Near the start of Mike Zimmer's season-ending news conference Thursday, he was asked about the Vikings' identity problems on offense when he referenced the late Tony Sparano.
"Quite honestly, the death of Tony Sparano really kind of threw things into a little bit of a downward spiral," Zimmer said. "Only because the fact this guy was a type-A personality. He was very innovative in the running game and had a strong voice in that room and a strong voice with me. Yeah, I do feel like we lost a bit of our identity. We're going to get that back."
Sparano, the Vikings' offensive line coach, died two days before the team reported for training camp. The unexpected death left a hole in the Vikings' leadership and affected them personally and professionally, according to Zimmer.
"When I'm talking to the defense during the games, he would be influential while they're getting going offensively about what they're going to be doing the next series," Zimmer said.
Personally, the memories were fresh and bittersweet. Players and coaches wore Sparano's initials "TS" on their helmets and lapels to honor their friend and leader.
"His wife, I'd text her once in a while to see if she's OK, and make sure that their family is OK," Zimmer said. "He was a grumpy little Italian guy who was very, very good at his job and was a good friend of mine. There's no book on how to do it."
Staff in flux
Parts of the Vikings' coaching staff remain in limbo. Other than the ongoing search for an offensive coordinator — interim OC Kevin Stefanski could leave with his contract set to expire Tuesday — more changes could come.
"I don't know yet," Zimmer said. "I'm still going through the evaluations. We'll see how we go. Some guys are out of contract. They may not want to stay here. We'll work through that in the next five days or whatever it is."
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer's contract is also about to expire, according to SiriusXM's Alex Marvez, but the Vikings reportedly want to re-sign Priefer should he choose to stay in Minnesota for a ninth season. A new coordinator could also hire new assistants, particularly for the offensive line.
Confidence in Cousins
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been criticized for not leading the Vikings to the playoffs despite throwing for a career-high 30 touchdowns and his fewest interceptions (10) since becoming a full-time starter. Zimmer declined to say what improvements he wants from Cousins in 2019. He was asked about Cousins' 5-25 record against teams ending seasons with winning records.
"I see that statistic and obviously it's not a good statistic," Zimmer said. "It's about the football team. One guy doesn't win games around here. One guy doesn't lose games. I don't take it that way. I have a lot of confidence in Kirk. I've talked to him. I've talked to some other people about how I can help him better and things that I can do moving forward so he's going to come out and play really good next year."
Players supported Zimmer remaining as head coach despite missing the playoffs for the third time in his five seasons. Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf gave Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman another nod of approval in front of the team after Sunday's season-ending loss to the Bears. But Zimmer said he didn't need the assurances about his job security.
"Honestly, it doesn't really mean that much," Zimmer said. "I never had any doubt that anybody was not supporting me or anything like that, I think if you look over the five-year track record, but unfortunately, this is a what-did-you-do-for-me-now [business]."