When Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in January 2014, he arrived proclaiming himself a “fixer,” a descriptor that has proven true on the defensive side of the ball.
But with a background heavy on coordinating aggressive defenses and training defensive backs, Zimmer hired Norv Turner and gave him near autonomy to run the offense as he saw fit. However, in January 2016 Zimmer brought in Tony Sparano and Pat Shurmur as offensive position coaches with experience coordinating offenses or entire teams. The idea was to offer new ideas to Turner, but it took only seven regular-season games of operating with Shurmur and Sparano in the background before Turner quit on Zimmer and his team, insinuating that he didn’t have the answers to the questions being asked or the solutions to the challenges being posed, despite a 5-0 start.
This year, however, the offense is fully being turned over to Shurmur, but with greater influence from Zimmer and great inquisition from general manager Rick Spielman.
“The dialogue is terrific [with Zimmer] because as we’re doing something he’ll say, ‘We’re doing it this way, but these are the things that can give us problems on defense’ and so it becomes kind of a combination of things,” Shurmur said.
But just as Shurmur is learning from Zimmer, both Zimmer and Spielman are getting to know Shurmur’s offense better. With that comes greater insight into what he believes are the desired traits in offensive players at different positions.
“Zim has been more involved in the offense than I’ve ever seen,” Spielman said. “I know he is in the meetings with the offense in the morning. I know he’s in the meetings with the defense in the afternoon. I’ve had an opportunity to sit in a couple of the meetings and listen, and his knowledge of offense is incredible because he has to face it every year or every game. So him understanding what offenses are trying to do from a pass-protection standpoint and to hear the dialogue between him and Pat Shurmur and between him and the new offensive coaches he’s brought in has been incredible.”
Shurmur will have to rely on some of Spielman’s draft picks and free-agent acquisitions to improve the Vikings offense. In order to get the most out of those, it’s important for Spielman and the scouting staff to know what type of player fits best. That has been part of Spielman’s routine in recent weeks before he, the entire coaching staff and the scouts head to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine this week to view and talk to more than 300 prospects.
“Offensively, I have to make sure that we’re all on the same page, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Spielman said. “Are we an outside zone or are we an inside zone? Why haven’t we run the ball better? Was it because we didn’t have good enough personnel up front? Was sometimes because it was the running back situation? There are a lot of different factors that go into it, but I want to make sure from a personnel side that we are all in sync with Pat and what his ideas are on offense and the type of players that we’re looking for.”
Spielman said the offensive system is still evolving under Shurmur’s guidance. He took over the offensive coordinator duties on an interim basis in November after Turner’s resignation and was given that duty full-time in January.
But the system will be tweaked according to the players that are added, according to Spielman.
Shurmur will keep some of Turner’s concepts and add to them and he’ll put his stamp on what he likes best, not only from diagrammed plays but in the way the offense operates.
“It’s more than just plays – it’s a mindset on how you play and how you operate,” he said. “I think as we move forward, we’ve added some new coaches that have some new ideas. So what you try to do is incorporate the best to everyone that’s in the room and then move forward so that it becomes the 2017 Vikings offense.”
Spielman is taking his part in the process seriously. He says he knows exactly what Zimmer wants on defense after being together for three years. Now the general manager is trying to get a better feel for the desired personnel on offense.
“As they’re sitting there with Zim and they’re evolving what our offensive scheme’s going to be, it’s still going to come down to us being able to run better, block better, pass protect better,” Spielman said. “But I just want to make sure that I’m doing a better job understanding – for example, offensive line, we go into this, and it’s not the issue of identifying what a strength or weakness is. I can see that, and I’ve got eight other reports that can see that. Where I think it becomes successful is, if this guy is a road grader offensive lineman that goes forward, but doesn’t have great lateral movement, like in zone schemes, where they have to [move laterally], then he’s going to be more successful [going forward] instead of [moving laterally]. You want to get guys that can do both, but usually those guys are in early rounds, to make sure we’re doing everything we can from that trait standpoint to give the coaches what they need, because ultimately that’s what our job is. We have to give them the tools and players to have success.”