This is the 11th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 25 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: COACHES
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Head coach: Mike Zimmer (first year as head coach, 22nd season in the NFL)
Coordinators: Norv Turner, offense, (30th year in the NFL, first with Vikings); George Edwards, defense (17th year in the NFL, first with Vikings); Mike Priefer, special teams, (13th year in the NFL, fourth with Vikings)
Position coaches: Jeff Davidson, offensive line; Jerry Gray, defensive backs; Andre Patterson, defensive line; Kevin Stefanski, tight ends; George Stewart, wide receivers; Scott Turner, quarterbacks; Kirby Wilson, running backs; Adam Zimmer, linebackers
From the top down: A different feeling around the team’s Winter Park facilities is easy to sense as Zimmer replaces Leslie Frazier following three rollercoaster, mostly disappointing seasons. Frazier was 24-31-1 in his three-plus seasons as coach and was ousted after last year’s 5-10-1 season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Frazier was ultimately undone by the team’s quarterback play and porous defense. Last year’s carousel at quarterback was odd and the decisions, at least publicly, were said to be Frazier’s. Christian Ponder faltered early and then a rib injury allowed Matt Cassel to lead the team to its first win in London. After Cassel lost the next game, Frazier inexplicably went to Josh Freeman, who had signed with the team only two weeks earlier.
Freeman completed only 20 of 53 passes in his lone Vikings appearance in a disappointing Monday night loss at New York on national TV. Ponder earned the next six starts but injuries crept up again and he was eventually benched for Cassel permanently. If the strange choices at quarterback weren’t enough, the team simply didn’t win enough for Frazier to stay.
Players publicly supported Frazier, particularly star running back Adrian Peterson, and Frazier was seen as a player’s coach, who provided a sense of calm after the turbulence of the previous regime.
As NFL teams will do, the next coach is typically the opposite of the outgoing one.
Zimmer enters with a strong resume as a defensive coordinator and is known for his fiery, straight-forward personality. But players respond to Zimmer and his no-nonsense approach has earned the respect of his players in the past. Throughout the summer, Minnesota’s players have spoken about the immediate respect Zimmer had and how they are appreciating the new approach and style.
It’s not just perception. There was an atmosphere of teaching and learning all throughout the summer workouts. Coaches were focused on teaching and often pulled players aside and worked with them throughout the summer. Turner, in particular, was one of the loudest voices on the field as he tried to instruct the offense. Fair or not, there seemed to be more coaching occurring during the on-field practices open to the media.
Based on his work as a defensive coordinator, Zimmer should immediately make a difference for the Vikings’ defense, which allowed the most points in the league last year. Zimmer brings an aggressive, blitzing style, which Minnesota’s defenders have embraced. Zimmer is known for his work in getting the most out of his players and having success with reclamation projects.
Since 2008, Zimmer has coordinated a top-10 defense four times in Cincinnati, including the third-ranked defense in the league last year. Since 2011, the Bengals are second in the league with 139 sacks under Zimmer and have allowed 18.8 points per game, the NFL’s fourth-best mark in that span.
The quarterback situation, which is still ultimately Zimmer’s call, also has a unique set of eyes in Turner, the former head coach and accomplished offensive coordinator. Turner played a big role in the Vikings drafting Teddy Bridgewater in the first round and will be responsible for Bridgewater’s development. Cassel also returns and provides a veteran to rely on, as well as an experienced mentor for Bridgewater.
Turner’s work with quarterbacks is well noted over the years, both in his work with a Hall of Famer like Troy Aikman and five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers but also getting strong seasons from Brad Johnson, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green and Jay Fiedler.
Since 2007, Turner’s offenses have ranked in the top-5 in the NFL three times. The 2010 San Diego Chargers, with Turner as head coach, were the league’s top offense at 395.6 yards per game. Turner has led three different running backs to lead the league in rushing a total of five times. In 23 seasons as a coach and coordinator, he’s had a running back rush for 1,000 or more yards 15 times, and a 1,000-yard receiver 15 times.
Turner’s playcalling is different for most of the Vikings’ players, using a numerical system. However, the players are excited about the potential of Turner’s offense, with tight end Kyle Rudolph calling it a "playmaker’s offense."
Defensively, Turner added many coaches who have worked with him in the past and are able to spread his message and philosophy. Edwards, who coached with Zimmer in Dallas, is the defensive coordinator. Edwards is getting his third chance as a coordinator, previously leading defenses in Buffalo and Washington. Like Zimmer, Edwards has worked in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.
