Monday, December 31, 2018

What went wrong for the 2018 Vikings?

After an offseason of splashy signings, the 2018 Vikings faced high expectations. It's left many people asking -- what went wrong? Daniel House reflected upon all of the unexpected twists and turns.


Last January, the Vikings walked off the field in dismay as green confetti fell from the sky. Following an agonizing 38-7 loss in the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings knew what it felt like to be close. Now, it was about making adjustments to take the next step.

Minnesota was just one win away from playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium. A backup quarterback, turned starter, led them to one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history. The league’s top-ranked defense was set to return, adjust and take out frustrations from a missed opportunity.

Many people thought the Vikings were just a few pieces away from putting together a team that could break down walls and reach the Super Bowl. Those in the organization thought they were close, too. Last offseason turned out to be a defining moment for a team that finished 13-3 in 2017.

March:

With the contracts of three quarterbacks expiring, including Case Keenum, the Vikings had to decide if they wanted to make a splashy signing in free agency. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins was on the market and Minnesota had the financial resources to pursue him. The organization ultimately felt like signing Cousins was the best approach for the team’s future. They signed him to a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract and let Keenum hit free agency. In addition to a top quarterback, Minnesota signed three-technique defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to one-year deal. The pieces were starting to come together.

Minnesota paired Cousins with young offensive mind John DeFilippo and appeared to be heading in an upward trajectory. DeFilippo was the quarterbacks coach for the Eagles and helped lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl. He was widely considered one of the top young offensive minds in football. The Vikings hired DeFilippo and blocked quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski from being interviewed by Pat Shurmur for the offensive coordinator position in New York. The Vikings ultimately chose to shake up the key leadership positions on offense.

With a top-ranked defense returning and several key additions joining a talented stable of playmakers, expectations were high for the 2018 Vikings.

April:

The NFL Draft quickly approached and it was very important for the team to add necessary depth. Minnesota selected Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes in the first-round. A dual-threat playmaker and defensive back, Hughes gave head coach Mike Zimmer additional depth in the secondary. Hughes eventually tore his ACL in mid-October and undrafted rookie Holton Hill stepped up during his absence. Between the first and second rounds, there was a quick and unexpected run of offensive linemen selected. With the team picking at No. 62, they chose to select Brian O’Neill, an athletic offensive tackle and converted tight end. O’Neill eventually became the starting right tackle in Week 6 and finished the season strong. With limited size and experience at the position, he showed he can be a viable option in the future. However, the Vikings didn’t select an interior offensive lineman until the sixth round. Appalachian State Colby Gossett was sent to the practice squad and swiped up by the Arizona Cardinals in late October. They instead chose to add depth at other positions and signed Tom Compton in free agency. Compton was set to start at left guard and Mike Remmers permanently moved inside to right guard.

The team also spent a fifth-round pick on kicker Daniel Carlson, who was eventually released in September following three missed field goals in Green Bay. Outside of the top two picks, the Vikings didn’t receive many contributions from the draft class. They also didn’t manage to add young developmental talent on the offensive line. At the time, it was unclear whether the free agent signings would be enough.

May/June:

During OTAs and mini-camp, the Vikings prepared for the season with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator in the fold. They opened a new practice facility and energy was extremely high within the franchise.

July:

Days before training camp, offensive line coach Tony Sparano tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack. A key leader and offensive mind, Sparano was the bridge between head coach Mike Zimmer and the offense. He made his mark on the team’s run game concepts and was a coach many players relied upon for life advice. Sparano was sure to be a positive influence on John DeFilippo, who was calling plays for just the second time in his career. With Sparano’s experience in running schemes and DeFilippo’s expertise in passing game concepts, the Vikings had the offense set. Considering the timing of Sparano’s passing, the Vikings didn’t have much time to adjust or cope with the loss.

The Vikings opened training camp with heavy hearts following the loss of a coach who had a major impact on the franchise as a mentor, coach and long-time friend. Minnesota shuffled the coaching staff, naming Clancy Barone the offensive line coach. Todd Downing handled responsibilities at tight end and the Vikings quickly entered preparations for the 2018 season. They didn’t have any time to reflect and grieve the loss of a close friend.

