Zimmer’s Seat is Starting to Warm

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Since the Wilf’s purchased the Vikings in 2005 for a reported $600 million dollars from “he who shall not be named” they’ve increasingly funneled the piles of money they’ve been making into improving the Vikings as an organization and as a team. 2018 could be viewed as the apex of their efforts, after they decided to sign Kirk Cousins to what was at the time the largest contract in NFL history. Coming off of a season in which the team went 13-3 (after starting 2-2) the expectations for the 2018 Vikings were sky high, especially considering that they were bringing 10 of the 11 starters from 2017 back on defense and adding an 11th that is arguably top three at the position. The thinking was that by bringing in a polished pocket passer in Kirk Cousins (not to mention the return of Dalvin Cook at running back) the Vikings could run the table and bring a Lombardi Trophy to the brand new Vikings head quarters in Eagan.

With the first quarter of the season now behind us, it’s safe to say that that hasn’t  happened, for reasons that none of us really saw coming. It’s not an over-exaggeration at this point to say that if the Vikings don’t begin to turn things around, especially on defense, we could be looking at the final games of head coach Mike Zimmer, a man who was two wins away from getting his own statue in both Eagan and downtown Minneapolis (and my yard) last season, and who seemingly had all the answers on the defensive side of the ball up until half-time of the Saints game last season.

Before you jump all over this/me, it’s been clear that the Vikings have been willing to move on from an older former coordinator who seemed unable (or unwilling) to make adjustments to their system, and while Zimmer has proven much more than Norv Turner did during his tenure with the team, he has seemingly lost his ability to adjust to the adjustments the NFL has made against his double A gap blitz scheme.  Something that is seemingly getting more and more evident each week this season (which is a continuation of how the 2017 season ended). Combine that with the fact that the Vikings snagged one of the most coveted future head coaches this off-season from Philadelphia in John DeFilippo, and you have the makings for a change either at the head coach or offensive coordinator position this off-season (regardless of the Vikings record when it comes to the latter). Even if things don’t totally implode and the Vikes make the playoffs, do they let DeFilippo go when Zimmers leadership and system have seemingly reached its/their potential?

With Cousins coming in with an entirely new system, and Dalvin Cook also coming back for what would only be his fifth game as a pro… Some (including me) thought that it might take a take a few games for this team to find it’s groove on offense, something that could’ve given them a .500 record during the first few weeks of the season (especially considering who they’ve had to play during that period). So, while I’m not entirely shocked by the record the Vikings have, especially considering the schedule they’ve had, it’s HOW they’ve reached 1-2-1 not necessarily the fact that they’re 1-2-1. The hope was that the defense, which was the top unit in 2017, would be able to keep teams to around 10 to 14 points during that/this time, allowing the offense to get to know one another while the defense gave them the slack and time to do just that.

However, as the game last Thursday night showed, it’s basically been the opposite. The Vikings offense, despite struggles in the run game, kept the team in the game against the high powered Rams. This was only a week after they were almost shut out by the lowly Buffalo Bills AT HOME, sure, but they’ve at least shown some signs of life. So, while the offense has struggled as well, it’s the defense that has really been the most disconcerting, as it’s essentially the same unit from last season (with one major improvement in the addition of Sheldon Richardson) that is somehow playing like a unit from the early 2000’s.

Back on the offensive side of the ball, Cousins has broken records already this season, throwing for the most yards of any Vikings quarterback over the course of the first quarter of the season, besting 2004 Dante Culpepper, who had an amazing season (he ended up with 39 touchdowns through the air and over 4,700 yards) that year. Cousins also has had over 100 passes over the past two games, a number that is as insane as it is unsustainable and has to be making Cousins wonder if he made the right move by coming to Minnesota, even if he’s on pace for over 6,000 yards passing (yay?). Sure, he’s had issues fumbling the ball, but perhaps if they were able to slow the game down and hand of the ball he wouldn’t be fumbling as often (or if they spent more picks on the offensive line…). But with the defense being unable to stop, basically anyone, the Vikings have had to play catch up the past few weeks which has destroyed any chance for them to play the game they want to play it.

The 2017 Vikings were able to control the clock by slowing the game down, forcing a lot of three-and-outs and allowing the offense to at least be a bit more balanced than they have been in 2018 (which isn’t saying much since any offense is more balanced than the Vikings have been since the Packers game). That has made them one dimensional and desperate on offense, a dynamic that very few teams can succeed with.

