(WARNING: The following contains the words “Les Steckel” as a historical marker while discussing the Vikings’ current plight. Reader discretion is advised.)
There’s a flip side to the NFL’s weekly celebration of the historic pace at which points and touchdowns are spreading during the COVID-19 season.
A flip side that’s quite unpleasant for the likes of Mike Zimmer and one of his Double-A gap protégés, Paul Guenther, the Raiders’ defensive coordinator.
Heading into Week 8, the NFL’s six worst scoring defenses are on pace to set franchise records for average points allowed.
That’s right. Six.
For Zimmer, whose scoring defense ranks 30th (32.0), that means something every Vikings coach fears — a comparison to … (cover your eyes) … Les Steckel and the 1984 team that surrendered 30.3 points per game. For Guenther, whose defense ranks 31st (32.8), it means going all the way back to 1961, when the Raiders gave up 32.7 points per game in their second season.
Zim and Guenther — who worked under Zimmer in Cincinnati and succeeded him as Bengals defensive coordinator in 2014 — aren’t alone in their misery.
Houston and first-year coordinator Anthony Weaver rank 27th (31.0). The Texans’ worst year was 2017 (27.3).
Jacksonville and fifth-year coordinator Todd Wash rank 28th (31.4). The Jaguars’ worst year was 2013 (28.1).
The Browns and new defensive coordinator Joe Woods are a pleasant surprise at 5-2, but they also rank 29th in points allowed (31.6). The Browns’ worst year was 1990 (28.9), when defensive-minded head coach Bud Carson was fired in-season.
And last, and certainly least effective, is dysfunctional Dallas. The Cowboys and Mike Nolan, who is a coordinator for the first time since 2014, are last in the league (34.7). Even the 0-11-1 expansion Cowboys of 1960 allowed fewer points per game (30.8).
Obviously, some of these guys have things that are beyond their control. Zimmer, for example, still knows how to coach defense. But his unit has been decimated by injuries, a season opt-out, the bye-week trade of top pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, unheard of inexperience at cornerback and, let’s be frank, Kirk Cousins’ contracts.
But the Vikings of ’84 had their issues as well. Boy, did they ever.
Coming off Bud Grant’s first retirement, the Vikings turned to Steckel, who thought his military background would make the players tougher. He modeled training camp after boot camp, kicking things off with the infamous “Ironman” contest on Day 1 in Mankato.
“There were guys falling all over the place, passing out, dropping out,” former Vikings linebacker Scott Studwell said. “Two guys got hurt pretty bad. And it kind of went downhill from there. We beat the hell out of each other the entire time we were [in Mankato]. We were completely worn out by the fourth game of the season.”
The 1984 team started 2-4 — one game better than this year’s team — and was giving up 27.3 points per game. In its last six games, it went 0-6 and gave up an average of 40.2 points en route to a franchise-record 13 losses that has been matched only one other time (2011). Steckel was fired and never became a head coach again.
If it’s any consolation for this year’s Vikings, the Cowboys have found a way to flirt with one of the most dubious records in NFL history.
In 1966, Allie Sherman’s New York Giants finished 1-12-1. The defensive coordinator was Pop Ivy, who had been head coach of the Cardinals from 1958-61 (in Chicago the first season, then in St. Louis) and the AFL’s Houston Oilers from 1962-63.
Pop’s defense gave up 35.8 points per game in 1966. It’s a record that has stood the test of time and terrible defenses because even in a league that favors offense, it’s darn hard to give up an average of five touchdowns in 60 minutes.
Nolan and the Cowboys are giving it a go while looking indecisive and discombobulated.
The Cowboys knew they needed defensive help in free agency when they fired Jason Garrett and hired Mike McCarthy. So they added Everson Griffen, Dontari Poe, Daryl Worley, Gerald McCoy and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Not a single one of them made it to Halloween. Griffen was traded to Detroit this week. The others were released.
“It’s about creating opportunities for players,” McCarthy explained last week. “We’re always looking for decisions to improve the overall football team.”
Meanwhile, Cowboys fans probably can’t believe they’re longing for the good, old days of Garrett going 8-8.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.