Mike Zimmer's biggest coaching challenge with Vikings lies ahead

EAGAN, Minn. -- Coach Mike Zimmer’s frustrations are tangible.

His Minnesota Vikings are 6-5-1 with four games remaining and are the NFC's second wild-card team. His team's inconsistency frustrates him the most, but sometimes what Zimmer doesn't say is most revealing, like this exchange with reporters following a 24-10 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday:

Question: What do you think you need to do to get the offense back to rolling a little bit better?

Zimmer: "Same thing I’ve been saying all year."

Question: Do you think you ran the ball enough?

Zimmer: "No."

These blunt comments have come throughout the season. Zimmer believes the Vikings have to be more balanced on offense by running the ball more. Yet the day after those comments, which were a clue he and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo are not seeing eye to eye in all areas, Zimmer changed his tone.

"He’s doing a good job," Zimmer said of DeFilippo. "We talk all the time. We talk about things that I think are important and I think he tries to do those."

It’s standard across the NFL for a head coach and offensive coordinator to disagree at times. It happened in Minnesota between Zimmer and former OC Norv Turner, who resigned in the middle of the 2016 season. Just last week, Zimmer said the Vikings probably didn’t use former Minnesota wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who is now with the Patriots, the right way.

With four games left, including a pivotal test against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night, the dynamic between Zimmer -- an old-school defensive mind -- and DeFilippo -- a young offensive talent whose name has been brought up for head coaching jobs -- is at a critical juncture.

Right now, it’s about fixing the inconsistent offense, which starts with the head coach.

The last few seasons of Zimmer’s tenure have been marred by challenges (a new QB every season, three offensive coordinators in three years, eight eye surgeries, a 27-yard missed field goal in a 2015 wild-card game, just to name a few).

This season, however, has arguably been the most difficult of his career.

Zimmer has had to soldier on after losing a close confidant in former offensive line coach Tony Sparano before training camp. His defense struggled early, and in the process of restoring his unit to its vaunted form, he’s dealt with a slew of injuries along with the absence of Everson Griffen for five weeks due to mental health issues. Kirk Cousins' up-and-down season is new territory for Zimmer to navigate. He’s learned to step in when things have looked bleak, like he did prior to a win over the Green Bay Packers.

Given what he’s battled, this season could end up being Zimmer’s greatest achievement in coaching, but also his most challenging.

On Monday, Zimmer said he needs to do a better job of communicating with DeFilippo during games. He has to divide his attention between calling defensive plays and monitoring everything going on around him. But even Zimmer said there are ways he can be better about balancing the roles.

"Maybe letting (defensive coordinator) George [Edwards] do a little bit more of the adjustments on defense, maybe," Zimmer said. "But I don’t know, I haven’t decided that yet so we’ll have to see. When things are going smooth, it’s no issue. I can go talk to the offense all I want. When things are helter-skelter on defense, then I am spending a little bit more time with them or the special teams. That is just part of it."

The concept seems simple: If Zimmer wants the run game to be a certain way and he’s not seeing it, it’s on him as the head coach to fix it. The Vikings rank 29th in rushing attempts (21.1 per game); overall, they’re 25th in the percentage of drives that result in scoring points. If the run-pass ratio isn’t cutting it, Zimmer has to put his stamp of approval on this next offensive game plan.

But the tricky part comes with toeing the line between offering constructive help and micromanaging. The game’s greatest coaches are able to empower those around them to do their jobs while providing the support to know that when things go wrong, everything is shouldered by their leader.

The autonomy DeFilippo has to design, install and execute the offensive game plan "is about the same" as that of former OC Pat Shurmur, according to Zimmer. He said he’s involved every week with the offense, from sharing ideas to going over why things worked and why they didn’t. DeFilippo has said that's the thing he appreciates most about his head coach.

"He’ll bring a blitz in to me, or say, ‘How would you guys protect this against your main protection?’ Or, ‘What would be your answer if we showed you a cover zero look here?’" DeFilippo said in October. "There’s always that dialog, and I do the same thing with him as well, 'What would you do if we showed this a bunch?' There’s constant dialog between Coach and I, which I think is really, really good."

Correcting the areas that have limited Minnesota to six wins in 12 games is a group effort. As the Vikings head coach, Zimmer is responsible for everything happening on the field, from his leadership to the execution of the entire game plan. His greatest challenge will be how he follows through in both of those areas over the next four games, and the results will define how he’ll be remembered this season.