McNiff’s musings: Vikings Special Teams Can Only Improve in 2021. Right?

Oct 7, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Minnesota Vikings kicker Dan Bailey (5) kicks a 52-yard field goal against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

If you spend any time at all on social media this NFL offseason you know that fans of the Minnesota Vikings fans have been fixated on begging the team to improve the offensive line, a unit ranked 26th by Pro Football Focus, through free agency.

If you spend even less time on any form of media, you are probably aware that the Vikings brain trust of Head Coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman haveinstead been fixated on using free agency to improve a defense that ranked 27th in the NFL, surrendering an average of 393.3 yards per-game.

Now, when you consider that there are only 32 teams in the NFL it’s hard to consider either those units as successful much less as areas of strength, but when you compare either of them to the overall play of the Vikings Special Teams in 2020, they suddenly look like over-achievers.

Under the direction of first year Special Teams Coordinator Marwaan Malouf the Vikings in 2020:• Finished 31st in Rick Gosselin’s annual review of NFL special teams play.• Ranked dead last in punt return average at 4.3 yards per return.• Ranked dead last in starting field position on BOTH offense and defense. Putting them at a huge disadvantage on both sides of the ball.• Ranked dead last in overall field foal percentage at 68.18, the ONLY team below 70 percent in the NFL.• Punter Britton Colquitt ranked 31st in net punting average.• Allowed the third-most punt return yards in the league.• Place Kicker Dan Bailey missed 13 kicks, ten of which came in the last five games.• Were one of only seven teams to allow a kickoff return TD, with former first-round draft choice Cordarrelle Patterson taking one to the house on MNF in Week 10.• Rookie WR K.J. Osborn, drafted in the fifth round as a return specialist, was a major disappointment who eventually lost both the punt and kick return jobs.

Unfortunately, there is more. A LOT more, and we’ll get to that, but if it seems like the Vikings are only paying “lip service” to special teams in the offseason they do so at their own peril.

Consider that while special team units are typically on the field for about 20 percent of the plays in a football gametheir impact is considerably higher because of the way that they impact both the offense and defense in terms of field position.

As a result of the Vikings massive systemic failure on 2020 the team did not renew the contract of ST Coordinator Marwan Maalouf.

That’s the good news.

What’s a little less palatable is the purple’s apparent lack of interest or energy put into finding Maalouf’sreplacement.

The Vikings did apparently interview Anthony Blevins, a former assistant special teams coach with the Giants and Cardinals. But ultimately they decided to promote from within, elevating longtime assistant coach Ryan Fickenfrom Assistant Special Teams Coach to the Special Teams Coordinator position.

Come again?

Instead of cleaning house with those associated with the special team’s meltdown last season the Vikings actually gave one of their coaches most closely responsible for that massive failure a promotion. 

Now, in fairness, it’s hard to know how much of that systemic failure Ficken was responsible for, but let’s not gloss over the fact that:• The Vikings gave up a pair of blocked punts against the Lions at home in week-9• Replaced Austin Cutting with Ryan DePaola as the team’s long-snapper in week-10• In week-10 they gave up a 104-yard kickoff return to former first-round draft choice Cordarrelle Patterson• Were penalized 11-times for 75-yards on special teams alone in 2020• After a slow start, rookie Dan Chisena, a speedy WR, did show promise as a gunner playing 258 snaps butrecorded just 6 tackles• Fellow rookie Josh Metellus, a reserve Safety, led the team with a whopping 8 tackles in 261 total snaps

So, what do we know about Ryan Ficken?

We are learning that Ficken is a survivor and that he’sreally good at keeping a low profile. 

Until now that is.

Did you know that Ryan Ficken has been an assistant coach with the Vikings for 14 seasons? I’m going to admit right here and now that I did not. I honestly don’t ever remember seeing or hearing his name until this offseason, but let’s just say that if Ficken isn’t in the spotlight he should have our attention concerning the job he has in the season ahead.

Despite keeping that low profile, or, perhaps because of it, Ryan Ficken has managed to survive two coaching changes. Ficken came to the Vikings after spending a year as a graduate assistant at UCLA after attending Arizona State University. He started with the Vikings as an assistant running backs coach, became an assistant receivers coach for four seasons before moving over to special teams where he’s been an assistant coach for the past eight seasons.

What’s on Ryan Ficken’s “To-Do” list for 2021? Not too much, just :• Find a replacement kicker for the departed Dan Bailey (who for some reason thought he should at least maintain his salary. Remember the Tampa Bay Game? Yeah, bye Dan)• Improve the play of punter Britton Colquit (who was wise enough to take the suggested pay cut)• Improve the team’s special teams DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which lost the second-most value on special teams of any team over the past EIGHT SEASONS last year.

So, if you’re a “glass is half-full” kind of Vikings fan, you can’t help but believe the Vikings Special Teams play, which figured greatly into last year’s disappointing season HAS to be better this year, right? 

The problem is, to this point the purple appears to be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic rather than investing in a major overhaul, and the guy steering the ship is someone we not only know very little about but appears to be at least partly responsible for creating the situation the Vikings now find themselves in.

So yeah, go ahead and obsess over the offensive line, or fantasize about the Vikings return to a top-5 defense, because there’s nothing to see here where special teams are concerned. It appears for the most part to be business as usual, and that’s OK, right?

I mean, the Vikings special teams play CAN’T possibly be worse in 2021, right?


Mr. Spielman?

Coach Zimmer?