For now, Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins need each other
Things haven't been warm and fuzzy but the Vikings need both sides of the ball to roll in order to compete for an NFC North title
By Matthew Coller
In March 2018, on a couch in the middle of a busy hallway inside the Indiana Convention Center, Mike Zimmer laid out all of his concerns about the future of the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback position.
He talked about his worry that if the team brought back Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford, there was a chance neither would last because of their knee injuries. He mentioned that if they franchise-tagged Case Keenum, there was a realistic possibility that his 2017 magic would fade. And if they spent big on Kirk Cousins, it would be hard to maintain a strong top-to-bottom roster.
Over the last three years, Zimmer’s fears have all played out. Bradford’s career ended shortly after 2017 and Keenum didn’t maintain his strong play. Bridgewater won the starting job in Denver but it’s still up in the air whether he can ever be the QB that he was on track to become before suffering a catastrophic knee injury in 2016. And the Vikings weren’t able to sustain roster strength during Cousins’s contract. The defense came crashing down between 2019 and 2020 and they were forced into one-year deals and contract restructures this offseason to put the starting lineup back together.
Now the Vikings are looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2020 in which neither coach nor QB can point the finger at the other without having to look in the mirror. Zimmer’s defense struggled and Cousins came short in multiple games that could have put them over the edge for the postseason. Cousins signed in Minnesota in part because of its defensive prowess but he was also signed to a top-dollar contract to win games where the defense faltered.
Tension and expectations go together even when relationships are generally good. When the New England Patriots struggled in 2019, suddenly a flurry of behind-the-scenes stories came out about Tom Brady and his organization. Oddly, those articles didn’t surface when they won the Super Bowl the year before.
But the Zimmer-Cousins dynamic isn’t your normal gotta-win-now stress. The levee broke that was holding back whatever unhappiness that Zimmer had been harboring when Cousins was placed on the COVID list early in training camp. Zimmer had some scathing remarks pertaining to his unvaccinated quarterback, saying, “It's important to be available when you're playing football.”
Cousins responded in a press conference, saying it was the room size to blame for his stint on the COVID list, not any failure to follow protocols.
There have been a number of other read-between-the-lines moments. Zimmer has made multiple mentions of the “financial” issues related to the team’s depth problems, calling the depth “concerning” this week. These comments and his worries from the 2018 NFL Combine seem connected.
The arranged marriage of Zimmer and Cousins has often felt like two parents sleeping in different rooms. In three years, they have rarely spoken of each other in press conferences, aside from the occasional instance where Zimmer will acknowledge that Cousins is “a good quarterback.”
But heading into Week 1, Zimmer said that they did something that they’d never done before during Cousins’s time in Minnesota: Watched film together.
“Kirk came in and we watched film today together and I talked to the offensive coaches about some of the things that these guys are doing and what bothers me as a defensive coach,” Zimmer said.
Asked if he usually watched tape with his veteran QB, he said, “That’s the first time with Kirk. I used to do it with Teddy. That’s the first time with Kirk.”
Zimmer explained that it was Cousins’s request to meet.
It would be a massive stretch to suggest that coach and QB are suddenly going to join around a campfire to sing the “SKOL Vikings” song but there may be some realization of what’s happening here.
Whether they can co-exist and improve their respective sides of the ball may be the determining factor of where this season goes and whether this HC/QB combination continues into the future.
Mike Zimmer’s philosophy to run, hit explosive pass plays and play strong defense is being deployed by some pretty successful teams around the NFL, including the Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. But in order to make it work with an imperfect defense, the offense needs to sustain drives.
In 2020 the Vikings were dead last in offensive starting position and dead last in defensive starting position. On the offensive side, the Vikings were 11th in points but 20th in average drive time, 23rd in plays per drive and 15th in scoring in the first halves of games.
The Vikings were 13th in short drives (six plays or less) that ended with a punt, interception or on downs and 16th in third down percentage.
“If they can control the ball and keep us on the sideline, that’s a great thing,” Co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said.
The Chiefs, Bills, Packers and Titans had the fewest short drives that ended in punt/turnover/downs last year, by the way.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that great offense always leads to great defense. Scoring fast can stress the defense and and force opponents to play aggressively. But playing from ahead is advantageous for the defense, even if the opposing offense can put up numbers while playing from behind.
“When you’re playing from ahead and you have a double-digit lead and you know they’re going to throw the ball, that’s even better because now the guys are able to pin their ears back and let it go,” Patterson said. “The years that I’ve been here that we’ve had high sack totals and we’ve had big sack games, the combination was: We had a big lead early in the game and they had to throw the ball over and over and over again and the guys knew that it was pass rush time. They keep us fresh and they allow us the ability to get after the quarterback.”
In the relationship between offense and defense, there’s also the bail-out factor. Last season when the Vikings’ defense gave up at least 25 points (league average per team, per game), they went 2-9. The wins came against Carolina and Detroit. Certainly teams don’t win all that often when they give up 25-plus points but there were 17 teams that won at least one-third of those contests and nine teams that won at least 40%, including the Seahawks, Chiefs, Browns, Bills, Titans, Saints, Packers and Bucs.
Unless this is 2017 all over again, Zimmer will need Cousins to bail his defense out at least a few times this year. In three seasons, the Vikings have three wins in 19 games in which they have given up 25-plus points. That’s the 19th best win percentage under those circumstances. There are three teams with over 50% since 2018, 11 teams win at least one-in-four Q’s when they struggle defensively.
