Sometimes clichés resonate for a reason.
When it comes to Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, they can utter the same line as any head coach or general manager in the NFL: “We’re looking for smart, tough football players,” or some version of that quote.
Everyone wants them, along with elite athletic prowess, of course, but it’s become clearer with each passing month of the offseason that numerous people with the Vikings believe they lacked toughness last year.
The evidence has been propagated from numerous sources.
The stats: The Vikings were dead last in rushing yards (1,205) and rushing average (3.2 yards) last year. Think about that. A team built for so many years on the chiseled legs and torso of Adrian Peterson couldn’t even come close to what Peterson used to average in a full season with the combined the efforts Peterson for three games, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Ronnie Hillman and others who carried the ball fewer than 10 times.
Instead, an offense that once looked to Peterson for 20 to 25 carries a game was rendered powerless to run the football and had to turn instead to a quick, short passing game in an attempt to keep the chains moving.
The Vikings averaged just 75.3 yards per game in a season in which 24 teams – 75 percent of the league – averaged more than 100 yards per game.
Minnesota was also third-worst in scoring percentage inside the 20-yard line, converting only 80 percent of those trips into points and only 46 percent of them into touchdowns – fifth-worst.
The injuries: No doubt, the wreck of an offensive line and injuries to QB Teddy Bridgewater and Peterson played a leading role in the low-ranking statistics.
Bridgewater could have added the element of a somewhat mobile quarterback and kept an element of guessing where he would be on passing downs. Sam Bradford produced an impressive season, especially given the surrounding circumstances, but one thing he is not is mobile.
Zimmer rightfully praised veteran quarterback’s toughness last week, reminding reporters of the beating Bradford took behind shaky pass protection. He was sacked 37 times, despite the offense taking on a quick-release philosophy, and pummeled many more times shortly after getting rid of the ball. But rarely did Bradford hobble his way to the sidelines, fighting to bring himself back to a vertical stance after being leveled far too often.
Zimmer, pointing out that new offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers are better run blockers than pass blockers, said part of the problem last year was that the Vikings couldn’t run the ball effectively and therefore had to pass much more. That allowed opposing defenses to send their blitzers. But as Zimmer pointed out, sack numbers were the same as the previous year and so were the hits on the quarterback that didn’t result in sacks.
The combination of Peterson’s ailments that took him out of action for 13 of 16 games and the incredibly shuffling offensive line rendered the running game, well, pathetic. But even before Peterson’s exit in Week 2, he wasn’t finding room to run and was being dropped for losses with consistency he has likely never witnessed.
In all, the Vikings had eight different starting offensive line combinations and 12 different offensive linemen that saw field time. The Vikings thought they had numbers to spare on the offensive line before Phil Loadholt retired and John Sullivan was released before the start of training camp and the regular season, respectively, but each passing week brought them closer to running weak.
The statements: It wasn’t just the stats and injuries that told the story of the Vikings’ offensive struggles. Several statements by coaches and even one draft prospect told the tale of toughness lacking.
The Vikings declined to pay left tackle Matt Kalil, the former first-round pick dripping with pass-protecting potential but lacking in consistency and, it seemed at times, desire. Instead, the team issued $16.1 million in 2017 payroll to tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers.
Zimmer extolled their toughness, but even he needs to see more before declaring the pass-protection issues solved.
“The best thing about these two guys is that they’re great competitors, number one. I think both of them are smart guys. I think they’re tough guys. I think along with Alex Boone and [Nick] Easton and [Joe] Berger and those guys that we have they’re going to try to bring that mentality that we’ve been trying to achieve since I’ve been there,” Zimmer told SiriusXM in a radio interview last week. “I’ve told I lot of people this – the mentality of the football team, in my opinion, comes from the offensive and defensive lines. I believe our defensive line has that mentality and we’re working every day to get our offensive line in that mentality.”
The line could use it. Even one draft prospect said he was talking with a current player that said the offensive line needed a nastier attitude.
It’s difficult to how much an aggressive attitude can help, but after last year it’s clear that is part of what is needed to fix the offense.
“We’re getting back to work tirelessly to try to figure this out,” Zimmer said, “trying to get back to where we were the year before and trying to move forward.”