Mike Zimmer has been on the short list of assistant coaches ready to make the jump to the big chair for quite some time, yet for whatever reason he never got his shot.
Zimmer takes over the Vikings, who dropped off dramatically after slipping into the 2012 playoffs under Leslie Frazier. A defensive guru with coordinator stops in Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati on his resume, Zimmer was the star of the Bengal’s run on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” last preseason. He’s reminiscent of another assistant promoted to head coach in Minnesota, Bud Grant’s long-time offensive coordinator Jerry Burns. Both took too long to ascend to the top job, both liked to toss in a few colorful phrases—Zimmer primarily on the practice field, Burns pretty much everywhere—and both had players who loved them dearly.
With Zimmer setting the tone, and focusing his attention to the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings went top-shelf for an offensive coordinator in landing former Chargers head coach Norv Turner.
When you think Turner, you think ground game—and rightfully so, as his offense has produced the league’s top rusher five times. It’s no stretch to expect Adrian Peterson to tread where Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson have gone before him. Turner also likes to throw to his backs, and with the Vikings at present lacking a complementary back to Peterson he could see an uptick in receptions as well. However, don’t be surprised if Minnesota addresses that role via the draft or later in free agency, especially with running backs being treated as the red-headed step-children of free agency.
So with Turner and Peterson in place and Jeff Davidson retained as offensive line coach, the Vikings’ ground game is the least of Zimmer’s concerns. And then there’s the passing game.
Perhaps the primary reason Zimmer has the Vikings job and Frazier doesn’t is the quarterback position. Last year Frazier tried Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, and Matt Cassel, and while Minnesota’s woes can’t be pinned entirely on the quarterbacking—the team surrendered fourth-quarter leads five times last year—it is without question the biggest issue on the squad. Cassel was re-signed and Ponder for the moment remains on the roster, but the Vikings are expected to spend a pick on one of the first two days of the draft to address the issue.
And that quarterback will work with Turner times two, as Norv’s son Scott is the Vikings’ new quarterbacks coach. Cassel should be a solid veteran bridge to whomever Minnesota drafts—if not a Day One guy, perhaps a Day Two quarterback with a strong arm such as Derek Carr or Zach Mettenberger. Turner’s offense served Brian Hoyer—and to some extent, both Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden as well—well last year in Cleveland, so anything approaching competent quarterback play bodes well for an improved Minnesota passing game.
The Vikings certainly have talent to work with at wide receiver, especially if Turner is able to employ his beloved deep ball. While it’s a tad early to fit Cordarrelle Patterson with Michael Irvin’s gold jacket, Turner’s work with a raw, athletic receiver like Vincent Jackson in San Diego—or even Josh Gordon last season in Cleveland—suggests that the new system will give Patterson every opportunity to succeed.
Minnesota also retained George Stewart, one of the most highly regarded receiver coaches in the game, to help with Patterson’s development. The combination of Stewart, Turner, and veteran influence Greg Jennings—not to mention the anticipated upgrade at quarterback—all suggest big things for the Pro Bowl kick returner. And Jennings is no slouch himself; last year’s numbers took a hit due to the quarterbacking, but once again scheme and QB upgrade are working in his favor.
Turner has also traditionally been a boon to his tight ends. Antonio Gates emerged as a star in San Diego under Turner’s watch, Randy McMichael became a top-10 performer in Miami during Turner’s time there, and last season Jordan Cameron came into his own in Cleveland with Turner calling plays for the Browns.
The Vikings spent a second-round pick on Kyle Rudolph in 2011, and while he’s battled injuries he’s also been an effective weapon when healthy. Expect his productivity to pick up in Turner’s scheme, assuming he can stay on the field.
Zimmer’s sure-to-be-improved defense should allow the Vikings to stick with their preferred game plan of heavy doses of Peterson. And with an upgrade at quarterback, Minnesota should finally have the requisite personnel for a passing game that stretches the game vertically—opening things up for Peterson. Zimmer, Turner and Peterson have all the makings of a match made in fantasy heaven.