The Minnesota Vikings were the NFL’s biggest disappointment last year. Instead of blowing the roster up, confidence was shown with relative inaction.
Tony Sparano died on July 22 last summer of heart disease. The Vikings never recovered.
Talking to people around the league, Sparano’s death put Minnesota on a road to oblivion last season. Speaking to Vikings general manager Rick Spielman on Wednesday, he concurred completely. A preseason favorite to win it all, the Vikings stumbled to an 8-7-1 mark, missing the playoffs. Blame was laid at the feet of Kirk Cousins and Mike Zimmer. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after 13 games.
The reality? Sparano’s death left an unfillable void.
“Not only the loss of the person but he was the reason from an offensive standpoint we had success the year before,” Spielman said. “He was the run game coordinator, put in all the protections every week. He did a lot of that stuff for our offense. When we lost that key component, as hard as guys tried to fill in, it’s hard to replace a coach the caliber of Tony.”
To bolster the staff this year, Minnesota hired a pair of veteran hands in Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison. Kubiak won three Super Bowl rings as an assistant before earning a championship as a head coach with the Denver Broncos in 2015. Dennison also has three titles, including in ’15 as Kubiak’s offensive coordinator. With the Vikings, Kubiak will serve as assistant head coach while Dennison slots in as Sparano’s direct replacement; offensive line coach and run-game coordinator.
In prior seasons, Sparano installed all pass-blocking schemes along with being heavy-handed in the run game preparations each week. Without him, DeFilippo and the Vikings threw constantly. In one lopsided loss against the Buffalo Bills, Cousins dropped back 48 consecutive times. The result was cumulative over the season. Minnesota averaged XX:XX in time of possession in 2018, more than four minutes less than any other season with Zimmer at the helm.
Spielman believes the presence of Kubiak and Dennison, along with Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator, will revert Minnesota’s culture into a familiar smash-mouth brand.
“I know (Dennison) wants to be a physical offensive team that runs the ball and does some play action, and we can do some explosive plays off that,” Spielman said. “We got away from that last year. We always won being a physical offensive team on the offensive side of the ball. When those three got together on their outsize zone scheme, it’s about identifying what we have on the roster. I can tell you strengths and weaknesses but do they fit our scheme? … What does Cousins do best? We know what he does best. Those guys set up the offense to fit the football team and fit our quarterback.”
A year ago, Minnesota’s line was a mess. Spielman points to overmatched personnel and constant scheme issues as chief reasons. The Vikings added center Garrett Bradbury with their first-round pick. In the second round, Minnesota landed tight end Irv Smith Jr., an Alabama product who can play both in-line and move spots in the scheme. Combined with the new-look coaching staff, Spielman believes Minnesota’s personnel fits its refined scheme much better.
“After we went through our personnel meetings with all our coaches, we believe we have talent on this roster,” Spielman said. “There were certain areas we wanted to definitely attack from a need standpoint. One of the biggest was the offensive line. I think after we had the coaching staff turnover on the offensive side of the ball, moving Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator, bringing in (Gary) Kubiak and (Rick) Dennison … we felt confident we have guys lined up. With our additions, we complimented what we had.”
Spielman’s actions back up his words. This offseason, it was widely assumed the Vikings would lose key personnel including tight end Kyle Rudolph, linebacker Anthony Barr and either corner Xavier Rhodes or Trae Waynes. Instead of a significant retooling, Spielman largely stood pat, retaining all the aforementioned players. It’s a vote of confidence in a roster believed good enough to challenge for a Super Bowl a year ago.
Despite being in the tough NFC North with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, the Vikings are positioned well to contend now and in the future. Spielman has been aggressive with extensions and restructures, keeping men like receiver Adam Thielen, linebacker Eric Kendricks, Rhodes and Barr in the fold while drafting with an eye on the 2020 an ’21 depth charts.
With Minnesota slated to be $12 million above the projected salary cap next year, this season could be the last for defensive linemen Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, along with Waynes. Still, the core remains intact, with Danielle Hunter already emerging as an elite pass-rusher and Rhodes being locked up for years.
