EAGAN — Each year at the bye week Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman sits down with the Twin Cities media to talk about the state of the team. Here are the major takeaways from his conversation on Tuesday…
Following a 20-point comeback win over the Broncos, the Vikings’ quarterback is having a career year in almost every major category, including QB rating (second in the NFL) and Pro Football Focus grade (fifth). Spielman talked about how the organization has put Cousins in a situation to succeed with changes made this offseason. He said:
“I think it’s just the one thing that we wanted to identify this offseason is, just like with any other player, what are his strengths and how do we make sure that we’re putting him in the best situations to have success? When you go back and you through all the analytics… there’s things there that can tell you, ‘OK, this guy really excels in these specific areas.’ So, I think what Kevin Stefanski has done, and Gary Kubiak and some of the new coaches that we’ve brought on the offense, they’re really done an outstanding job not only identifying where Kirk excels but where Dalvin Cook excels, where the receivers, you’re seeing the tight ends excel, so they’ve done a phenomenal job of developing this system and even the offensive line.”
“It’s giving him the best chance to have success. And that goes hand in hand with his abilities and the system we’re running on offense now. I think just like any team, we’re were able to and have some pieces around him. Hopefully when we come down these next five games here, we get all of our pieces in place too be able to get Thielen back and pair him with Diggs. Since Thielen has been out since the Detroit game, we’ve had other players step up…all the sudden Irv Smith becomes a big part of the offense. You’re seeing him get split out not just at the tight end position, but they’re moving him to the slot, they’re moving him outside. Because he’s a very good athlete to create those types of mismatches. Kirk has done an outstanding job, but I also give credit to the coaching staff for putting the gameplan together week in and week out to give our team the best chance to have success.”
While Cousins said this offseason that the “next level” for him was to win a playoff game — and presumably improve the win-loss record that has been widely cited — Spielman said in evaluating Cousins’ play there are a number of factors that go beyond the team’s record with him at the helm.
“I think sometimes that the quarterback gets blamed for some things too that aren’t all his fault. I think you’ve got to look at the whole global picture to make those decisions. But I know the way he’s played over this last six to eight weeks, I don’t know there’s a quarterback, or he’s played as good as any of the quarterbacks in the league right now for what we’re asking him to do. Even in that Green Bay game, the first Green Bay game where we were down 21-0, we found a way to fight and claw. Although he made a poor decision there at the end, he was just trying to make a play. But our team just fought and clawed to get back into that game and I think we’re always looking from a global standpoint as a team, and it’s not going to be just one individual that determines that, because there’s a lot of different things that go on during a game, during a season that determine wins and losses. It’s not always just on one player.”
Sometimes a plan comes together exactly the way you think. That’s been the case for the Vikings’ offense this year. Using staples of the Kubiak offense like bootlegs, rollouts and play-action to create open receivers deep down the field have all worked perfectly with Cousins’ strengths. However, since this team just helped a backup quarterback go 13-3 two years ago with a terrific supporting cast, Cousins’ play down the stretch and into the playoffs will have a large impact on how the team evaluates him, especially as they have to make decisions on whether to give him a contract extension after the 2020 season.
At the bye, the Vikings’ offense ranks fourth in the NFL in yards and fourth in points. That is a dream scenario after sitting in the bottom half of the league in Cousins’ first season under center. Because of his success with Cousins, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will undoubtedly start to get looks from teams who need a head coach. We saw from last year’s hires that many franchises are hunting for the next brilliant offensive mind. Spielman said of the job Stefanski has done this year…
“I think Kevin has really grown. I think the qualities of a head coach, what you look for is, he’s done so many different things, so many different jobs as far as coaching different positions, learned from a lot of great coordinators he’s worked with underneath here. I’m sure, if we continue to have success, that he will get an opportunity someday down the road, whether it’s next year or down the road at some time. I think when teams have success, the first place that other teams are looking when they’re looking for head coaches are those type of, why they’re successful. And then, the part about how he does in the interviews and things like that, that’s a whole next step. But I know Cleveland was very interested in him last year, and he was in serious consideration for that job. I know he’s getting recognized around the league for what type of coach he is.”
The Vikings’ GM pointed to Stefanski’s handling of the many cooks in the kitchen, citing his support for bringing in Gary Kubiak as evidence that he could make a good head coach at some point down the road.
“When we were going through some of the coaching changes we made in the offseason and Gary Kubiak was potentially going to be available, Kevin was the first one raising his hand, because he knows — just like Zim — when you surround yourself with good coaches, and you surround yourself with experience like that, that’s only going to make you a better coach. Kevin has no ego whatsoever. He just wants to continue to learn and grow. I think that type of attitude, where I’m not a young up-and-comer, that I have all the answers, where he’s still looking to learn, he’s still looking to grow. When you have that type of attitude, and are eager to listen and bounce different ideas off, from a Gary Kubiak, from a Rico Dennison and some of these guys that have been around a while, that have had a lot of success, that just tells you that you’re probably going to learn from that as well, and eventually being getting an opportunity down the road someday.”
Stefanski isn’t just showing the NFL that he deserves head coaching interviews around the league, he’s probably proving to the Vikings that they should have hired him prior to the 2018 season rather than going outside of the building. His modern twists to Kubiak’s base offense have allowed the Vikings to be multidimensional and unpredictable. Those are things every team is looking for. Considering that he interviewed for Cleveland’s job last year, it’s clear Stefanski wants to be a head coach and if the offense continues to roll — and especially if the Vikings win in the playoffs — it seems like a foregone conclusion that someone will hire him.