On the flip side, the Vikings’ poor 2020 defense helped pump up the Vikings’ offensive stats but did little to help win. Cousins had the second most passing yards (1,539) in the NFL when his team was trailing by at least two scores and the Vikings had the most touchdowns when down by at least nine points.
“We hardly had any three-and-outs last year, we didn’t get very many sacks, so we didn’t put teams in bad situations, we gave up too many big plays,” Zimmer said. “The offense had a lot of good stats, but part of it is because they had to. Hopefully we can continue with those kinds of things offensively and play a lot better on defense and special teams.”
In terms of total point differential, the Vikings were minus-45 last season. The Super Bowl-winning Bucs were plus-137. The Bucs were the third best scoring offense and eighth best defense.
In order for the Vikings to reach the goal that they set out to achieve when they signed Cousins, both sides of the ball have to be better, which means both Zimmer and Cousins have to improve.
‘Choking the quarterback’s motor’
Quarterbacks and coaches. Coaches and quarterbacks. They are forever tied together. Bruce Arians’s book was called The Quarterback Whisperer. Before he owned that title, it belonged to Mike Holmgren.
Brett Favre says, “I know without a hint of doubt that I would not be here if it were not for him.”
Steve Young: “I owe him more than [A Football Life] can express.
You might say that Mike Zimmer wouldn’t have those types of quotes from his quarterbacks because he’s a defensive coach but you’d be wrong. Both Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford had close relationships with the Vikings’ head coach.
Zimmer’s closeness with Bridgewater has been well documented from the start and in early 2020, Bradford revealed that he and Zimmer became close between 2017 and 2018.
“It was great,” Bradford said of playing with Zimmer. “I tell people to this day that I love coach Zimmer. I think he was the favorite coach that I’ve ever played for. It’s a lot of tough love but when he compliments you or he praises you that he really means it.”
Maybe Zimmer and Cousins are too different to ever reach that place.
Up-and-coming coach Malcolm Bell, a former D-I quarterback who now coaches high school football, trains QBs and recently attended the NFL’s coaching summit, thinks they shouldn’t be too distant to co-exist.
One of the coaches at the summit was Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who said that a coach simply trusting his QB can make a world of difference.
“Coach Bieniemy [talked about] having that understanding of… ‘I’m only going to go as far as my quarterback goes,’” Bell said. “I think that relationship really matters. As a coach you’re understanding your player, especially your quarterback because he’s the one that’s going to be in there getting the job done for you. If there’s a disconnection, especially on the ego portion, there can be problems there.”
Since early in 2018, the Vikings haven’t shown much trust in their QB. In 2020 they ranked 27th in pass attempts despite playing from behind often. In game situations in which the Vikings have had chances to finish off teams with an aggressive approach, they’ve often opted to run like against Seattle and Green Bay last year.
“Especially the way the game is going now…when you’re hearing, ‘We just can’t turn the ball over,’ it’s choking the quarterback’s motor, it’s choking him,” Bell said. “He’s never going to get to his full potential because he’s scared of what’s going to come of him doing extra. A lot of defensive-minded coaches don’t want their quarterback to be the Superman of the team. ‘We don’t need you to win, you just make sure you don’t make mistakes.’ That shuts the quarterback down mentally.”
“Some coaches love their game-manager types,” Bell added.
Is the solution turning Cousins loose?
Maybe not exactly. But the Vikings have run the third fewest pass plays in the first half of games since 2019. Only Baltimore and Tennessee have passed less early in games. It’s hard to imagine fully maximizing the offense’s output — especially with Justin Jefferson in the mix — without an uptick in early-game passing.
Maybe that comes in the form of giving Klint Kubiak the power to decide when to hit the gas with his QB.
“The big thing is: What [the offensive coordinator and QB coach] are saying has to match up [with the head coach],” Bell said. “It can’t be different.”
The other part of Zimmer getting the most out of his QB might involve tongue-biting. In the last three years, the Vikings’ head coach has mostly defended Cousins in postgame press conferences but there’s a recent feeling of the gloves being off.
“That stuff gets on social media very quickly and that’s something that [coaches] don’t totally understand,” Bell said. “Whatever you say here, it’s going to get back [to the quarterback] and there’s no hiding anymore. It’s going to be a video clip of what you just said. Some quarterbacks can deal with that stuff.”
While there may be ways for Zimmer to adjust his approach, the fact of the matter is that a number of games in 2021 will come down to whether Cousins makes a big throw. Defensive coaches feel less in control of results when they have to rest their careers on the shoulders of a quarterback but without those make-a-throw moments from the QB (i.e. in the playoffs against New Orleans in 2019), it’s very hard to win in the NFL. Either backing his QB or letting Kubiak take the reigns may be the avenue that Zimmer chooses to get the most out of his captain.
Without any public statements from ownership to suggest that there’s hot seats, we can only assume that the heat is on based on tea leaves. The Wilfs have been patient with recent playoff misses but the temperature doesn’t stay cool for long in the NFL without postseason wins, no matter the loyalty at the top.
It’s hard to draw a flow chart of ifs and thens though. Who knows how many wins everyone needs to stick around.
We do know that another season like 2020 would be tough to swallow after all the money ownership has poured into the quarterback and rebuilt defense.
So Zimmer and Cousins need each other to succeed. Against Cincinnati on Sunday, we’ll begin to find out just how much they’ll be able to help each other.
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