As people around the country/world strap in to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, Minnesota Vikings fans watch begrudgingly as a franchise that hasn’t made it to the big game since the start of the Jimmy Carter administration. The NFL is a league built on parity, so there’s always “next year”, but does anyone in Minnesota actually believe the Mike Zimmer lead Vikings can do something they’ve yet to do since 2014?
I’ve been fairly vocal the last couple seasons that I strongly believe they can’t and won’t. The main reason stems from the continued issues on the offensive line, something I’ve written and talked about so much that it’s almost lost all meaning.
There were anecdotal improvements in 2020, with rookie right guard Ezra Cleveland seeming like a positive catalyst on the right side of the line, but if you actually sat back and analyzed the play of the line as a unit? You’d know that this line is as bad or worse than it’s been since Joe Berger retired and Nick Easton left after the 2017 season.
That’s saying something, because the lines in 2018 and 2019 both ranked as the 27th “best” units in the game. They were so bad in 2019 that high priced quarterback Kirk Cousins literally had to rollout or run a bootleg for the Vikings to move the chains through the air.
That was normalized in Minnesota to the point that many questioned why NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski landed the gig in Cleveland. As we saw in 2020, that wasn’t on Stefanski as his line in Cleveland graded out as one of the best in the league (granted that wasn’t something he did retroactively, but as you’ll see below Stefanski did a lot to bolster the line in his first off-season).
That brings us to the point of this piece, one that I’m writing after Tom Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski for his second touchdown of the first half after standing in the pocket for what felt like an eternity.
It dawned on me that the playoff teams in the NFL had more in common that a .500 or better record. Their lines were among the best in the league where as the Vikings’ unit, again, regressed in 2020 to grade out as the 29th unit against the pass rush.
Let’s check the final grades from Pro Football Focus.
Let’s break it down by conference with a blurb from the article pointing out why these lines are ranked as such.
Kansas City Chiefs – 11th
Any time you can lose one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL for over half the season and keep your head above water as an offensive line, that’s not a bad result. That’s what we’ve seen from the Chiefs this season, with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz missing every game since Week 6 with a back injury. His replacement, Mike Remmers, has fared admirably in pass protection in his stead. Remmers’ pressure rate allowed of 4.4% this season would be his lowest mark at the tackle position since 2014.
Buffalo Bills- 10th
The offensive line is just one example of how the Bills have done a tremendous job of building the right way around a young quarterback. They didn’t throw a lot of high-value resources at the offensive line, but they did take a fair amount of chances on players in free agency and continued to bring in guys who could contribute and eliminate areas of weakness.
Pittsburgh Steelers- 17th
The Steelers’ offensive line has been an interesting case this season. Going purely off pressure rate allowed, they’ve been the best pass-protecting unit in the NFL, with Ben Roethlisberger being pressured on a league-low 21% of his dropbacks this season. The important footnote there is that Roethlisberger is also getting rid of the football quicker than any quarterback we’ve charted since 2012 (2.17 seconds on average). The PFF grades are built to factor that in, however, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line still finished the regular season ranked fourth in pass-blocking grade.
Cleveland Browns- 1st
This is the culmination of an offseason dedicated to improving the offensive line and improving players such as Wyatt Teller who were already in Cleveland. The Browns closed the 2019 regular season ranked 23rd on this same list, and we jumped them to sixth in the league entering the 2020 season following the additions of Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft and Jack Conklin in free agency.
Indianapolis Colts – 7th
This was a relatively down year for the Colts’ offensive line, given some late-season injuries at the tackle position and middling performances from several players on the interior, but the fact that they remain at No. 7 speaks to what we have come to expect from this unit.
Baltimore Ravens- 16th
Losing Marshal Yanda to retirement in the offseason and Ronnie Stanley to injury midway through the 2020 season isn’t going to come without its struggles. Those were two of the better players in the NFL at their respective positions in 2019 and a big reason why the Ravens had one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Tennessee Titans- 15th
The Titans as a whole were a much better run-blocking than pass-blocking group; there was not a single starter on the Tennessee offensive line that recorded a higher pass-blocking than run-blocking PFF grade.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- 5th
Tom Brady has been under pressure on just 24% of his dropbacks this season — fourth lowest in the NFL — despite operating in a Bruce Arians offense that traditionally brought pressure on its quarterbacks due to the emphasis on the downfield passing game. Part of the credit for that should go to Brady himself, but the guys up front deserve some love, as well
Green Bay Packers- 2nd
Over recent times, the Packers’ offensive line has consistently been one of the league’s best pass-protecting units, but their collective effort this season was made more impressive by the way they were able to deal with injuries to key starters like Corey Linsley — PFF’s highest-graded center — among others.