Everything is rolling the Vikings’ way in terms of their playoff odds and offensive production but the one black eye on the first half of the season is the fact that they rank 17th in opposing QB rating — something you would have figured to be impossible based on Zimmer’s last three seasons. But starting corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have struggled and now the team is in a position to find solutions. Zimmer will have time to do so during the break. Spielman said:
“I think that’s the one thing that’s great about Coach Zim is I know when he heads to the ranch, he’s not just going there and sitting in a deer stand. He is sitting in a deer stand, but he’s trying to figure out how we do get better on pass defense, because that’s one of the things that was the staple of our defense in the past, and we’ve had some struggles this year, and guys are in position, but why aren’t they making some of the plays that they’ve made in the past, but the one thing about Coach Zim is that he’s a fixer. I know he’s very honed in and focused on getting things that we need to get fixed. Not only just that, but in general, that’s what our staff is doing up there right now — self scouting, what do we need to get better so we can hopefully make a strong push here this last five weeks.”
Zimmer indeed has found solutions to defensive issues that have come up throughout his tenure but this one is tough because every opponent seems to be devising their gameplan around how to attack the outside corners and there’s no obvious fix. The Vikings do have talented depth players like Mike Hughes, Jayron Kearse and Holton Hill, who they could attempt to mix and match against the strong passing games that they are going to face down the stretch. We will see his changes tested against Seattle in two weeks when they run three excellent receivers and an MVP-caliber QB at the Vikings’ defense.
The Vikings probably expected Garrett Bradbury to play a significant role in the offense right away but tight end Irv Smith was more of a wild card. Tight ends rarely have a huge impact in their first year because of the complexity of the position but Smith has become a big contributor in Year 1. He’s been a major reason why the passing offense has survived the loss of Adam Thielen and has exceeded expectations as a run blocker. He isn’t the only one who has exceeded expectations. Spielman talked about this year’s class being a hit so far…
“I think that that goes back, giving credit to how well we worked together with the coaches, and the biggest thing was when Kevin became a full-time offensive coordinator and Gary and them coming in and just having meetings before we even got into the personnel or into the process, is to identify everything, all the traits that we’re going to be looking for. And they’re great coaches. They know, and everybody knows, that these young guys are going to have to play and guys are going to have to step up, and the coaches take on that challenge. But if we’re bringing in the right guys, not only the physical talent part that fits the scheme, but also the type of guys from a character standpoint that we’re trying to build this with, at least you have a chance to have a chance with these guys. But I do know that as much time as we spend on watching tape, evaluating, we really do try to spend as much time on, ‘Do they love football? Do they fit all the off-field traits? Do they fit all the grit and toughness?’ Everything that we look for when we bring guys in.”
The Vikings needed the players drafted to jump right in and play exceptionally well and that’s exactly what’s happened for four players. Center Garrett Bradbury has shown improvement, ranking as the ninth best graded center from PFF since Week 4, Smith is 13th among all tight ends by PFF standards, Alexander Mattison has added 394 yards rushing at 4.8 yards per carry and Bisi Johnson, a seventh-round pick, has 24 receptions for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Everything has clicked for this group and the offense wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without them.
The Vikings have been on every side of the pass interference review controversy. They lost a touchdown in Week 2 against Green Bay but gained a big play to Laquon Treadwell in Kansas City. There have been several challenges by Zimmer and opponents that have been shut down regardless of whether they appeared obviously wrong or not. Spielman addressed the current state of the PI review issue…
“I just don’t know where the consistency is because it’s so new. I thinks sometimes there’s a lack of consistency on what is and what isn’t clear and obvious. But you have to go with what their decisions are, and that is what it is. So there’s nothing we can do about it, and we keep fighting and playing on regardless of how some of these calls have gone.”
Zimmer has taken some jabs at the league over the blatant mishandling of the DPI and they deserve much more criticism than they have gotten (it appears because the NFL has threatened to fine everyone who speaks out). Review on PIs clearly weren’t ready to be rolled out at the beginning of the season and the errors have proven costly in some important games. Spielman was cautious about his language but there doesn’t seem to be anyone — fans, media, GMs, coaches, TV refs etc. — who is happy with the way it’s been handled.
On the cutting room floor…
On Colin Kaepernick’s workout: “The Colin Kaepernick situation, you know, it was sprung on us last week. We’re always going to do our due diligence. We were one of the teams that were down there for the workout, but we just treated it like any other workout. We cover hundreds of workouts all year, from colleges to the pro days we bring in here, and it was just another opportunity for us to cover another workout.”
On Dalvin Cook’s outstanding season: “His physical skill set, as far as his vision, his patience to set up the blocks, he’s going to keep working laterally and the burst and balance he has through the hole. And he’s not a 6-2, 230, 220-pound back, but he has tremendous strength and balance. The thing that makes him unique, that makes the great running backs unique is the ability to create on their own. I don’t know what the stat is, but I can imagine he’s one of the top backs in the league as far as getting yards after contact, or making people miss, especially when he gets in space. He just has a unique trait like that that I don’t think you can coach. I think it’s something you’re born with.”