It is rare when an entire coaching staff comes back intact. Either an aspect of the team struggles and a head coach, a coordinator or a position coach are fired, or, to the other extreme, a team is so successful, the lesser teams in the league raid their assistant coaches in hopes of capturing that magic. The longer a coaching staff remains intact, the odds are markedly better for team success. However, there are very few (VERY few) teams that will come into the 2011 season with their head coach, offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators and the position coaches (QB, RB, WR, TE, OL, DL, LB and DB) returning.
How few are there? Try four – the New York Jets, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
What makes it worse for the Vikings is that the NFC North is about as static as any division in the league, which means the other three teams know their personnel inside and out and vice versa with the players. The Lions made no coaching changes, the only change the Bears made was to replace defensive line coach Eric Washington with Mike Phair, who spent the last six years as an assistant D-line coach in Seattle, and the only moves the Packers made were moving running backs coach Edgar Bennett to wide receivers coach to replace Jimmy Robinson (who took the receivers coach job with Dallas) and promoting assistant offensive line coach Jerry Fontenot to running backs coach.
In each instance, almost the entire coaching staff is in place from last year. Given that the Packers won the Super Bowl, the Bears won the NFC North and the Lions were one of the most improved teams in 2010, it isn't surprising but it has to be troubling for the Vikings and their fans that the other three teams will hit the ground running.
Not only do the Vikings have a rookie quarterback who, depending on Donovan McNabb's willingness to take a significant pay cut, could be starting at some point this season, but they have an offensive coaching staff that hasn't had a chance to incorporate the new offense in with the players.
The defensive coaching staff is almost entirely intact – the only change from last year was that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is now the head coach, linebackers coach Fred Pagac is the defensive coordinator and Mike Singletary is new linebackers coach. From the defensive side, even with a lockout, it would be a win-win situation on the defensive side of the ball. Offense? That's another story.
The "Brad Childress guys" on the coaching staff are gone, as is running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who took a position with the University of Colorado. Bill Musgrave replaced Darrell Bevell as offensive coordinator and, while he has big changes planned from the West Coast offense Bevell ran (and the terminology all of his players were familiar with), he has yet to work with any of the offensive players he is coordinating. Craig Johnson is the new QB coach, but it looks like he will have nothing but new QBs (save Joe Webb) to work with. James Saxon replaces Bieniemy as the running backs coach. Jeff Davidson takes over as offensive line coach and Mike Priefer is new as the special teams coordinator.
All of them are important, but the last two of those names may well be the most important. O-line cohesion is needed for any offense to succeed and, as the Vikings proved three years ago, multiple games can be lost by gaffes from the special teams. Considering that many of the final half-dozen players on the 53-man roster have been kept because of their acumen on special teams, not having a full body of work to deal with could make matters pretty dicey for any team with a new special teams coach.
Everyone else in the NFC North has the same cast of coaching characters. The only surviving offensive coaches for the Vikings from the Chilly Administration are wide receivers coach George Stewart and tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson. Everybody else is new on the job and it takes time for players to "buy in" to a coach's personal philosophy. While the Packers, Bears and Lions players (in all three aspects of the game) are all intimately familiar with their coaches, the Vikings are starting fresh – almost like the three other teams running a relay race in which they can start running before they get the baton and the Vikings with a hand in the dirt having to begin from a dead stop.
The Vikings know coming into the season that they are facing long odds to go from worst to first in the NFC North, but it isn't just with personnel on the field. It's also with the coaches on the sideline.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.