MINNEAPOLIS -- Before the Minnesota Vikings can move forward with picking up the pieces from a lost season, they must evaluate where things veered off course and how to get the franchise back on track.
An 8-7-1 record for a season that started with Super Bowl expectations can’t be pinned to just one thing that went wrong. Long before the season began, the Vikings were marred with tragedy and forced to navigate tough times that seemed to have a domino effect throughout the season.
Here's a look at how things came apart and what they can do to move forward.
The impact of losing Tony Sparano: The Vikings lost more than a veteran presence in the offensive line room when Sparano, 56, died the Sunday before training camp opened. The sudden death of one of Mike Zimmer’s most trusted confidants "really kind of threw things into a little bit of a downward spiral" and played into the Vikings losing some of their identity, according to the head coach. Sparano provided Zimmer with a trusted ear on all things football and perspective on life. He was also a close friend of former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, whom Sparano lobbied to bring to Minnesota. Sparano was needed this season to help Zimmer and DeFilippo navigate murky waters once the two coaches began to not see eye to eye. The run game was Sparano’s "baby." Without him, it faltered as the Vikings struggled to generate a consistent rushing attack with an offensive line that dealt with bumps and bruises all season.
How do they move forward? The Vikings left Sparano’s office untouched after he died and kept a light on to remember him. As Minnesota looks for its next offensive coordinator and potentially a new offensive line coach, Zimmer hopes to restore the "nasty" mentality his team had but seemed to lack in 2018. That edge is something players and coaches have long tied to Sparano’s influence that carried from the O-line room to the rest of the offense.
Everson Griffen tends to mental health: Vikings players and coaches rallied around the Pro Bowl defensive end while he took a leave of absence from Weeks 3-7 to deal with issues pertaining to mental health. At the time he was hospitalized in late September, Griffen was tied for the fifth most sacks in the NFL over the past five seasons with 44.5. The Vikings were without their emotional and vocal leader, which left a void in the locker room. The day after news began to trickle out of two separate incidents involving Griffen and Twin Cities area police, Minnesota suffered an embarrassing loss to Buffalo. The defense eventually hit rock bottom. Without their elite pass-rusher, the Vikings had to compensate elsewhere to finally get back on track. Once Griffen returned in Week 8, he recorded 4.5 sacks the rest of the season, but was not the same force off the edge.
What’s next for Griffen? The Vikings could opt to move on from Griffen this offseason or ask him to restructure his contract. Griffen, who has no guaranteed money left on his deal, comes with an $11.9 million cap hit in 2019. Minnesota needs to decide whether the 31-year-old is still capable of playing at a high level.
Offense never performed consistently: Kirk Cousins put up big numbers but largely struggled in clutch situations. The Vikings were the only team in the NFL not to have a comeback win or a game-winning drive this season, which does not reflect well on their $84 million quarterback. Cousins’ play deserves much scrutiny for his inability to come through when his team needed him the most, but the offense was never able to find an effective workaround for its shortcomings. When Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were shut down by defenses, Cousins didn’t execute other options. Dalvin Cook was expected to be the centerpiece of the offense, but that didn’t happen until far too late in the season. That was among the litany of reasons this group struggled to find its identity from week to week.
How does Minnesota fix its offensive struggles? It starts with hiring the right coordinator -- one who can fulfill what Zimmer wants and bring the best out of Cousins. The 30-year-old Cousins is who he is at this point. Finding someone who is willing to build their scheme around Cook and other skill players to alleviate pressure off the QB is critical. It might also be in Cousins’ best interest to not have to learn an entire new system going into Year 2.
Zimmer/DeFilippo conflict: The internal strife between head coach and offensive coordinator began around Week 7 when the Vikings put up 37 points in a road win over the Jets. Zimmer started to publicly critique the way things were working offensively by wanting to run the ball more. His message continued over the next eight weeks as he criticized thje offense for having too much volume, the usage of Cook and the ineffective run game. Zimmer and DeFilippo never saw eye-to-eye with their football philosophies, which led to DeFilippo being fired ahead of Week 15.
How can this be avoided going forward? Zimmer has had four offensive coordinators since he took over in 2014, two of whom left in the middle of the season. Zimmer said he’s going to approach looking for his next OC differently, which should include finding someone who aligns his vision for the offense. "I’ve learned a lot about the questions, the interview process, about things that I should probably do a lot better than what I did," Zimmer said. "Hopefully I’ll do better this next time."
Kicking game woes: The Vikings traded up into the fifth round to draft Daniel Carlson this spring and cut him after he missed three field goals in Week 2. They then signed the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history in Dan Bailey, but even he struggled at times this season and missed seven field goals. Toward the end of the season, Bailey thrived in indoor games, but was it enough to make the Vikings feel like they’re kicking issues are solved?
Does the revolving door at kicker finally stop? Bailey is set to become a free agent in March and isn’t certain what's next. The Vikings have learned their lesson about not using draft picks on kickers that often need more time to pan out (Carlson went on to have a remarkably good season in Oakland) in pressure situations. For that reason, holding on to Bailey is critical for a team that’s struggled with its kickers in recent years.