's opponent in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 26.

"Going in to play Georgia Tech, which runs the triple option, [he had] to change our whole defense. Install a whole new defense and I thought our players responded really well to his coaching," Fleck said.

The Gophers defeated the Yellow Jackets 34-10. Besides a strong defensive effort, a key to the victory was running back Mohamed Ibrahim.

"Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 224 yards," Fleck said, "which, I think, is the most by a Minnesota freshman ever. It just shows the depth we're creating."

The Gophers started eight freshmen on offense. "There was a lot of times at the beginning of the year when our inexperience and our youth really hurt us," Fleck said.


• For the entire 2017-18 season, the Gophers women's basketball team drew an announced 46,956 fans for 15 games at Williams Arena. So far this season, in 10 games, they have already drawn 57,977 fans.

• The Vikings scouted the Gophers all season long and could be interested in linebacker Blake Cashman. The Eden Prairie product really improved his NFL draft stock after leading the Gophers with 104 tackles.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com