Priefer has been successful the past three seasons in Minnesota while overseeing transitions at kicker, punter and returners allowed him to stay through the coaching change. Priefer and Zimmer are familiar in some ways, both sons of coaches and intense individuals. Priefer helped kicker Blair Walsh make the Pro Bowl as a rookie with a record-setting first season, including a 10 of 10 mark from 50 yards or more.
Priefer is still a part of the investigation into claims by former punter Chris Kluwe of homophobic remarks made by Priefer and religious discrimination. Minnesota hired an independent counsel to investigate the matter, which has wrapped up. But with Kluwe claiming the Vikings’ won’t release the report, Kluwe is planning to sue the team. Priefer’s status is at least in question, depending on the findings of the investigation.
Davidson and Stewart remained in their current roles, too, and neither was a surprise move. Both are well respected and work well with their respective groups. Davidson has overseen an offensive line that has had the same five starters for all but two games the past two seasons. Stewart, who has worked with Terrell Owens, among others, has a special bond with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and his presence should help him continue to mentor the immensely-talented Patterson.
The coaching staff also includes Zimmer and Turner’s sons, Adam and Scott, respectively. Adam has been with his father in the past and will lead the linebackers, a key spot for Minnesota. Scott was the receivers coach in Cleveland last year with Norv as offensive coordinator. This time, Scott will coach the quarterbacks and work alongside Norv to work with Cassel and guide Bridgewater.
Rising star: Finding a rising star from the Vikings’ group is tough, as Zimmer brought in a largely veteran crew. No doubt the biggest name of the group is Gray, who is back as a position coach after eight seasons as a defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans.
Interestingly, Gray was the one defensive position coach who had not worked with Zimmer in the past. Zimmer’s background included a strong focus with defensive backs and here he has Gray, new to him and the team, come in. Gray has the name and the experience and would seem to be a coup as a position coach for a new coach.
Gray, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback in his playing days, has the ear of his players and was really teaching his new pupils during the summer workouts. Gray, along with the other defensive coaches, really focused on technique with his new group.
Gray likely will look to return to a coordinator job eventually. In the meantime, he adds another experienced, quality coach on Zimmer’s staff.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions.
The dean of NFC North coaches and the most respected staff belongs to Green Bay, for now. Head coach Mike McCarthy has won a Super Bowl with the Packers and has guided the team to an 84-45-1 overall record, winning four division titles and totaling six playoff appearances in his eight years as the team’s coach.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has received criticism in recent years as Green Bay’s defense hasn’t been able to keep up with its offense. Capers is respected, experienced and has been one of the league’s better defensive coordinators in the past, as well as a head coach. McCarthy is an offensive mind and the one constant on the offense, but Tom Clements has been in his position as offensive coordinator for three seasons as the Packers’ offense is annually one of the league’s best.
Marc Trestman was a big unknown heading into last season, but he proved his success in the Canadian Football League wasn’t a fluke. Trestman, who led Chicago to an 8-8 record despite some big injuries, oversaw an offense that improved to the league’s eight-ranked offense in terms of yards and scored the second-most points. Trestman came to the league with an offensive background, and the Bears’ offense was dangerous even as backup Josh McCown replaced an injured Jay Cutler.
Aaron Kromer, who was the New Orleans Saints’ interim coach for the first six weeks last season, was Chicago’s offensive coordinator, working in tune with Trestman. Mel Tucker, the defensive coordinator, will need to show an improvement this season. Joe DeCamillis is the special teams coordinator and also carries the title of assistant head coach.
Detroit was also in the market for a new head coach along with Minnesota, as the Lions finally jettisoned Jim Schwartz after another disappointing season. Enter Jim Caldwell as Detroit goes with the calm, poised coach to follow the fiery Schwartz. Caldwell won an AFC championship in his first season as a head coach in Indianapolis in 2009. He was fired after only three seasons with the Colts following a 2-14 season in 2011 with a 26-22 overall record.
Caldwell has spent the past two seasons in Baltimore, last year as the team’s offensive coordinator. The Ravens finished 29th in the NFL in terms of yards gained and 25th in points scored. Joe Lombardi joins the Lions as offensive coordinator. Like Caldwell, Lombardi’s notable accomplishments have been with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Caldwell worked with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Lombardi was with Drew Brees in New Orleans as the quarterbacks coach.
Caldwell has two first-time coordinators. Lombardi gets his first chance on the offensive side and Teryl Austin is a first-time defensive coordinator. Austin was with Caldwell last year in Baltimore and has spent the past three seasons as the Ravens’ defensive backs coach.