Chicago Bears – 20th
There’s an argument to be made that no offensive lineman finished the season hotter than Cody Whitehair did after moving over from center to left guard in Week 12. His 88.9 overall grade from Week 12 through the end of the season ranked third among all offensive linemen behind Quenton Nelson and Trent Williams. That run followed a string of four consecutive starts at center with a pass-blocking grade below 30.0.
Seattle Seahawks- 14th
The Seahawks’ offensive line ranked 16th as a unit in pass-blocking grade this season. That may not appear all that impressive on the surface, but it’s the highest they’ve ranked in that area since Russell Wilson has been in Seattle.
That improvement is due in part to several members along the line taking steps toward the production Duane Brown has been able to put forth each year since joining the team in 2017.
Los Angeles Rams – 3rd
It is safe to say that the Rams got the bounce-back season they badly needed from their offensive line following the disaster that was the 2019 season for Los Angeles up front.
New Orleans Saints – 8th
The Saints have a strong claim to owning the best tackle duo in the NFL. Terron Armstead at left tackle and Ryan Ramczyk at right tackle are both forces in the run game as well as in pass protection. That shows in the pressure numbers allowed for both players since Ramczyk entered the league in 2017. Over that four-year stretch, Armstead’s pressure rate allowed of 3.7% is tied for the best mark at left tackle, and Ramczyk’s rate of 4.0% sits in third at the right tackle position among players with at least 1,000 pass-blocking snaps.
Washington Football Team- 6th
Coming in at 29th on the preseason edition of these rankings, Washington presents one of the biggest surprises of the regular season with their play up front.
This isn’t shocking news.
In a league that is increasingly predicated on moving the ball through the air, the Vikings have claimed to be a run-first team as an excuse for not investing enough in a line that can create anything close to resembling a consistent pocket for fan favorite scapegoat Kirk Cousins.
It shouldn’t shock anyone that the line that got his rating from PFF is one of the teams that Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson refuses to waive his no-trade clause for.
Minnesota Vikings- 26th
The offensive line has been an issue for multiple years now in Minnesota, and it remains one following a 2020 season where they graded out as the 28th-best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL. Once again, it was the interior of the offensive line where most of the issues popped up.
Ezra Cleveland’s 6.9% pressure rate allowed ranked 37th out of 40 qualifying right guards in his first year at guard after starting three seasons as Boise State’s left tackle. In that same vein, Garrett Bradbury’s 5.1% pressure rate allowed ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying centers, and Dakota Dozier’s pressure rate allowed of 8.0% ranked 36th out of 39 qualifying left guards. None of their three starters on the interior cracked the top 32 at their respective position.
That’s a problem, and it’s one the Vikings will have to deal with this offseason.
There was a lot of hope and glee with Ezra Cleveland’s play at the right guard spot and while he was an improvement, he was still not good. That is a testament to how awful the line has been, that the 37th-ranked right guard seemed like a piece to build around because of how bad Dru Samia was.
Ironically, you could argue that the Vikings did invest in the line with both Cleveland and Samia (a second and fourth round pick, respectively), but there’s just something wrong here. Sure, I’ve talked a lot about the Vikings’ plan of moving tackles to guard when they’ve never played guard before, but Samia was a guard on the best line in the country at Oklahoma.
Seeing Mike Remmers in the Super Bowl should frustrate every Vikings fan, as he was one of those “But, I’m a tackle?” Linemen that Zimmer wasted and nearly ruined. But, again, with guys like Samia there has to be more to it.
And I think I found out what that is.
As I’ve previously reported, I talked to a myriad of current and former Vikings and NFL offensive linemen and coaches. We watched some film together; and what I heard was as shocking as it was frustrating.
We were initially analyzing the play of Garrett Bradbury, another linemen taken high in the draft and that was underperforming at best. The initial quote is in that context, as I wanted to get an answer from those who know the game in a way I never will as to whether Bradbury was just another slowly developing center (as people on Vikings Twitter claimed it takes 4-5 years for a center to develop) or something worse.
“I have no reason to think Bradbury will necessarily be a bust but he is playing very poorly right now. Bad footwork, no anchor in pass pro, off balance constantly. The most shocking thing is the lack of awareness. Looks lost on the field a lot. When I say bad footwork too I mean it’s loose. He can move his feet but he’s taking massive steps on reach blocks and play action sets and making it so he literally can’t take a second step. Showed up over and over again against Tampa.”
We talked about the fact that the Vikings had the braintrust of Gary Kubiak and Rick Denison, who are highly revered as zone-blocking gurus as well as Phil Rauscher, “coaching” the offensive line.
“The reason that I asked about the OL coach is because the whole OL plays like shit. They look completely unprepared to play to me. It’s bad right now dude. Really bad. I’m sure there’s plenty of talent but it’s not showing up.”