“We try to cap plan out and anticipate where we’re going to be from a best-case scenario and how to keep the core,” Spielman said. “Our philosophy is try to draft well, develop these guys and then pay your own guys. We’ve been sticking to that philosophy. All those guys have played at a high level that we’ve paid. We planned out this year and next year. I know where we are next year. We knew as we played two and three years ago, there was going to be a spike. … We tried to do guys earlier because that helped us plan out from cap standpoint.”
In 13 days, the Vikings host the Atlanta Falcons. Kubiak and Dennison will join Stefanski in meeting rooms until then and on the sideline come gameday, devising a plan to rebound from a most disappointing campaign.
Spielman will be watching from his box, hoping his off-field changes are enough to fix what happened on it a year ago.
Top 10 offensive trios in 2019
1. New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas
2. Kansas City Chiefs – Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce
3. Atlanta Falcons – Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley
4. Los Angeles Rams – Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks
5. Los Angeles Chargers – Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen
6. Philadelphia Eagles – Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz
7. New England Patriots – Tom Brady, Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman
8. Cleveland Browns – Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry
9. Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Davonte Adams
10. Dallas Cowboys – Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper
“So far, so good. Every day he progresses. Every day it’s been positive. Each day it’s about how he feels when he gets up, and so far it was good this morning and we’ll continue (rehab).”
– Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on Cam Newton’s recovery from a sprained foot
Newton has been working back from offseason shoulder surgery all summer. On Thursday, he saw his first preseason action. Newton promptly suffered a foot sprain, landing him in a walking boot. The boot is gone, and while Carolina is optimistic, concern remains whether he’ll start Week 1 against the Rams before taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers four nights later.
The Panthers have quietly had a nice offseason ranging from the first-round choice of edge-rusher Brian Burns to the free-agent signing of veteran center Matt Paradis. If Newton is healthy, Carolina could challenge in the NFC South. Hopefully his foot, and shoulder, are healed and ready for Sept. 8.
The 1990 New York Giants are the first team to ride a backup quarterback throughout the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.
Behind Jeff Hostetler, the Giants beat the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills — the last two as significant underdogs — to capture the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.
Info learned this week
1. Luck proves human in decision to walk away
I wrote extensively about Andrew Luck’s decision to retire in the immediate aftermath on Saturday night. I hope you’ll read it (below).
Ultimately, Luck is a 29-year-old in pain. He has already secured generational wealth. He is married with a child on the way. He wants to live without a cycle of pain and rehab, as he put it during his press conference. Who among us doesn’t want a better life? Tough to blame him to pursue the same goal.
GOING DEEP: Andrew Luck leaves behind wanting legacy
If anybody is to blame for Luck walking away so early, it’s Ryan Grigson. The former Indianapolis Colts general manager had five seasons of Luck on a rookie deal and never attempted to surround him with an offensive line. During Grigson’s tenure, he never once drafted an offensive lineman before the third round. The result was a continued beating for Luck.
Moving forward, the Colts are banking on Jacoby Brissett to be competent. They’ve seen him start 15 games in his two seasons with the team, all coming under head coach Chuck Pagano in 2017. The result was 13 touchdown passes and a 4-11 record, with flashes of talent sprinkled in. Now he’s in a more modern system, with an elite offensive line and solid weapons. Brissett, entering a contract year, has the opportunity of a lifetime.
Make no mistake; the Colts are finished this season as a Super Bowl contender. Maybe Brissett writes a wonderful script and wins the AFC South, but that’s likely the apex of Indianapolis’ capabilities.
2. Texans should be making trades before season
The Houston Texans are suddenly AFC South favorites. They also aren’t very good.
Houston benefits more than any other team from Andrew Luck’s retirement, but it desperately needs reinforcements. The Texans were blown out 34-0 against the Cowboys on Saturday night, but the score wasn’t of concern. The optics were. Houston’s offensive line was mauled, Lamar Miller was lost with a torn ACL and Jadeveon Clowney remains out of sight.
Head coach and pseudo general manager Bill O’Brien needs to make moves.
