MINNEAPOLIS -- If ever there was an idea that Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer would have much patience for mediocrity, it went out the window into the frigid January air after the Vikings' 10-9 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Zimmer decided not to renew offensive line coach Jeff Davidson's contract in the hours after the game, and brought in former Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano to replace him, knowing Sparano was capable of putting a hot poker to the hindquarters of his players. The Vikings fixated on former San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone in free agency, in large part because of the edginess Boone should bring to the group. And in his comments at the NFC coaches' breakfast on Wednesday morning, Zimmer trampled whatever illusion of comfort his offensive linemen might have still been clinging to on March 23.
The coach made it clear improving the line was his No. 1 offseason priority, adding that all five positions will see competition this spring and summer. Even though there is no obvious alternative to left tackle Matt Kalil, who returns on a guaranteed fifth-year option that will pay him $11.1 million, Zimmer didn't rule out finding another player there. And he issued a fairly direct challenge to the group for next season.
"I feel like every other position group on our football team has a tough-minded personality," Zimmer said. "I don't know that our offensive line did."
That figures to change with the additions of Sparano and Boone, and there should be enough competition to stoke the fires of the Vikings' other options. Former Cincinnati Bengals tackle Andre Smith, who signed a one-year deal with the team last week, will battle for a spot at guard and tackle, Zimmer said. Center John Sullivan, who is trying to return from two back surgeries at age 31, "looks a lot better" as he stays in Minnesota for offseason rehab, Zimmer said, "but who knows? Until you start pushing on 350-pound men, you really don’t know, because it’s different than being in the weight room."
The same goes for right tackle Phil Loadholt, who is trying to return from a torn Achilles tendon in 2016. Brandon Fusco could slide back over to right guard, but he'll have to improve following an uneven 2015 season at left guard. And Zimmer has even made it clear to the team's stars that an improved offensive line should mean better performances from them.
"When we were trying to get Andre Smith in here, I had Teddy [Bridgewater] text him, and Adrian [Peterson]," Zimmer said. "And then after we signed him, my text back to those guys was, 'OK, we got Boone. We got Smith. Now there’s no excuses. You can’t say we didn’t have this or this. It’s time to go now.'"
Fixing the offensive line, Zimmer said, should help an offense that ranked 31st in the league in passing last season. It could do more for Bridgewater's development than adding another veteran receiver to replace Mike Wallace, Zimmer said. And though Peterson needs to display more patience if he's going to be effective in another attempt at shotgun runs, a better offensive line should cut down on the one-yard runs that seemed to bug the coach about last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 103 of Peterson's 327 carries went for a yard or less. That total led the league, and on those carries, Peterson was hit an average of 1.09 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
"I always try to change something in our building, whatever it is," Zimmer said. "It might be pictures on the wall; it might be different things I do in the locker room. But I want our players to understand it's a new year, change is going to happen, and if we don't win, they're going to get changed and I'm going to get changed. This year, it was a lot about, I'm trying to get this offense better and this offensive line better."