INDIANAPOLIS — Under Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, some things with the Minnesota Vikings felt like they would never improve.
One of the most notable examples was in-game management. Last year, the football analytics company EdjSports ranked Zimmer 29th among all coaches in game management decision making. Throughout his tenure, Zimmer’s choices on fourth downs, two-point conversions and timeouts were sporadic, ranging from ultra conservative to super aggressive and everywhere in between on a game-to-game basis. The Vikings fell behind to teams with coaches who were more consistent in their choices, including Green Bay Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur, who ranked No. 1 by Edj.
New head coach Kevin O’Connell got the ball rolling on closing that gap by hiring pass game specialist/game management coordinator Ryan Cordell.
What does that position do exactly?
“It’s everything,” O’Connell said. “One of our critical football philosophy points, we really have a few, but one of them is being situational masters.”
Speaking of masters, Cordell has a math degree and an MBA and was coaching two positions at St. Mary’s College of Maryland while also working as an actuary (which is mathematical risk assessment for businesses). He got started in the NFL as a salary cap intern with the 49ers and worked his way up to a football research analyst position with the Browns. Now he’s going to help create an outline for how the team makes its calls in the key situations that often decide games.
“We’ll be constantly looking at what we would do in certain situations, having plans for those situations that come up and then you practice them,” O’Connell said.
“There’s no reason in the world why it’s not just another play in the game that we’ve talked about and rehearsed over and over,” O’Connell continued. “We can be at our best when required because that’s what separates teams that win or lose in those situations.”
It appears the Vikings are going to know well in advance whether they would do things like punt or go for two points depending on circumstances like field position, clock and score based on data that estimates the odds of winning in those spots.
This approach is notably different from Zimmer, who ridiculed the analytics department at the 2020 NFL Combine podium for disagreeing with one of his decisions to kick a field goal.
Speaking of which, Adofo-Mensah is pushing the analytics folks in the building for more rather than pushing back on them.
“Tell me what's in the black box, tell me everything, and it's a new dynamic for them,” Adofo-Mensah said. “Everybody thinks they want an analytics-friendly GM until he gets there and he starts asking you for a lot of things [laughing]. It's been great. We have that process. It's just another tool, though. It's another tool to combine the information together.”
You could have guessed based on Adofo-Mensah’s background that he was going to support the numbers people inside TCO Performance Center more than the previous regime.
You can also guess based on the offensive lines in Adofo-Mensah’s previous locations, San Francisco and Cleveland, that he would be emphasizing the line. He pointed out three Vikings linemen that are clearly part of the future.
“Thankful that [we] have two really good tackles, because that's important,” Adofo Mensah said. “Brian is obviously on his second contract, really good player, and we're really excited about Christian…As for the interior, we love Ezra. We think he's going to take a next step in our scheme.”
The Vikings have struggled for years to put together a complete O-line, ranking 27th, 29th and 25th in pass blocking by PFF over the last three years.
“As I really started to study the roster – the offensive line jumped out at me,” O’Connell said. “The skill sets of both of our guys on the edge [Darrisaw and O’Neill]. The tackle position is very strong. I think the guard position, there’s a lot of depth there, there’s a lot to like.”
O’Connell also praised center Garrett Bradbury, saying that he is “what you look for from a core center from a standpoint of communicating.” Whether the Vikings’ new leaders see Bradbury as their future starting center will play out in their actions more than words but it’s possible they see hope for him despite his struggles over the last three years, which included being benched in 2021.
“There’s a lot to build off,” O’Connell said of the group.
While the depth of the interior was also praised, the right guard position was notably left blank, which can be read as acknowledgement that it needs serious improvement.
This year’s offensive line class will give the Vikings options if they are looking to continue to get better through the draft. As far as first rounders, Iowa’s star center Tyler Linderbaum is expected to be the first interior O-lineman selected, leading a class with three high-end talents and plenty of notable prospects for the early/middle rounds. PFF’s big board lists Linderbaum, Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green and BC’s Zion Johnson as the only three IOL in the top 50 but six more players between 51 and 125.
The Vikings’ free agency plans will dictate how serious a need interior O-line ends up being come draft time.
Adofo-Mensah alluded to the importance of pass protection when talking about quarterback Kirk Cousins on several occasions, saying: “When the odds are shifted in his favor, he gets the most out of it, right?”
Whether it’s Cousins behind the line or not, there is a clear statistical gap between performance by QBs playing with a clean pocket and under pressure. Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell breathed some life into the idea that the Vikings could soon be one of the teams among the top in clean pockets.
None of the things Adofo-Mensah or O’Connell said in Indianapolis has drifted all that far away from the shores of what we’ve heard in past years from Zimmer/Spielman but the differences are noticeable. At the Combine, 32 teams are looking to gain small advantages to be the best in a world of only the best. The previous regime lost out on opportunities to gain those small advantages in areas where the new regime appears to be giving themselves a better chance.
“How do I get better on the margins, how do I get better with detail, and that's going to be the key,” Adofo-Mensah said.
Additional QB notes
The Vikings’ brass has tiptoed around the subject of their QB’s future. Here’s how some other GMs and coaches answered similar questions…
— Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski gave a one-word “yes” answer to whether he has confidence in Baker Mayfield and said he expects him to be the 2022 starter.
— Las Vegas’ Josh McDaniels said “absolutely” to the same question regarding Derek Carr.
— 49ers GM John Lynch said he’s had discussions with teams about trading Jimmy Garoppolo and noted that there are a lot of QB-needy teams
— Miami GM Chris Grier said the door has closed on any DeShaun Watson talk
— On a scaled of 1 to 10, Broncos GM George Paton said his urgency to find a quarterback was at a 10
— The Packers claim that they haven’t received calls regarding trades for Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur admitted that they hired QB coach Tom Clements because of Rodgers
— Washington’s Ron Rivera said he thinks his team needs a veteran QB from the trade or free agent market