Minnesota Vikings (5-4) offensive line coach Tony Sparano has one of the toughest jobs in a league in which almost every coaching job is quite difficult.
The Vikings' offensive line was light on talent and depth to begin the season — before losing both starting left tackle Matt Kalil and starting right tackle Andre Smith. More recently, Jake Long, plucked off the street to replace Kalil, underwent hip surgery in September and is unlikely to return this season.
“I’m not sleeping a lot lately these days,” Sparano said on Thursday, via The Pioneer Press. “It’s something, obviously, I haven’t been a part of, these scenarios where you go 10-12 linemen deep. There’s been a lot of moving parts and a lot of change.”
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There have been more moving parts than mentioned above. Before the season even started, tackle Phil Loadholt retired after seven seasons in Minnesota, which bumped Smith from guard to tackle. In addition, last year's starting right guard Mike Harris hit the non-football illness list in July and has not yet gained clearance to play, so he's out. Sparano said he loves a challenge and this is certainly a challenge.
“It’s just when you’re changing the pieces” he said. “We all have to know our jobs and sometimes we have to know more than our job. That’s what keeps us in the league a long time. They can line the excuses up for our football team around the corner right now. We just choose not use them.”
Meanwhile left guard Alex Boone has battled through injuries (concussion, hip) and has lobbied to take over at left tackle, feeling he might be able to shore up the position during the state of disarray. Minny has dropped four in a row after a 5-0 start.
The Vikings' sieve-like, patchwork line is ranked 31st per Football Outsiders' metrics. Meanwhile the running game is dead last with Vikings rushers averaging a dismal 2.7 yards per carry, more than half a yard worse than the Seahawks' and Rams' 3.3 average at second-to-last.
“Every year it seems like, wherever you are, it seems like one position gets hit and that team seems to get hit the most,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Monday. It’s been a lot of guys but I’m sure we’re not the only team in the NFL to have one position hit.”
At least new offensive coordinator Pat Shumur, who took over for Norv Turner after his abrupt resignation in early November, is calling for more quick passes to help out the line.
The Vikings will try to stop the bleeding on Sunday when another struggling NFC team with high expectations, the Arizona Cardinals, comes to town.
After looking like a surefire playoff team and a Super Bowl contender, the season is coming down to Sparano's ability to make dinner out of what's laying around in the pantry. No pressure, and no time for sleep.