By most accounts this Vikings preseason was a disappointment. The offense in general didn’t perform all that well, or score many points. The defense perhaps was a little better at times, but still allowed nearly 25 points a game, and apart from some pick-sixes off of a couple tipped balls, didn’t really stand out much either. Special teams units seemed to do okay, punting improved after a poor start, but having a kicker that is nearly automatic still seems as elusive as ever.
So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Some say preseason is meaningless, others look to draw conclusions about how the regular season will unfold based on preseason performance, or how competitive the team may be early on.
The truth is that preseason performance is a lot closer to meaningless, looking back at the Mike Zimmer era.
Preseason vs. Regular Season in the Zimmer Era
Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, here are the Vikings preseason and regular season records, along with overall team PFF grade and ranking:
Preseason: 4-0. 78.7 overall PFF grade, best in the league.
Regular season: 7-9. 86.3 overall PFF grade, 11th in the league.
Preseason: 4-1. 70.0 overall PFF grade, tied for 17th in the league.
Regular season: 11-5. 85.3 overall PFF grade, 12th in the league.
Preseason: 4-0. 76.3 overall PFF grade, 3rd best in the league.
Regular season: 8-8. 81.7 overall PFF grade, 24th in the league.
Preseason: 2-2. 73.8 overall PFF grade, tied for 11th in the league.
Regular season: 13-3. 93.9 overall PFF grade, 2nd best in the league.
Preseason: 3-1. 75.4 overall PFF grade, 10th in the league.
Regular season: 8-7-1. 89.1 overall PFF grade, tied for 11th best in the league.
Preseason: 3-1. 77.6 overall PFF grade, 4th best in the league.
Regular season: 10-6. 91.9 overall PFF grade, 5th best in the league.
Regular season: 7-9. 78.5 overall PFF grade, 17th in the league.
Preseason: 0-3. 61.5 overall PFF grade, currently 25th in the league.
Regular season: ?
What Conclusions Can We Draw From This?
The truth is very little. The pattern is pretty random, which means there isn’t much correlation between preseason and regular season performance. Sometimes good preseason performance led to mediocre regular season results, while the best regular season followed the worst preseason in the Zimmer era, prior to this year.
This preseason was easily the worst of the Zimmer era, so does that mean the team is the worst prepared for the regular season? Or does it mean a really good regular season is coming – like in 2017? There really is no way to know, based only on these data.
Different Coaches Want Different Things from Preseason
One of the reasons preseason results don’t seem to mean much is that teams and coaches may be looking for different things from preseason. They’re all are looking to evaluate their 90-man rosters, trying to pick the best 53 for the upcoming season, but beyond that, objectives may diverge.
For example, a Super Bowl contender with a pretty good and established starting lineup may be more concerned with evaluating the bottom of their roster, and giving backups needed reps to develop them, while resting their starters to prevent injuries.
On the other hand, a younger team with more question marks in their starting lineup may choose to play their starters more, both to develop them, and perhaps with the goal of winning preseason games to build confidence and a winning culture. They may be more willing to risk injuries to achieve those goals than a contender with a solid veteran lineup. There are also teams with various blends between the two, and coaches that take different views regarding how much to play proven veterans in preparation for the regular season. Players themselves may approach their snaps in preseason games a bit differently as well. And lastly, some teams may take a different approach in terms of how much of their scheme they’re willing to put on tape in preseason.
All that effects preseason results. But coaches that play starters in preseason risk injuries that could derail their regular season as well. And injuries have a big impact on which teams make it to the postseason, and which of those advance the furthest. And so there is a fine line between preparation and risk in terms of how much to play starters.
Every Year is Different
This year, Mike Zimmer didn’t play all of his starters at any point during preseason, on offense or defense, and some didn’t play at all. Even when most starters were on the field, at least three key players were not included. Offensively, Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson didn’t play a snap in preseason, and Adam Thielen all of 4 snaps. Defensively, Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, and Danielle Hunter didn’t play at all, and Eric Kendricks only 11 snaps. Another four starters didn’t play more than a handful of snaps per preseason game. Offensively, the starters that did play had 10 snaps a game, if that. Overall, those players that played at all on first teams played about half the snaps they did in previous Zimmer-era preseasons, although there was one more game in those.
The reason is pretty clear.
Zimmer has had a few seasons derailed due to a rash of injuries, including last season, and frankly 2017 could’ve been that way too- most teams don’t go 13-3 with their backup quarterback starting all but two games. Given that, and the demolition derby that is the NFL, and now a 17 game regular season, doing all he can to avoid injuries makes a lot of sense, even if it leaves open the possibility of a slow start to the regular season.
In fact, any sensible coach has to approach the season assuming his team will suffer injuries to his starters at some point. Avoiding them in preseason by not playing starters reduces that risk. It also gives backups- who are bound to be called upon sooner or later- their only chance to develop in near regular season game-like conditions.
Beyond that, the Vikings have a pretty seasoned starting lineup. There are no rookie starters at any position, offense or defense. The least experienced is 3rd year man Oli Udoh, who is starting for the first time at right guard. But I’m estimating starters have about five years in the league, on average, so the need for preseason isn’t as great.
Scheme Wrinkles Remain Largely Unseen
We know from previous press conferences that Mike Zimmer overhauled his defensive scheme this off-season. There is little evidence of that on preseason game film. Offensively, Klint Kubiak may have added a few wrinkles to his old man’s scheme- but not much evidence of that for opposing defensive coordinators to chew on. Near as I could tell, the scheme was pretty vanilla on both sides of the ball.
It’s interesting that the Vikings play some relatively inexperienced quarterbacks the first part of the season, so not giving their offensive coordinators much to game plan for may have factored into the equation for the Vikings coaching staff in not showing what’s on tap for them in preseason.
30 of the Vikings 198 offensive snaps were played by Kirk Cousins and the starting offensive line this preseason. The four other starting skill position players had a total of 19 snaps between them. Defensively, the starters that played at all, played about 20 snaps on average- even less than the offensive starters. And four defensive starters didn’t play at all.
The decision to minimize the snaps of the starting roster appears to be a fairly deliberate one, suggesting that Mike Zimmer is more concerned about minimizing injuries than he is about a slow start to the season. And from that angle he has been successful- the Vikings escaped the preseason without any significant injuries to their starters.
But we have yet to see the full complement of starters for the Vikings this season on the field, at the same time, on either side of the ball. Those not playing, or playing even less than other starters, are the best players on the team. As a result, even the relatively few snaps two thirds of the first teams have played in the preseason aren’t really a good measure of what to expect this season. The lack of explosive plays on offense, for example, from an offense that led the league a year ago in explosive play rate, tends to happen when Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen aren’t playing.
Defensively, we have yet to see what a Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Everson Griffen defensive line looks like in action. We can imagine it may be pretty formidable, but we didn’t see it in preseason. Nor have we seen more than half the starting secondary play together, let alone the full complement of defensive starters.
We have also yet to see the new scheme wrinkles the Vikings have in store, and defensively those could be significant.
In short, we haven’t seen nothing yet.
We have to wait until September 12th for that.