There has been a clear turnaround for the Minnesota Vikings since Mike Zimmer took over as the team’s head coach in 2014. They went from a 5-10-1 team in 2013 to a playoff team in 2015 that ended the regular season with an 11-5 record and a division title.
Still, the one thing that has not seen much improvement has been the offensive line. In 2014 the Vikings gave up 51 sacks and last year they allowed 45, a slight improvement but still far too many, especially when they are trying to protect their quarterback of the present and future, Teddy Bridgewater.
The team has had to deal with multiple injuries along the line the past two seasons. In 2014 Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt were placed on injured reserve with torn pectoral muscles and Matt Kalil was dealing with a knee injury throughout the season. In 2015 the Vikings lost Loadholt again, along with starting center John Sullivan, both gone before the start of the regular season.
Still, Zimmer made it clear that he has not been happy with the play of the group when he decided to not bring back offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. In his place they hired Tony Sparano, who has proven he can turn around an offensive line.
Here is a look at what Sparano did with his offensive lines (as a point of reference, NFL teams gave up an average 36.25 sacks in 2015 and the middle-of-the-road rushing teams gained about 1,700 yards on the ground):
WITH THE BROWNS
Sparano first entered the NFL with the Cleveland Browns in 1999 as the team’s offensive quality control coach. He was named the team’s offensive line coach the following year, and it was one of the worst performances a Sparano line has had.
The team ran the ball 336 times behind the Browns’ line for a total of 1,085 yards and seven touchdowns; the running backs were averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt. To be fair, though, the line did not have the greatest of talent running behind them as Travis Prentice was their leading rusher with 512 yards and seven touchdowns on 173 attempts.
The Browns’ offensive line did better in pass protection during the 2000 season, allowing 40 sacks. Again, the line did not have the greatest talent playing behind them as their quarterbacks consisted of Tim Couch, Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn.
WITH THE COWBOYS
The Browns would part ways with Sparano following the 2000 season and he spent the next few years bouncing from team to team as a tight ends coach. Then in 2005 the Dallas Cowboys promoted Sparano from their tight ends coach to their offensive line/running game coach. He would be in charge of the Cowboys offensive line for the next three years.
In his first year in charge of the Cowboys offensive line the team ran the ball 521 times for 1,861 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The team’s leading rusher was Julius Jones, who recorded 993 yards and five touchdowns on 257 carries. While the line did find success in the running game, it struggled blocking for quarterback Drew Bledsoe – he was sacked 50 times.
There was a vast improvement during Sparano’s second season as the Cowboys’ offensive line coach. The team recorded 1,936 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt. There was also a clear improvement in pass protection as the line allowed just 37 sacks over the course of the season with Bledsoe and Tony Romo as their quarterbacks.
The final year Sparano was in charge of the Cowboys’ offensive line, 2007, he was also promoted to the team’s assistant head coach. They recorded 1,746 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The line also had its best season under Sparano in pass protection, allowing just 25 sacks.
HEAD COACH AND COORDINATOR
The performance of the Cowboys line in 2007 helped Sparano land the head-coaching job of the Miami Dolphins, which he held for four seasons. However, after a poor performance by the team in 2011, which saw the line give up 52 sacks, the front office decided to part ways with him as their head coach before the end of the season.
The New York Jets then hired Sparano as their offensive coordinator for the 2012 season. The team’s offense ran the ball for 1,896 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. The line struggled in pass protection, though, as they gave up 47 sacks. But they also didn’t have the greatest quarterbacks playing behind them with Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy, Tim Tebow and Jeremy Kerley taking snaps throughout the season.
WITH THE RAIDERS
The Jets parted ways with Sparano following the 2012 season and he spent the next two seasons working as the Oakland Raiders offensive line coach. The team ran the ball for 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. The pass protection did not see the same kind of success, though, as they gave up 44 sacks over the course of the season.
There was a drastic change in the Raiders’ pass protection in 2014 as they allowed just 28 sacks throughout the season. The team’s rushing game took a hit, though, as they ran for just 1,240 yards and four touchdowns, but that could have been more because of the shift to a pass-oriented offense after drafting Derek Carr.
Sparano was named the Raiders’ interim head coach partway through the 2014 season and they chose to release him following the season. He then spent the 2015 with the San Francisco 49ers as their tight ends coach.
Sparano has proven throughout his years in the NFL that he has the ability to turn around an offensive line, but it doesn’t always happen in his first year. That means that Vikings fans may have to stay patient if there is not an immediate improvement along the offensive line. It may take two seasons for Sparano’s teaching to really take hold among the players on the line.
The Vikings have some talent along their offensive front and now it is Sparano’s job to mold them into a group that can keep their quarterback upright more consistently.