Could Mike Zimmer Lead the Minnesota Vikings to the Playoffs?

The Bengals had one of the best defenses in the league in 2013. The Vikings... not so much.

For the fourth time in the last 13 years, the Minnesota Vikings have a new head coach. None of the previous three (Mike Tice, Brad “kick-butt offense” Childress and Leslie Frazier) have lasted more than five seasons prior to being canned. What does new headmaster Mike Zimmer need to do to buck that trend?

As I’ve stated before, it would be in the Vikings’ best interest to trade Adrian Peterson. Considering I learned a bunch of new ways to spell the f-word from the comments on the Facebook post for that one, we’ll operate under the assumption AD2K is coming back next year.

Let’s take a quick trip to fantasy land. In this wondrous place, the 2014 Minnesota Vikings magically have the 2013 Cincinnati Bengals defense under the tutelage of Zimmer. How would the Vikings have fared if this were the case, everything else ceteris paribus?

The Method

To answer this question, we can look at each team’s Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (Adj. Defensive NEP). The numberFire NEP statistic is used to evaluate each and every play that occurs throughout a season. In each situation (3rd-and-1 at the 25-yard line, 1st-and-10 at the 40, etc.), there is an expected number of points that a team should score on that drive. A positive play (a 20-yard completion, a 10-yard run to get a first down, a touchdown, etc.) will increase the number of points the team is expected to score on the drive, giving them a positive NEP. A negative play (a sack, an incompletion, a turnover, etc.) will lower that NEP.

In this case, we are using Adj. Defensive NEP, which means it is adjusted for strength of schedule throughout the season. Because we are looking at it from the defensive perspective, a negative Adj. Defensive NEP is good. The Vikings were not good.

On the season, the Vikings had an Adj. Defensive NEP of 118.90, the third-worst total on the season, ahead of only Jacksonville and Atlanta. On top of that, their Adj. Passing Defensive NEP (the same stat, except exclusively for passing plays) was the second worst in the league at 107.61.

The Bengals, on the other hand, were finger-lickin’ good. They finished second in the league in Adj. Defensive NEP behind only the NFC Champion Seahawks at -61.29. Their Adj. Passing Defensive NEP was also second best at -44.57, with their Adj. Rushing Defensive NEP checking in at a respectable -13.26. Keep in mind, because rushing is generally less effective than passing, numbers will hover closer to zero - there's more variance in pass defense.

It’s safe to say that the Vikings would have been much better with the Bengals defense, but how much better? Well, to put it simply, a lot. And that’s a gross understatement.

The Result

Based on Adj. Defensive NEP, the Bengals’ defense was 180.19 points better than the Vikings’. Divide that by 16, and you get a difference of 11.26 points per game. That’s bonkers, bruh. The Vikings won five games and had six additional games where those 11.26 points would have (hypothetically) spun the result in their favor. That would have made a wee bit of a difference in an injury-riddled NFC North.

No matter how good of a defensive coach Zimmer is, it seems hard to believe that the Vikings will transform from Freddy Krueger to Shirley Temple in one season. That said, a truly genius defensive-minded coach can make a difference in just one season.

In 2009, Rex Ryan took over a New York Jets defense that was mind-numbingly mediocre in its final season under The Manginius, Eric Mangini (34.50 Adj. Defensive NEP). That was the year where Brett Favre decided playing with a torn freaking bicep was a good idea (it wasn’t, Brett).

Ryan made the defense pull a complete 180 in his first year at the helm. The team led the league in Adj. Defensive NEP at -149.64, a full 62.86 points better than the second-place 49ers, and 184.14 points better than the 2008 Jets (nearly the exact same difference between the 2013 Bengals and Vikings). Who led the league in the category the previous season? The Baltimore Ravens at -175.77. Ryan was their defensive coordinator.

Unfortunately, the Vikings don’t have a Darrelle Revis to help with the transition. They have Shaun Prater and Marcus Sherels. But the point stands: a defensive-minded head coach can make a big difference in their new team right away. Each of the following defensive-coordinators-turned-head-coaches saw huge improvements in their new team’s Adj. Defensive NEP in their first year as chief: Lovie Smith (105.77 points better), Jack Del Rio (73.86), Mike Tomlin (47.52) and Tony Dungy (43.92 in Indianapolis).

The 2014 Vikings defense most likely will not resemble that of the 2013 Bengals. But if they can see improvements similar to those of Ryan and others defensively and add a quarterback that doesn’t hate happiness and puppies, Mike Zimmer could make this five-win team into a contender right away.