First, deal Clowney. According to multiple sources, Clowney and Houston have been nowhere close on negotiations for months. Why the Texans didn’t trade him prior to the July 15 deadline is beyond everyone in the league. Had they done so, the acquiring team could have extended Clowney before camp, thus giving Houston more leverage. Now, Clowney can’t sign a long-term deal anywhere until after the season. Why wouldn’t he test the market come March at that point?
Second, fix the offensive line. If O’Brien isn’t on the phone three times daily with the Washington Redskins in talks for Trent Williams, he should be committed. Houston’s line is a disaster, especially with rookie tackle Tytus Howard dealing with a broken finger and guard Zach Fulton sidelined with turf toe. Acquire picks for Clowney, send them out for Williams.
3. Brown needs to be quiet, contrite in Raiders’ room
After turning Oakland Raiders training camp into his own circus — and from afar, no less — Brown has mending to do. He has to prove himself to new teammates and a coaching staff which undoubtedly has frustrations with the acrimony he’s caused. With less than two weeks until the start of real games, Brown has to use this time to be humble, be quiet and be the All-Pro talent Oakland traded for.
If Brown can do those things, the Raiders can move forward. If not, the divide will only deepen between the 31-year-old and veterans who have put in time with the organization.
The Raiders have been fascinating all offseason. Come Week 1, they’ll be placed in front of a national TV audience when they host the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.
4. Seahawks have crowded backfield to sort
Chris Carson. Rashaad Penny. C.J. Prosise. The Seahawks have options.
After leading the league in run percentage last season, Seattle will likely continue being one of the most run-heavy teams this year. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer favors an old-school approach, and the trio of Carson, Penny and Prosise gives him a nice blend of styles to work with. Factor in the legs of Russell Wilson, and the Seahawks will wear down plenty of opponents.
The question is how Schottenheimer divvies up the carries. Carson was the most productive in ’18, rushing for 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry. A rookie first-round pick, Penny went for 419 ground yards on only 85 attempts. Prosise has only played 16 games in three seasons with Seattle, but a quality preseason has him on the team’s radar. Considering how the Seahawks depend on the run, he could work into the rotation.
5. Veteran cuts should be coming throughout next 72 hours
The official day for roster cutdown is Saturday. Most teams won’t wait so long.
While there is still one more week of preseason football, most veterans have seen their last snaps of August. With teams almost certain of what their 53-man rosters will look like come Sunday, look for veterans to start hitting the market. We’ve already seen the Arizona Cardinals release defensive end Andre Branch and the Raiders part ways with running back Doug Martin.
Ultimately, it’s the respectful thing to do. Teams know whether experienced players are making their cuts. If not, give them a jump on the competition, allowing them to potentially have options and secure a guaranteed deal.
With only 10 days remaining until the Bears and Packers kick off the 100th NFL season, this will be the last serious chance to improve without trading away assets.
No season was stranger than 1982.
The year consisted of only nine games due to a player’s strike which wiped out Weeks 3-10. The MVP was won by Redskins kicker Mark Moseley. The playoffs weren’t called the playoffs. They were instead the Super Bowl Tournament, with 16 teams being admitted for the first and only time. The Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions both reached it with losing records, becoming the first such postseason teams.
Ultimately, the Redskins defeated the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII behind John Riggins’ virtuoso performance. Still, the season will forever be remembered as the oddest in history.
Josh Allen looks like a menace for years to come. The Raiders and Giants may regret passing him up.
Allen was almost a consensus top-five pick in last year’s draft with experts, only to go No. 7 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Turn on the preseason tape — pick any game — and Allen is everywhere. It’s only three exhibition games, but the former Kentucky star appears a future star.
Both Oakland and New York had chances to select him. The Giants have the cover of taking a quarterback, hoping to secure their franchise’s future. The Raiders took Clelin Ferrell, a fellow edge rusher widely seen as having a lower ceiling. If Allen turns into a dominant pass-rusher, the team which traded away Khalil Mack a year ago will have made another crushing miscalculation at a crucial position.