ST. PAUL — Mike Zimmer’s season-ending news conference was Monday at 8 a.m., and he already had been on the phone with his coaching mentor for an hour before meeting reporters at TCO Performance Center in Eagan.
Zimmer’s former boss in Dallas, Bill Parcells, led two teams to three Super Bowl appearances and won it all with the New York Giants in 1987 and 1991. An assistant to Parcells in Dallas in the 1990s, Zimmer wanted advice for taking that step himself.
Zimmer called Parcells, he said, to “just try to figure out: How do we get over this hump of getting to the next level and eventually winning this thing?”
In the immediate wake of a second-round playoff loss at San Francisco last Saturday, this is of course the correct question, and Parcells is a good sounding board. It’s also a testament to Zimmer that this, really, is the last thing on his to-do list.
Zimmer has reversed the Vikings’ competitive fortunes on the field — 52-31-1, including playoffs, since 2015 — and for the most part cleaned up the culture of a team that amassed 38 reported arrests among 31 players from 2000-14. The Vikings advanced to the NFC title game in 2017, and this season upset the 13-3 Saints in New Orleans in the wild-card round before, in Zimmer’s words, running into a buzz saw in Santa Clara, Calif., where they were drilled by the 49ers 27-10.
“If anything,” defensive lineman Stephen Weatherly said, “it shows we still have a couple of more steps to go and were still able to go through the division round. So, we’re closer.”
Zimmer wouldn’t share Parcells’ thoughts on the subject.
“We’re not going to talk about it,” he said.
The Vikings are a good football team trying to a great one, so certainly the devil is in the details beyond the ken of mere spectators. Like most teams, Minnesota can improve everywhere. But we don’t need the head coach or his famous mentor to explain the Vikings’ biggest problem:
They spent $84 million on a talented passer who doesn’t play well under duress, then built two offensive lines that couldn’t protect him against the NFL’s best defensive lines. It was good enough against the common rabble (9-2) but not playoff teams (1-4). It was good enough to win a wild-card game but not a division-round game.
The Vikings were in all but three games all season — at San Francisco and Chicago, and against Green Bay — and the opponents in each are strong, quick and mean up front. Minnesota ran for an average of 47.6 yards in those games and Cousins was less than his best, averaging out to 21 for 31 passing for 174 yards with a combined two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Not coincidentally, the 49ers and Packers meet Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.
Here is where the heavy lifting begins.
The offensive line was undoubtedly better this season. Last year, the Vikings ranked 30th among 32 NFL teams in rushing with 1,493 yards; this season they were sixth (2,133) and Dalvin Cook (1,135) was the Vikings’ first thousand-yard rusher since 2013.
Last year, Cousins was sacked 40 times while passing for 4,298 yards and 30 touchdowns; this season he was dropped 28 times while still passing for 3,603 yards and 26 touchdowns. That, too, is improvement, especially considering the team’s rushing prowess and the fact that Cousins threw three fewer interceptions (10-7).
There are other areas the Vikings can improve. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has worn out his welcome, and with Everson Griffen probably in Brian Robison territory — a situational specialist playing about 30 snaps a game — they could use a proven pass-rusher to take pressure off Danielle Hunter.
But this is likely the last chance for the Vikings to win with Cousins, entering the final season of a three-year deal. A preternatural passer, he has few coping skills when under pressure and isn’t athletic enough to wiggle out of it.
Protecting Cousins is the priority. If they do it more than adequately, the Vikings can win. If they have to spend most of their cap space to do it, so be it.
“I think (the offensive line) improved quite a bit,” Zimmer said Monday, adding, “I’m hoping that becomes even more of a strength for us next year.”
To get over the hump, it has to be.