Mike Zimmer wasted no time. Neither did his players.
Within 24 hours of the Minnesota Vikings’ season ending, change was already in the subzero air.
The offensive line didn’t play up to Zimmer’s standards. A coaching change was made.
Teddy Bridgewater improved in some areas, but more improvement was needed. Guidance was offered.
Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing. The deficient areas of his game were quite obviously pointed out to him.
If players were looking for a “yes” man after a winning season, Zimmer was their “not good enough yet” man.
An 11-5 record, dethroning the Green Bay Packers and making the playoffs would be considered a sound accomplishment for many after two straight losing seasons and a coaching change in between them. For Zimmer, it wasn’t good enough – a refreshing change of accountability and higher standards that should be expected when Vikings ownership is willing to spend what it takes to get a championship.
“I have such high expectations that I don’t think we exceeded expectations anywhere,” Zimmer said.
He was asked what didn’t meet his expectations.
“Well, everything else,” he responded succinctly, bluntly and refreshingly honestly.
Zimmer was the second straight defensive coach the Vikings have hired. First was Leslie Frazier, following up on the volatile Brad Childress era and playing the role of the fatherly Mr. Nice. But the defensive scheme seemed outdated and Frazier is on his second stop in three years after going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their defensive coordinator and now to the Baltimore Ravens as their defensive backs coach.
Zimmer hasn’t been the tough taskmaster in the realm of screaming public obscenities with regularity, but he has high standards and holds players accountable to them. It’s not in the crooked-finger-waving ways of Childress without any flexibility; Zimmer just knows what works and expects his players to execute. He wants input and output, but his defensive system is proven.
Now, about that offense: It wasn’t good enough. Nowhere close, actually, and Zimmer knows it and says it.
SOMEWHAT OFFENSIVE LINE
No position was addressed quicker than the offensive line after the season. Less than 24 hours after his first playoff loss, Zimmer announced that he wasn’t retaining offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, who found work with the San Diego Chargers in the same role a few days later.
In Zimmer’s no-excuses world, losing John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt wasn’t enough of a reason for the Vikings’ protection issues. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner could indicate that reporters and fans don’t know enough about the inner workings to understand – and in some instances that might be true – but the results spoke for themselves, and so did Zimmer’s actions.
Not good enough.
Bridgewater was sacked 44 times, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, despite not throwing the ball nearly as much as the five quarterbacks who were sacked more than him. Peterson was dropped for losses on 47 of his carries, easily the most in the league – and in his case carried the ball more than anyone else, too.
So while others might make excuses, Zimmer’s assessment of the offensive line was true: “Sporadic, I would say. We’ve got to do better.”
And for those thinking the return of Sullivan and Loadholt will be an instant elixir, there are no guarantees of that. Loadholt hasn’t played in the last 21 regular-season games because of injury and his contract calls for a $7.75 million salary-cap hit in 2016. The Vikings would save $6 million by releasing him.
Sullivan is coming off two straight back surgeries in the last six months and has a cap number of $5.83 million. How effectively will he hold up after those surgeries? Nobody can answer that with certainty, including Zimmer, who said “I have no idea” if he can have confidence Sullivan and Loadholt can be plugged and played with confidence in 2016.
TEDDY TIME (TO IMPROVE)
The biggest issue with evaluating Bridgewater in his second season is that a true assessment is hard to make when he doesn’t have time in the pocket. Part of that is on the offensive line, but part of that was in the scheme the Vikings were trying to run with that offensive line.
Simply put, it the offensive coaches too long to adjust to what they had. Turner’s scheme is based on a power running game and deep passing game. Peterson did what he could with the running game. Bridgewater wasn’t given enough time to set up a deep passing game consistently.
But even when Bridgewater had short and intermediate routes set up, there is a part of his motion that can improve, despite being relatively accurate. His tendency is to drop his elbow, creating a lower release point.
Finally, one of the coaches admitted it, and, of course, it was Zimmer. When asked after the season what Bridgewater can improve on, Zimmer said “coming over the top a little bit more.”
Last year, the Vikings wanted Bridgewater to improve his footwork. That seems to have improved, and they couldn’t ask for a more concentrated, diligent worker than Bridgewater. He’s not the young prima donna running off to Las Vegas and causing distractions. He’s the yeoman, sometimes bland, worker quietly trying to improve. That’s a promising place.
“Everything about Teddy I love. There’s not one thing I don’t love about this kid,” Zimmer said. “He’s got the right demeanor, the right heart, the right competitiveness and he’s a worker. He makes quick decisions, and so we need to continue to move forward with him and keep going.”
ALL DAY, NOT ALL-AROUND
After nine years in the NFL, one wonders if the Vikings will actually be able to teach an old dog like Peterson new tricks. After all this time, he’s still the best pure rusher in the league, but he still isn’t a well-rounded running back.
On third downs, he is most often pulled. He still isn’t great in picking up blitzes and isn’t the route runner or pass catcher he could be.
Peterson said he wants to improve his ball security and versatility. It’s good to say, but will he do it?
Peterson has fumbled 38 times in his career, but despite not playing in many postseason games, he has three fumbles in those situations – two in the 2009 NFC Championship loss and another in last weekend’s playoff loss.
“I had a nice, long talk with him (Monday) about things that I think he needs to do,” Zimmer said. “I go back and I happened to be in the NFC East when Tiki Barber was a veteran guy and had a lot of fumbles and he worked extremely hard on holding the ball correctly and fixing that issue. Adrian can do that as well. Those are the kind of things that, trust me, I’m going to stay on his rear end about it as well.”
It’s what Zimmer should do, but probably isn’t something Peterson took as seriously in the past, despite paying it lip service. His star power won’t earn him a pass from Zimmer.
FINDING A MESH POINT
In two seasons, Zimmer essentially fixed the defense, but the offense is nowhere near where it should be. He already took action with the offensive line, and personnel changes are likely in the coming months with free agency and the draft.
Improving Bridgewater is an ongoing process. Getting Peterson more reliable on non-running plays another step.
But in order to bring the offense to its full potential, there will have to be a balance between what Bridgewater does best, what Peterson does best, and getting each of them to improve on what they don’t execute at a high level.
With the quarterback under center, Peterson averages 4.9 yards per carry for his career. With the quarterback in the shotgun, that drops to a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry, and the Vikings have always worked around that, with about 20 times as many carries for Peterson with the quarterback under center.
“I think Adrian can do a better job when he’s in the gun, there’s a combination of things,” Zimmer said.
“I felt like we were figuring things out a little bit at the beginning of the year, especially offensively with that whole dynamic. That was probably a mistake that I made,” Zimmer said. “I probably should have been more involved with trying to get things, and I don’t know, maybe playing him. Just different things that I probably should have figured out. I think Adrian Peterson can do anything that he sets his mind to do; I do believe that. If it’s being more versatile, being more involved in the passing game or it’s protection or running routes, any of those things, I do believe he can do anything that he sets his mind to do.”
But the differences are just as pronounced for Bridgewater. His completion percentage is 10 points higher in the shotgun and his passer rating is about 25 points higher. In the shotgun, he has 22 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Under center about one-fourth of the time in passing situations, he has only seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
“There was a lot of areas that we didn’t do very well offensively,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t get enough first downs, we weren’t a very good passing offense, we were good in rushing offense, but we’ve got to get a lot better there, that’s for sure.”
It was a solid 11-5 record in Zimmer’s second season, but imagine how much further the Vikings might have gone without all the offensive issues. Fix those and they really could get where Zimmer wants to take them and where Peterson wants to go – to his offseason hometown of Houston for the Super Bowl in February 2017.