Mike Zimmer has made a name for himself in the NFL because of his ability to coach defense. He spends much of his time focusing on that side of the ball and calls the Vikings’ defensive plays during games.
But Zimmer is in his fifth season as the team’s head coach and that means his attention must be placed elsewhere at times.
One has to wonder if Zimmer realizes that these days.
Following the Vikings’ 24-10 loss Sunday at New England, Zimmer sounded less than happy about the game that had been called by his first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Asked what needed to be done to get the Vikings’ offense rolling better than it had against the Patriots, Zimmer said: “Same thing I’ve been saying all year.”
Then asked if the Vikings’ ran the ball enough, Zimmer responded, “No.”
Finally, questioned about whether he was comfortable with having Kirk Cousins throw underneath on some third-and-long and fourth-and-long situations, Zimmer said: “It really is what they were giving us. Those are tough situations. I’ve got some thoughts on things, but I’m not going to share them.”
You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that for the second time in three weeks, Zimmer was publicly expressing his frustration with DeFilippo’s play calling. After the Vikings’ 25-20 loss to the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, Zimmer questioned the amount of plays that were being put in each week and wondered if that was impacting Cousins and the offense.
“Let’s just play football,” Zimmer said a day after the loss at Soldier Field. “You run a really good out route, you run the out route. He runs a good curl, you run the curl. You know what I mean? So, maybe we just need to focus a little bit on not trying to trick the other team quite so much.
“You want to add new plays every week and new plays and new plays and new plays. If you’re not executing, it might be the best play in the world, Vince Lombardi might have designed it, but if you can’t execute it, then it doesn’t do you any good. Can’t protect for it or whatever it is.”
Zimmer also talked about his desire to see DeFilippo stick to the run game and be more patient with trying to get yards on the ground.
All of this conversation came in the week leading up to the Vikings’ 24-17 victory over Green Bay last Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Zimmer was pleased with how the Vikings’ offense operated in that game — he went out of his way to praise DeFilippo in his postgame press conference — as Minnesota gained 91 yards on 29 rushes, Cousins completed 29 of 38 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns and the short-passing game made its return.
But any progress made in that win over a poor Packers team — one that fired coach Mike McCarthy on Sunday night after an embarrassing loss to Arizona — was lost in Foxborough, Mass.
Running back Dalvin Cook gained 32 yards on his third rushing attempt of the day in the first quarter and had 62 yards on five carries in the opening half. But Cook only had four carries in the second half and finished with 84 yards. Latavius Murray gained only 11 yards on four carries as the Vikings rushed for 95 yards on 13 attempts. Cousins threw 44 passes, completing 32 of them, for a modest 201 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
The Vikings’ lost by 14 points but the score was tied 10-10 late in the third quarter, meaning the run remained a viable option for much of this game. Zimmer must have believed this to be the case and that’s why he wasn’t happy DeFilippo became so pass happy again.
Zimmer has only one person to blame for this: Himself.
Again, he is the head coach of this team and he’s responsible for everything that happens on the field. This is Zimmer’s team and, thus, there’s no excuse for him to be surprised or unhappy with what is done on offense. Zimmer’s desire to control the defense might take much of his attention on game day, but the man can be in every meeting he wants during the course of the week and he can instruct DeFilippo to craft the game plan a certain way.
This isn’t attempting to absolve DeFilippo of blame for what’s wrong with the offense, but Zimmer had to know once he stepped in after the Bears game that he needed to continue to monitor things and couldn’t just assume everything was fixed.
When Zimmer was hired to coach the Vikings in 2014, he brought in former NFL head coach and longtime offensive coordinator Norv Turner because he knew he needed veteran leadership on that side of the ball. It was a smart move at the time, although things certainly didn’t turn out as expected when Turner walked away during the great Vikings meltdown of 2016.
Pat Shurmur, another former NFL head coach and longtime offensive coordinator, moved up from tight ends coach and appeared to be the perfect coordinator for Zimmer’s staff. Shurmur had as good of play calling season as a coordinator possibly can in 2017, as the Vikings won 13 games and made a run to the NFC title game with career backup Case Keenum at quarterback.
It became easy to take for granted how good Shurmur was at play calling, but the Vikings’ success caused Shurmur to take the New York Giants’ head coaching job after the season. DeFilippo came to the Vikings with only one season as a coordinator under his belt, that came in 2015 with Cleveland, and having spent the past two seasons as Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach.
DeFilippo was given some of the credit for Nick Foles stepping in and leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl championship after Carson Wentz went down, but he wasn’t calling plays in Philadelphia and was working with limited pressure on him.
That has changed in Minnesota and the pressure isn’t just coming from fans who are wondering why the Vikings aren’t getting a better return on the three-year, $84 million investment they made in Cousins this offseason.
Sunday’s loss dropped the Vikings (6-5-1) to the seventh spot in the NFC, putting them as the first team outside of the playoff picture. The Seahawks (7-5) are in the first wild card spot and Washington (6-5), which will play at Philadelphia on Monday night, is in the second.
The Vikings will play the Seahawks in Seattle next Monday night in what will be a huge game when it comes to their playoff hopes. Zimmer will spend much of this week trying to figure out a way to slow Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. What Zimmer also must do is make sure the Vikings’ offensive game plan is up to his specifications.
If that isn’t the case, Zimmer again will have only himself to blame.