Center Pat Elflein missed the duration of training camp rehabbing a shoulder injury. It clearly impacted his strength this season, especially considering his training exercises were limited. He didn’t return until Week 4 and was easing into action for most of the season. In training camp, left guard Nick Easton also suffered a herniated disk in his neck and was placed on IR. It was another hit to a Vikings offensive line room that already lacked depth.

August:

After finishing preseason play, the Vikings trimmed the roster to 53 players. In a surprising move, the team released veteran leader Brian Robison. Due to the construction of the depth chart, including special teams, there wasn’t room for the 11-year veteran. It was shocking for many people, especially considering Robison played such an integral role in the locker room.

Cornerback Terence Newman also decided to retire and shifted into a coaching role in the secondary. A few moves quickly changed the roster composition and leadership roles of the team.

Another small move that quietly made a difference was the decision to release punter Ryan Quigley and sign Matt Wile. They chose to make the change just one week before the season. It didn’t impact the punting game as much. However, just one week before the season, Minnesota had a new holder for field goals. The Vikings suddenly removed a specialist that was working with a rookie kicker. Did it play a role in some of the early season issues? Possibly. It really makes a person wonder, especially when Carlson signed with Oakland and made 16 of 17 field goal tries, including all of his extra points. The Vikings also failed to post a single return touchdown in 2018, which compromised their ability to play complementary football.

September:

The Vikings finished the month of September 1-2-1 with highs and lows littered throughout. After making splashy signings this offseason, it was an unexpected beginning to the season. They opened the year by slowing Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers to claim a 24-16 victory. Early in the year, Minnesota’s offense looked like it needed time to blossom. They only led 10-3 at halftime against San Francisco, but did enough to leave with a victory.

The next week, they traveled to Green Bay and Kirk Cousins dueled against Aaron Rodgers. Cousins tossed for 425 yards and the Vikings passed themselves back into the game. With 7:18 remaining, Minnesota trailed 23-14 until Cousins found wide receiver Stefon Diggs for a perfect 75-yard touchdown strike. The Vikings eventually tied the game with an 8-play, 75-yard drive over 1:14. Cousins was making many of the throws the team signed him to make.

Kicker Daniel Carlson already missed a kick to win the game in regulation, but pushed a 35-yard try wide right in overtime. The comeback effort fell short, the Vikings tied and Carlson was released the next day. Minnesota signed veteran kicker Dan Bailey and made another change to special teams personnel.

The next week, the Vikings returned home with a chance to rebound against a winless Buffalo Bills team. In an unexpected turn of events, Minnesota’s defense was gashed by rookie quarterback Josh Allen, both through the air and on the ground. Due to a huge deficit, the Vikings ran the ball just six times and Kirk Cousins tossed 55 passes. He threw one interception and was sacked four times in a debilitating 27-6 home loss to a bad Buffalo team. It was the first major red flag of the Vikings’ season. Kirk Cousins was struggling to extend in the pocket, the offensive line couldn’t protect and the defense was showing signs of vulnerability. Things were serious. Less than a week later, the Vikings went to Los Angeles and lost a Thursday night game, allowing 556 total yards (446 through the air).

After the game, Mike Zimmer said, "Probably, anywhere I've ever been, I've never been this poor in pass coverage, so we're going to have to look at everything we're doing at get back to doing things correctly.”

The team had to quickly find a rhythm and adjust.