So, when the Vikings actually do invest in the line they’re not coaching the unit up to anywhere near it’s full potential. People still blame Kirk Cousins for … Basically everything, and that’s patently unfair as he’s played behind bottom three-to-five lines his entire time in Minny. Just ask Watson what he thinks about playing here if you think I’m defending Cousins for the sake of defending Cousins, again.
My sources agreed:
“Anyone that blames Kirk for what is going on is out of their mind. He had an exceptional OL when they were healthy in Washington, aside from Spencer Long, and the OL there was run by a technician in Bill Callahan. When you watched the OL there things were intentional, every single guy on the Vikings OL plays with different technique. Sometimes a certain guy will do a certain thing different to suit his abilities/skill set but here it looks like the Vikings OL doesn’t even have a coach. It looks like they get handed a piece of paper and someone says, go ahead and figure it out on your own.”
As I sit here watching Tom Brady take his time to throw like an elderly man getting into a warm bath, it’s hard not to lose hope that the Vikings will make it to the big game anytime soon. Zimmer is perhaps the most stubborn coach in a league that is changing, and while there may be some value to some aspects of his philosophy, it’s clear that his idea of team building treats the offensive line as an afterthought in nearly every sense of the word.
They move guys around instead of signing free agents or drafting them, then when they do draft them they don’t coach them up (or they force them to play positions they’ve never played before).
Take this quote about Cleveland from now former Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak from early on in training camp:
“We’re going to take it a day at a time, but he’s a very bright player, and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there. We know he has a comfort zone to go back outside. We’ll settle him down probably after about a week, and we’ll take a look at exactly where we think he should be and what gives him the best chance to help our team.”
Or you could have him play his natural position? Or at least keep him on the left side of the line? If he’s defaulting to what he’s comfortable with, that’s a sign that you should probably not break that habit as you could end up ruining his potential at both positions/sides (just ask TJ Clemmings, the former Vikings right guard, left guard, left tackle, concession manager, punter, HR director, etc.).
With the Vikings facing another salary cap reckoning thanks to the COVID cap, does anyone really think that the line will improve in 2021? Or at any point under Zimmer? We’ve already seen the peak of what Zimmer can do. Make the playoffs every other year and then get exposed in said playoffs.
Sure, he has decent regular season records, but have you seen anything from him that tells you that he has learned anything or is willing to? He’s going to replace Kubiak with… a different Kubiak. He replaced George Edwards (who was fired as a signal to Zimmer that the status quo wasn’t good enough right before … The team extended him) with his two internal hires.
The team had to extend Zimmer as he was just instrumental in the largest 7-round draft haul in league history. With 15 picks? The Vikings took one actual guard. I’ll let you guess which pick that was.
While you’re looking that up ask yourself whether or not you think it’s a good sign that a team that has Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Three (for now) super talented tight ends, oh and a back named Dalvin Cook is a team that DeShaun Watson refuses to play for.
The Vikings should be the top team on his list. He should love to come here, to have arguably the best skill-position by skill-position players in the entire league. But he isn’t stupid, or naive. He’s seen what the team has(n’t) done to protect Cousins, and he understands that playing for this team would be bad for his career and brand.
That should be a sign to those that read this headline and jumped right into the comments section to say “Dur dur dur Zimmer = Bud Grant!” that something is wrong in Vikingsland.
Instead you’ll just watch the second half of the game and pretend that the Vikings are somehow going to get different results from doing the exact same thing each season. This team COULD make it, if they had Stefanski or.. almost anyone else running it.
But the team is married to Zimmer for the time being, so, we’ll just watch as our amazingly talented offensive players and what remains of the defensive core age out like grapes rotting on the vine and be happy with our 10-6 records every other season.
This is a team that has been thoroughly out-coached in nearly every big spot, especially when facing the new guard of young/offensive minded head coaches. They’ve never come through when it matters, especially on defense, despite flashy regular season stats like third down stop percentages.
This is a team and head coach that has wanted for NOTHING. I can’t think of another head coach that has had a better situation than Zimmer. I covered this a few weeks ago, but, this is a team that has a new state of the art stadium, a best in the league team facility in Eagan, a salary cap master in Rob Brzezinski, every free agent and draft pick for the defense of his dreams. This is a team that changed how NFL contracts are done, forever, to bring Kirk Cousins to town.
Name one way the team could’ve supported Zimmer more.
Now name what the return on that investment has been, and then ask yourself why that is. Until the team realizes this? We’ll all be watching the Super Bowl for the commercials while teams that have good-to-great offensive lines participate in something that honestly feels further away than ever for those of us who actually understand what is going on here.