The Vikings were supposed to be among the NFC elites. They were supposed to be pushing the Saints and Rams for the best record in the conference. They were supposed to run away with the division. Yet, here they stand, four games remaining, a game and a half back of the Bears in the NFC North, narrowly clutching to the second wild card spot.
Generally, when teams expected to contend fall well shy of expectations, heads roll. Scapegoats get fingers pointed at them. People lose jobs. The Vikings may still make the playoffs, and could realistically still win the division. However, their under-performance has put a microscope on several members of the staff.
Interestingly enough, head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have more or less avoided serious discussion of their dismissal. Sure, the topic has been broached here and there. Spielman, after all, left the offensive line relatively untouched, despite it being the team’s greatest weakness. And Zimmer, for all his defensive acumen, has seen his defense struggle early in games more often than not. But the general consensus in the Vikings media seems to be that both will retain their jobs following this season, regardless of how it shapes out.
Instead, two members of Zimmer’s staff are shouldering the largest share of blame for the Vikings’ disappointing season thus far. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has ridden a wave of positive and negative offensive performances in his first year as Vikings’ play-caller. One week, the offense rolls with Kirk Cousins and the passing game on point. The next, everything looks discombobulated, with Cousins throwing 40 to 50 times and the running game completely falling by the wayside. Even Zimmer has publicly criticized DeFilippo’s gameplans, saying the Vikings need to simplify and run the ball more. That said, Zimmer has also publicly praised DeFilippo while also suggesting he as head coach may need to get more involved with the offense.
Criticism of DeFilippo is twofold. The loudest comes from his apparent disdain for running the ball consistently. In past games, such a decision made some sense, as the offensive line had struggled to create room. But this past week, that was not at all the case. Dalvin Cook finished with 84 yards on just nine carries, a whopping 9.3 yards per carry. Yet, with the Vikings down just a single score much of the second half against New England, DeFilippo went to the air time and time again.
The second criticism, and one that is far more difficult to quantify, is his scheming of the passing game. From week-to-week, the Vikings’ passing attack varies from effortless and open to constrained and forced. This most recent game was the latter. Any attempt at a downfield game was negated by the Patriots’ containing of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, so Cousins was forced to take short options and checkdowns constantly. A short, quick passing game is not inherently bad. It has actually been the Vikings best option much of the year. The problem comes when there is no threat downfield whatsoever, meaning the middle of the field is not softened for the Vikings’ preferred methodical approach. They further exacerbate the problem when a lack of a running game means the Vikings are constantly in second- and third-and-long situations.
There has not been much word internally on where DeFilippo stands within the organization. The clamor for his dismissal comes mostly from fans on social media. However, there is also a distinct possibility that DeFilippo is one-and-done in Minnesota, but not because of a firing. OddsShark has him as tied for second-best odds to take the Packers’ head coach job. DeFilippo had some whispers for such a job a season ago, but ultimately settled for the one-step promotion to Vikings offensive coordinator. Given the Vikings’ uneven offense, it is strange that this season would be the one to get him the ultimate promotion. That said, there is the element of locker room presence, which DeFilippo seems to have in spades.
Which brings us to the other coordinator whose job may be in jeopardy. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been with the Vikings since 2011, and in that time, has overseen a slew of inconsistent kicking games. From Blair Walsh to Kai Forbath to Daniel Carlson and now Dan Bailey, kickers have rarely flourished with Priefer at the helm. The fluky nature of kicking has lent some leeway to Priefer over the years; sometimes kickers miss and miss a lot and it is simply ineffable. That said, we are now at a point where the Vikings’ kicking situation is consistently worst-case scenario.
Just take a look at what has happened this year. Daniel Carlson was the anointed rookie. He beat out Forbath, arguably the most consistent kicker of Priefer’s tenure. Then, after missing three kicks in week two, the Vikings cut him. Enter Dan Bailey, one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the league. Well, he is currently among the NFL’s worst in terms of accuracy in 2018, making just 72.7 percent of field goals overall and is under 50 percent from 40-plus yards. Meanwhile, Carlson is nine of 10 on field goals and 11 of 11 on PATs since joining the Raiders.
Fans can no longer brush it off as coincidence. For everyting Priefer may bring to the kick coverage teams or even the punter (Matt Wile is having a fine season, for what it is worth), there is something about him that clearly has a detrimental effect with his kickers.
Both of these jobs may ultimately come down to how the season ends. One could argue it should be irrelevant, particularly with Priefer. But successful playoff teams generally refrain from rocking the boat too much. Then again, a slow finish could see all manner of personnel changes.
Wherever the last four weeks take the Vikings, DeFilippo and Priefer will be at the front of the line when blame is cast out for the team’s disappointing 2018.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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