October:

As the Vikings entered October, they didn’t have a large margin for error. Wide receiver Adam Thielen was on fire and posted nine consecutive 100-yard performances to open the season. Minnesota used a defensive score by Linval Joseph to fuel a much-needed 23-21 road win at Philadelphia. During October, the defense eventually settled in and the offense showed signs of progress against less superior teams. After wins over Philadelphia, Arizona and the Jets, confidence was restored, but something still felt off. The Vikings turned the ball over twice and Kirk Cousins was sacked four times in a 30-20 loss to the Saints. Minnesota’s offensive line (specifically within the interior) was inconsistent and Cousins struggled to extend plays with his legs. Cousins finished the season in the top-three for turnovers with 17. He had three pick-sixes and two fumbles returned for touchdowns in 2018. The combination of his ball security and the Vikings’ offensive line play, was a recipe for trouble this season. All year, something was missing with this team. It felt like they didn’t have the same killer instinct and chemistry that led them to 13 wins in 2017.

November-December:

The Vikings’ offense started to show signs of real trouble in mid-November and early December. With late-game stat padding included, Kirk Cousins barely cracked 200 yards passing in three consecutive games against New England, Seattle and Miami. Outside of the Dolphins game, the offense could barely muster a first down. Minnesota was 5-for-22 on third down during the two-game stretch. Following a 21-7 loss in Seattle, the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and named long-time assistant Kevin Stefanski the interim coach.

In his debut, the Vikings ran the ball 40 times for 220 yards against a porous Miami defense. Stefanski made a few adjustments to the offense, but couldn’t execute large tweaks with just three games remaining. The offense still had trouble getting into a rhythm with him at the helm, too. They went three-and-out on each of the first four drives against Detroit and Chicago. They also didn’t post a first down until the midway point of the second quarter at home against the Bears. Minnesota was just 1-for-11 on third down and averaged under two yards per play until a late drive was sparked by Chicago penalties. 

After starting the season strong offensively, teams doubled Thielen or Diggs and the Vikings didn’t have a legitimate third option to create mismatches. Opponents also took away the quick passing game and forced wide receivers to run longer developing routes. This wasn’t a formula for success with a less than adequate offensive line protecting. Not to mention, the quarterback wasn’t able to extend plays with his legs to compensate. Considering this shift, the Vikings will need to adjust their offensive personnel this offseason.

Despite all the offensive issues, the Vikings’ pass defense adjusted during the final nine games. There were signs of development from Mackensie Alexander, Holton Hill and Anthony Harris. Minnesota’s defense didn’t play well in the win-and-in situation, allowing conversions on eight of Chicago’s 14 third down tries. The Bears were 5-for-5 on third down during a nine-minute, 16-play, 75-yard drive, that put an end to Minnesota’s season.

It was one of many moments where the Vikings were inconsistent in 2018. They were simply unable to play complementary football in all three phases this season. When that’s the case, it’s very difficult to win. Next year, they have to find more consistency in every area.

The Vikings completed the season No. 30 in rushing yards and were extremely unbalanced. Minnesota’s offensive line finished No. 17 in sacks allowed, but Kirk Cousins was unable to extend plays, which drastically impacted every phase of the offense. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings’ offensive line allowed a league-high 227 quarterback pressures. This was an increase of 73 pressures over last season. The losses of Joe Berger and Nick Easton were apparently important. Not only that, but quarterback Case Keenum’s mobility and pocket presence helped keep plays alive downfield. He was also far more decisive than Cousins, who struggled when his second or third read broke down.

The offensive line lacked physicality and it played a role in every offensive issue. It’s hard to evaluate Kirk Cousins without a strong offensive line, but he has to play better, too. He missed open receivers (processing trouble), couldn’t extend plays and lacked pocket presence. The Vikings knew this when they signed Cousins and will need to overhaul the offensive line this offseason. This year, a team like the Colts laid out a blueprint for this. They drafted blue-chip guard Quenton Nelson in the first-round and selected Braden Smith with their second pick. Indianapolis also signed versatile offensive lineman Matt Slauson in the offseason. He was an important contributor and slid outside until he was lost due to injury.

At the end of the day, there is plenty of blame to be passed around for this Vikings season. Dating back to March, many decisions were made that will have a lasting impact on the next few seasons. With Kirk Cousins under contract for two more years, the team must adjust their personnel to suit his needs. This starts by investing in the offensive line and another weapon. Cousins has to play much better, but the Vikings need to inject some stability into the offense, too. This starts by evaluating the direction they would like to head at offensive coordinator, while emphasizing the offensive line in the draft and free agency.

