The Vikings offensive improvements from 2018 to 2019 were part of a detailed and intentional overhaul, the product of some continuity and an influx of experienced assistants who have reached the ultimate goal multiple times.
The uptick was significant enough that Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski was hired as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
It also was notable enough that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he wants to keep as much continuity of scheme and staff as possible heading into 2020, his seventh season at the helm.
"I like the scheme," Zimmer said Monday. "I like the continuity that we have offensively with the coaches, and I feel like if we add a couple more pieces and continue to work on the execution of staying with the same play calls, the same system, the same motions and formations and things like that, it'll definitely help the offensive players."
Notable offensive improvements from 2018 to 2019 are shown in the chart below:
|Yards/Game (NFL Rank)||Rush Yards/Game||3rd Down %||Red Zone %||Points/Game|
|2018||345.6 (20)||93.3 (30)||35.8 (26)||54.0 (21)||22.5 (19)|
|2019||353.5 (16)||133.3 (6)||42.8 (9)||60.7 (10)||25.4 (8)|
This time a year ago, Stefanski had closed the final three games of 2018 as Minnesota's interim head coach. The interim tag was lifted after the season, and Zimmer went on to hire Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak, Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani, a trio that has extensive experience together. Klint Kubiak returned to Zimmer's staff as quarterbacks coach (he was assistant receivers coach in Zimmer's first season), and Drew Petzing shifted to coach receivers.
Zimmer was asked if he had discussed the opening with Gary Kubiak and opted to keep the conversation with Gary "kind of private."
Asked if Klint was in consideration, Zimmer replied, "We'll discuss it a little bit more at another time."
Zimmer said a decision may be reached "by the end of the week, but it may be a couple of weeks."
"I want to make sure the fit is right," Zimmer added. "Those guys over there, they do an outstanding job. I love the way that they work together and communicate, and so if we do bring somebody in from the outside, I want to make sure that it's the correct fit."
Veterans formed core nucleus
As for player personnel, Kirk Cousins returned for his second season in Purple, and Dalvin Cook started 14 games and proved to be a dynamic dual threat that the Vikings envisioned when they selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
"I think Kirk (Cousins) played a lot better this year than he did the year before," Zimmer said. "I think obviously the scheme helped him quite a bit. … I think this may have been his best year that he's played in the NFL."
Multiple numbers are there to support that claim for Cousins, who had an NFL-record five games with a completion percentage of 80 or higher in 2019 and set a career-best for season-long passer rating (107.4), which is the second-highest by a Vikings QB all-time.
Cousins was able to record 10 wins as a starting quarterback for the first time in his career and his first playoff victory, leading an overtime touchdown drive in New Orleans to upset the Saints. That run, however, ended in San Francisco against a 49ers team that shut down the run game and pressured the pocket seamlessly.
"I believe strongly in our organization – our coaches, our players, our locker room – and [Saturday] we fell short," Cousins said after the game and before news of Stefanski's departure broke. "But there will be 31 teams that will feel that way, and you know that going in, that 31 teams are going to feel like they fell short and weren't good enough. [Saturday] we had to face that reality, but I do love our team and the makeup of our team, and I loved playing with them all year."
View photos of Vikings players during final interviews with the media at TCO Performance Center.
This means that Cousins will have his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons with the Vikings. It's nothing new for the quarterback who was originally drafted by Washington in 2012 and became a starter there in 2015.
"It'll be his fifth coordinator in five years, I think he told me yesterday, or at least voice in his ear on game day," Zimmer said. "There's nothing I can do about that, but I think it's important not just for Kirk, but for the entire offense, to have the same system, the same calls and things like that so that when they come in here on day one, it's not completely foreign to them."
Cook proved to be a catalyst for offensive success, rushing for 1,135 yards and 13 scores while adding 519 yards on 53 receptions. On Saturday, however, the 49ers swarmed him on run plays and blanketed him on pass plays.
Minnesota returned receiving tandem Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, as well as tight end Kyle Rudolph and fullback C.J. Ham.
Diggs led the Vikings with a career-high 1,130 yards on 63 receptions. Thielen battled a pesky hamstring injury he suffered in Week 7 and played in 10 games. He finished with 418 yards on 30 catches. Rudolph helped pick up slack while Thielen was out and finished with 39 receptions for 367 yards. All three players tied for the team lead with six receiving touchdowns.
Thielen was asked Sunday, after the Stefanski news was publicized, about the upcoming change.
"It's part of the NFL. Usually when you have a good offense, you're probably going to have a new change, because [the coordinator] is probably going to get a head coaching job, especially in this league," Thielen said. "It's part of the deal. I think this is, I'll be going on my sixth offensive coordinator in eight years. Like I said, it's part of the deal, and you just do it like everything else you do – you take it one day at a time, you control what you can control, and whatever play's called, you try to do it to the best of your ability."
The biggest overhaul on that side of the ball occurred on the interior of the offensive side of the ball. The Vikings brought in veteran guard Josh Kline, then shifted Pat Elflein to left guard after drafting center Garrett Bradbury with the 18th overall pick.
The trio was bookended by veteran left tackle Riley Reiff and second-year pro Brian O'Neill.
The unit showed multiple signs of improvement, adjusting to a zone-blocking scheme that is designed to capitalize on athleticism and movement of linemen. The unit reduced its sacks allowed in the regular season from 40 in 2018 to 28 in 2019.
"I think they improved quite a bit," Zimmer said. "I think Rick Dennison did an outstanding job with them. I think the scheme helped them. I thought that was a good group.
"I think we've got some young guys that we basically redshirted this year that I think are going to have opportunities to be good football players," Zimmer continued. "I'm hoping that becomes even more of a strength for us next year, and we'll be looking to continually try to improve not just that position, but all of them."
The Vikings used their first four picks of the 2019 NFL Draft to tab offensive players.
After choosing Bradbury on the opening night, Minnesota followed with TE Irv Smith, Jr., and RB Alexander Mattison in the second and third rounds. Smith set a Vikings rookie record for receptions by a tight end with 36 catches on the season, and Mattison toted the ball 100 times for 462 yards and a score.
Minnesota selected guard Dru Samia in the fourth round and tabbed tackle Olisaemeka Udoh in the sixth before adding receivers Dillon Mitchell and Bisi Johnson in the seventh round.
Mitchell spent the entire season on the practice squad; Johnson totaled 294 yards and three touchdowns on 31 catches in his rookie campaign. Alexander Hollins, an undrafted rookie, played in five regular-season games and recorded two catches for 46 yards against Chicago in Week 17.