Jan. 4—Asked Monday why a team he thought would make the playoffs in 2021 will stay home for the postseason, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer cut to the chase.
“We fumbled the ball in overtime against Cincinnati,” he said. “We gave up a touchdown at the end of the game against Dallas. We missed a field goal (on the last play) against Arizona. We lost in overtime against Baltimore. We gave up a pass on the last play of the game against Detroit.”
“You hit half of those,” Zimmer added, “and you are in the playoffs.”
True enough. Still, if this is Zimmer’s last season in Minnesota, as many suspect as the Vikings head into Sunday’s finale against Chicago with a 7-9 record, his biggest regret might be hiring a first-time offensive coordinator who doesn’t seem to be on the same page as his boss.
After the Vikings’ past two games, losses to the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers, Zimmer made it clear he was disappointed in the offense’s inability — or more to the point, unwillingness — to run the ball. Against the Packers on Sunday night, running back Dalvin Cook ran nine times for 13 yards in a 37-10 loss at frigid Lambeau Field.
That’s one fewer yard than Sean Mannion, making his third career start at quarterback since 2015, gained on two scrambles. Zimmer was careful when discussing it again on Monday, offering reasons that Klint Kubiak might have abandoned the run — down and distance, large deficit, etc. — but he didn’t change his tune.
“My frustration,” he said, “(is) our best player is either (receiver Justin) Jefferson or Cook, and we’re playing with a backup quarterback, and no offense to Sean but we’re throwing the ball 45 times.”
Despite missing four games, Cook has run for 1,080 yards this season, including a 205-yard game in a 36-28 victory over Pittsburgh on Dec. 9. Against the Packers on Sunday, he ran twice in the second half.
Zimmer will accept a win whatever it looks like, and he has an occasionally terrific quarterback in Kirk Cousins and two of the NFL’s best receivers in Jefferson and Adam Thielen. But his DNA tells him to establish the running game and keep his defense fresh. That has been especially true for the 2021 Vikings, who started the season with a talented-but-aging defense that quickly became less talented after end rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen were lost for the season. COVID also kept key players such as Harrison Smith, Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson off the field for full games.
The Vikings are 7-2 this season when they outrush an opponent, and in their nine losses have passed an average of 14.7 more times than they rushed. In their six wins, that average was 4.0. In wins against Seattle and Chicago, the Vikings ran more than passed. Against the Packers on Sunday, Minnesota ran 11 times and was outrushed 174 yards to 29.
So, why the apparent disconnect between Zimmer and Kubiak?
“It’s not really a disconnect,” Zimmer said Monday. The Vikings’ lack of success on first downs hurt against the Packers, he said. So did falling behind 20-3 at the half. “When you run and you gain one yard and it’s second-and-9, then you start getting a little bit more antsy as far as trying to throw instead of sticking with it,” Zimmer said.
Kubiak isn’t the first offensive coordinator who hasn’t been dedicated to the run enough for Zimmer. He’s the Vikings’ sixth in Zimmer’s eight years, and Norv Turner and John DeFilippo left midseason. Kubiak, 34, is less experienced than his predecessors, but he also succeeded his Super Bowl-winning father, Gary. Early on, Cousins was having his best NFL season and the offense was among the league’s best. Lately, though, it hasn’t seemed like a great match, whether for reasons of experience or inclination.
In any case, it’s puzzling. While certainly complicated, it does appear a first-year coordinator isn’t following the chain of command.
The Packers on Sunday “played basically a shell defense the majority of the time, which is conducive to running the ball,” Zimmer pointed out Monday. Further, the head coach added, he told Kubiak at halftime “that we need to run the ball, because we had 37 yards or something at halftime.”
The Vikings ran three times in the second half.