They must find a way to right the ship as they enter a very important offseason. The way Minnesota approaches the next nine months could define the future of this organization.

I’ll be highlighting many of the areas they must improve this offseason, but here’s my early list:

Early Vikings’ Offseason Wish-List:

  • Draft or sign at least two impact interior guards and hire an offensive line coach. The free agent class isn’t great and is headlined by Rodger Saffold and Ramon Foster. I’ll be profiling candidates in the coming weeks.
  •  The offensive coordinator position could be open and it’s dependent upon whether Kevin Stefanski decides to remain in Minnesota. The team also could evaluate all outside options to find the best candidate. There’s no doubt the entire offensive mentality and approach must be evaluated. Mike Zimmer must ask himself – what is the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive identity? It feels like Zimmer wants to be physical and run the ball, which likely led to a difference in opinion with offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. 
  • Minnesota will need to re-work Adam Thielen’s contract.
  • The Vikings haven’t posted a return touchdown in two consecutive seasons and need to improve overall special teams play. Complementary football is so important and wasn’t executed in 2018. 
  • Mike Zimmer needs to delegate more defensive play-calling responsibilities to coordinator George Edwards. This will allow Zimmer to become the "CEO" and focus on all aspects of being a head coach. He must improve his ability to delegate tasks in order to better manage all phases of the game. Does he consider bringing in Marvin Lewis to help?
  • Those who want Zimmer fired don’t understand he finished 40-23-1 in the past four seasons with four different quarterbacks and four offensive coordinators. There are plenty of areas he must improve, but he has won games and overcome adversity in the process. Zimmer has produced four top-ten defenses and must claim some responsibility for offenses issues. However, he’s not the main issue when it comes to the Vikings’ 2018 season. 
  • In addition to offensive line help, Minnesota must draft or sign a linebacker, athletic tight end and spark plug wide receiver.
  • Start thinking about drafting a developmental quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds. 
  • They must determine if they’d like to re-sign Anthony Barr or Sheldon Richardson.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent review of the debacle that was this years Minnesota Vikings. I lot of adversity that most outside the Viking fan base are not aware of. Hiring a good OC and O Line coach is critical. Barr will walk and needs to be replaced. If Richardson leaves he will have to be replaced as well. You are right about the interior of the line. They got manhandled almost every week. I agree about the draft and think two of first 3-4 picks need to be O Line, depending on how the draft breaks. Getting a healthy Easton back will help immensely,and Elflein should be back to full strength. Thank you for your posts. They are greatly appreciated.

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  2. I think one of the key points in a great article was the notion of playing to the teams strengths. Forcing a run more approach when the OL simply couldn't move people off the LOS was folly. I also think the loss of leadership in the locker room (Sparano, Robison, Shurmur and Teddy) was significant. One thing that was a bit concerning to me and doesn't get much reflection was the defense's ability to stop the run. Our interior, both Joseph and Richardson got pushed around a lot more than I expected, especially against Chicago. Depending how the draft falls, it won't surprise me if they pick a DT or LB in the first round. Might not be OL value at 18. Some depth in Rounds 2&3 and good interior players could be there. Finding a starting guard in FA is an option as well. Going to be an interesting off-season. Thanks for your analysis and terrific reporting Daniel. Will continue to follow along in the weeks and months to come.

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  3. I think the offensive line definitely needs a major overhaul. Cousins doesn't possess the ability to perform adequately without everything being in place (not a top tier quarterback) I was in favor of keeping Keenum and/or Teddy and addressing the offensive line. But, what do I know? I'm just a fan. Treadwell will go somewhere else and make a couple of Pro Bowls. I'd like to see them pick up a big physical running back if they intend to part ways with Murray. I'm afraid Cook may be a little fragile. The defensive front is starting to show some holes, but nothing that can't be addressed. All in all, they are not that far away. But, it sure seems like a wasted season.

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