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Zulgad: Does blame for Vikings’ offensive struggles fall on coach or coordinator?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
Sep 26, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zimmer was surprisingly supportive after Greg Joseph’s 37-yard field goal attempt in Week 2 sailed wide right and cost the Vikings a victory in Arizona. Zimmer has been known to lose his cool a time or two, or three, when a kicker misses, but this time he was quick to defend Joseph. “Let’s give the kid a break, OK,” Zimmer said, sounding nothing like his usual self.

So was this new, calmer version of the veteran coach going to stick around?

We might be about to find out.

While kickers have found themselves in Zimmer’s crosshairs before, so have plenty of offensive coordinators and these days 34-year-old Klint Kubiak might be wondering what in the name of John DeFilippo he has gotten himself into. The Vikings (2-3) will enter Sunday’s game at Carolina — their last one before the bye  — having failed to score an offensive touchdown in the second half since Dalvin Cook found the end zone with 9 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter in Week 1.

The Vikings’ only second-half touchdown since that time came on the Cardinals’ opening drive in the third quarter in Week 2, when Kyler Murray’s pass was intercepted by linebacker Nick Vigil and returned 38 yards. The Vikings have 71 points in the first half in five games but only 42 in the second half. The offense has accounted for 35 of those points and had only 15 during a three-game homestand against Seattle, Cleveland and Detroit.

“I don’t know if I’ve pinpointed it, but we’ve researched it an awful lot,” Zimmer said Wednesday of the second-half struggles. “(We) went through every possession in the second half, we’ve gone through down and distance tendencies. … I gave the coaches a lot of projects to do this week. I think probably being a little bit more specific coming out of halftime, instead of saying, ‘Hey, these are the plays we’re thinking about running,’ it will be, ‘All right, here’s what we’re going to run. Here’s the first play, here’s the second play, here’s the third play,’ and go from there.”

It sounds as if Zimmer wants to script plays for the first offensive series coming out of the 12-minute halftime. It has been commonplace for years for NFL offenses to go into a game with the first 15 plays scripted but that doesn’t apply to the second half. This also could be Zimmer’s attempt to remove any indecision from Kubiak’s play-calling decisions to start the third quarter.

The Vikings have had success running their opening script this season, scoring on their first drive in each of the past four games. This included Kirk Cousins’ 64-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Osborn on the second play against Arizona; a 7-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Conklin to complete a seven-play drive against Seattle; a 12-yard scoring pass to Justin Jefferson to cap a 14-play drive against Cleveland; and a 38-yard field goal by Joseph to end a 10-play drive against Detroit.

But the Vikings have only three points all season on their first drive of the third quarter — a 43-yard field goal from Joseph against Seattle — and things haven’t gotten much better after that points. Zimmer said he had his offensive coaches doing a self-scout a week early — teams usually spend the bye week doing this — because, “I just felt like it was important to figure out what’s going on here.”

This is where it’s going to get interesting, if things don’t improve rapidly. Klint Kubiak is the sixth offensive coordinator to work for Zimmer since he took over in 2014. Norv Turner (2014-16) walked out during the tumultuous 2016 season and was replaced by Pat Shurmur. Shurmur did such a good job with Case Keenum and the offense during the Vikings’ 13-3 season in 2017 that he left after a loss in the NFC title game to become coach of the New York Giants.

DeFilippo, who had been the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach, was Cousins’ first coordinator in Minnesota and didn’t even make it out of the 2018 season. He was fired with three games remaining and replaced by Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski was promoted to the job permanently for 2019, but Zimmer hired veteran coach Gary Kubiak as an offensive advisor. Stefanski was named coach of the Browns for the 2020 season and Kubiak agreed to become the coordinator. He stepped down after last season and his son was promoted from quarterback’s coach.

If you’re keeping score, that’s two coordinators who ended up getting head coaching jobs, one who quit during the season, one who retired and one who was fired. There are two important questions here: 1) What is Zimmer’s patience level with Klint Kubiak? and 2) How much is Kubiak running the offense that he thinks Zimmer wants to see instead of doing his own thing?

Stefanski was 36 when he was promoted, but he also had the advantage of Gary Kubiak’s experience and ability to soften things with Zimmer, when necessary. It’s no secret that Zimmer likes his veteran assistants and he wasn’t hesitant to talk about how much he enjoyed having Gary around to talk football and run things past.

The decision of the 60-year-old Kubiak to retire and head home to his ranch has left his son with no buffer between him and the crusty coach. It also probably does not help that offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison was forced into working offsite as a senior offensive advisor when he refused to get the vaccine for COVID-19. Dennison, 63, had long worked with Gary Kubiak and would have been able to ease Klint’s transition into a pressure-packed job.

Klint Kubiak got this position in part because he was expected to keep many of the same principles that his father used in his offense and that would mean that Cousins wouldn’t have to learn at least his third offense since arriving in Minnesota. But Klint also had never come anywhere close to calling plays, or being in charge of an offense. Being the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach the past two years was the most responsibility he had ever had either in college or the pros.

So is it really that surprising that when the play-calling pressure is on, and improvising becomes essential, that he is struggling?

Now on to the second part of the above question. That’s how much Zimmer has to do with the offense and whether anyone has the ability to tell him that what he wants simply isn’t going to work? It’s no secret that Zimmer loves the ground game, and the thought of eating clock to extend possessions and keep his defense off the field. Yes, it’s 2021 and, yes, that philosophy is dated, but is Klint Kubiak in a position to tell his boss that? That’s where having a veteran coach sit down with Zimmer might have helped.

One example of what appears to be Zimmer’s negative influence in the offense came with 41 seconds left in the second quarter last Sunday. The Vikings were leading 13-3 and got the ball at their own 19-yard line. There was plenty of time to take advantage of the Lions’ weaknesses on defense, and let Cousins try to get his team into field-goal range. Instead, Alexander Mattison took a handoff and gained 3 yards and then 3 more as the clock ran out and the fans in U.S. Bank Stadium showered the home team with boos.

Asked after the game about this, Zimmer bristled and said: “I shouldn’t have to explain all of this to you. But the plan was — we (had) screwed up a couple plays at the end of the first half this year because we ran out of bounds. So the plan was to run the ball the first play, see how many yards we get, and then go from there. If we get a first down, then we get on the ball and we move. But we got like no yards so that was that.”

It sure didn’t sound like it was Kubiak who was making the decisions on that series. It’s also hard to believe that Kubiak put his stamp of approval on Justin Jefferson having two receptions for 20 yards in the second half after he made five catches for 104 yards in the opening half. Then there was Adam Thielen catching two passes for 40 yards on the day and both coming as Cousins was desperate to get the Vikings down the field on their final drive.

So who is calling the shots here and how does this get fixed? The Vikings are far too talented offensively to look this feeble in the second half.

If the Vikings don’t start producing more points in the second half at Carolina, you have to wonder if Zimmer will offer Kubiak the same kid-gloves treatment he gave Joseph, or if young Kubiak will end up feeling the same type of heat DeFilippo did?

Either way, Klint might want to spend the bye week trying to convince his father that if he had the time to help Stefanski as an advisor, the least he could do is return to that role for the final 11 games of this season. It’s unlikely Zimmer would object.