Former UCLA Bruins, Seattle Seahawks, and Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Mora Jr. is now an analyst for Sports Illustrated, and I had recently the chance to talk to him about the state of Vikings in the 2021 offseason. We discussed the team, Mike Zimmer, Kirk Cousins, and his experiences coaching Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks at UCLA.
Check out the video above or read through the transcript below.
Will Ragatz: The Vikings are coming off a disappointing season and have alternated missing and making the playoffs every year under Mike Zimmer. Do you think they're close to being able to contend in 2021 or have they maybe hit their ceiling with this current roster?
Jim Mora: I don't think they've hit their ceiling. I think they certainly need to make some adjustments. I have great respect for coach Zimmer and I appreciate the fact that the Vikings, unlike a lot of teams, have decided to stick with a guy through some highs and lows. Oftentimes what we see in the NFL right now is a team has an off year and they fire the head coach. Well they know they've got a good one in this guy and they know, as an organization, they've just gotta do the right things, make the right decisions, put the right puzzle pieces in place, and I think they can jump back to the top.
They're in what's becoming an increasing difficult division. They've gotta deal with the Packers, and the Packers right now, the way Aaron Rodgers is playing, are quite a machine. But I like the fact that [the Vikings] were able to recover a little bit from a pretty poor start. I think they're a tough football team, I think they've got a lot of high-character players on that team. I think they'll figure out a way to kind of get back over the hump and then hopefully build some consistency through the years.
WR: The big free agent signing of Kirk Cousins hasn't exactly worked out, with only one playoff appearance in three seasons (though that hasn't entirely been Cousins' fault). Do you think that they can contend for a Super Bowl with Cousins at the helm if the right pieces are in place?
JM: Well that's a great question. I think they can contend. I don't know that they can win [a championship]. I'll say this: I have great respect for Kirk Cousins, I love the way he plays the game, I love his energy, his fiery personality. I think he's a talented guy to a certain extent, but I don't think he's ultra-talented. I think his assets are his toughness, his durability, [being] the type of leader on a team that players want to follow. But then he has some things that hold him back from being truly elite-elite. When I say elite, I'm talking about 'win a Super Bowl' elite. Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, those types of guys, Tom Brady, elite.
He needs to be more careful with the football — what did he have, 13 interceptions this year? — well that ends up being something that really hurts your football team. Some of those are just the result of him trying to get the ball in there or desperation in games, but it's still a high number. If you look at his career, he's thrown 84 interceptions in his career, so I think that holds him back a little bit. I also think just a natural throwing talent, I think he throws the ball well, but just a natural arm fluidity he lacks a little bit. All those things being said, I'm a fan. I think if they put the right pieces around him, they can get close. And if they decide that they're going to be monsters on defense, much like Tampa was this year, maybe he can get them to the Super Bowl.
WR: Yeah, they need to get back to playing that Mike Zimmer level of defense that we've known for many years. They had some injuries and an opt-out last year (and have now addressed that side of the ball in free agency). But I want to ask you about two players on that side of the ball that you coached at UCLA: linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. (Mora coached Kendricks from 2012-14 and Barr from 2012-13). When did you know those guys were going to be really good?
JM: It was the very first spring that I was there . I don't know if you know this, I'm sure you do, but Anthony was an h-back. He was an offensive player. He came into my offense one day, simultaneous with me wanting to talk to him about moving to outside linebacker, because we were playing a 3-4 defense and I felt he'd be a unique player on the edge. He came in and he said 'hey coach, I'd like to move to linebacker.' And I said 'hey AB, I'd like you to move to linebacker.' And it really worked out well for him. He just had a special work ethic, he was selfless, he was quiet, and when he did speak up, it had an impact on the team. He was the kind of guy that when a play needed to be made, he would make that play.
You talk about Eric Kendricks, EK, and the things that he's done in Minnesota. His technique and the fundamentals that he plays with are flawless. His eyes are always in the right spot, he's rarely fooled. He's not a big impact tackler but he's a really great tackler. He can get sideline to sideline, he understands coverage, and you just saw that every day i practice. He had this attention to detail, this work ethic, and this intensity that was infectious. They had a great impact on a guy like Myles Jack, who's playing now for Jacksonville. We had some good linebackers come through there, but none better than than AB and EK.
Author's note: Stay tuned, because later this month I'll be talking to Coach Mora about what the Vikings did in free agency and what he thinks they should do in the NFL Draft.
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