While you could argue that that lack of a balance is a knock on DeFilippo, the main reason for the Vikings 1-2-1 start all boils down to the defense and because of that the buck stops with head coach Mike Zimmer. You could really argue that the buck should actually stop with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, but there’s no way that the Wilf’s would part with the guy who put this many objectively great players on the same field (especially considering his team has been able to create magic when it comes to players and the salary cap), even if he’s actively ignored the offensive line and has drafted some iffy receivers (and quarterbacks) during his tenure. The point and key is that outside of 2009, the Vikings have never been more all-in as a team than they are right now, and that means that Zimmer is most definitely on the hot seat as of the writing of this piece.

Whether or not the temperature reaches a boiling point or absolute zero is yet to be determined but is dependent on the defensive unit, a unit that has Zimmer’s finger prints all over it and that is seemingly unable to adjust to the offenses it’s faced so far this season. Again, that’s the difference between this start and 2017’s start. While the Vikings lost two of their first four games, you never felt like the team was as bad as the team that let the Rams put up multiple touchdowns of 50-yards or more or as bad as a defense as we saw against the lowly Bills (field position notwithstanding).

Think that’s nonsense?

Well, the hot seat can either be perception or reality (or a mixture of both) and that perception typically comes from the media and people like me, who also listen to the comments of people who follow our sites or participate in our live chats or podcasts. It also obviously can come from ownership or management (reality), and while internal thoughts like that are typically hidden from the public, there are some owners who make their thoughts and emotions clear when it comes to the state of their team (we’re looking at you, Jerry Jones). While we may not hear from the Wilf’s or even Spielman about their thoughts on the Vikings start (in this context, at least), we can monitor the different talking heads that cover this team to see if they’ve started to lose patience with Zimmer.

Outside of this article, Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press is the first established reporter that I’ve seen that has discussed what a lot of fans (and people in the purplePTSD.com/VikingsTerritory.com realm) have said and that’s that perhaps Zimmer could be replaced by John DeFilippo either at the end of the season or mid-season, depending on whether or not Zimmer is able to make the proper adjustments and turn this thing around. Considering his lack of being able to do just that, really since half-time of the Saints game, it’s starting to look more and more like that could be the case.

The NFL is a copy-cat league and the Vikings know first hand that the youth movement at the head coaching position is mostly working for the teams that have invested in young coaches like Sean McVay, who is only 32 years old and full of fresh new ideas that apparently the older, stuck in their way coaches like Zimmer can’t seem to adjust to. Walters’ article is mostly about that, and the disappointment that everyone has with this Vikings team and the way the season has started.

He sums things up by saying:

It’s cheaper to change the coach than the players, especially when the players have multi-year contracts with millions of dollars guaranteed. Zimmer, if the Vikings falter, could become the fall guy, whether deserved or not. It’s one way to interject some energy into the organization.

That’s all true. The Wilfs/Vikings are heavily invested in this team. The core of players are signed for the next few years and there’s no way that they’ll be able to replace the entire defense in lieu of Zimmer, especially considering Zimmer’s influence over Spielman in the draft (which would, logically, mean that Zimmer’d be drafting replacement players for players he already drafted and agreed to sign to big contracts). I’ve stated multiple times, in articles and on my podcasts, that Zimmer has had too much influence over Spielman. The apex of that came this year when the Vikings added another first round corner, despite the need they had on the offensive line. While, again, you could say that this is all on Spielman, it’s going to be hard for Zimmer to win in a battle against Spielman, assuming if it comes down to that.

Again, they were 2-2 at this point last year, half a game better than they are now. However, you could look at those two losses and blame them on the injuries to Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook, something they overcame quickly. Some have blamed the past couple losses on Everson Griffen, something that should be less devastating to the team than the loss of a quarterback or running back. The problems this team has are deeper than that and come down to an argument of scheme over execution.

Some have said that the players, who have typically played at an amazing level (like Xavier Rhodes, for example), are for whatever reason playing not only not up to their potential but are playing terribly. The aforementioned Xavier Rhodes has been down-right bad this season. He’s been beat multiple times, something that never happened last season as teams didn’t really end up ever throwing his way. Anthony Barr has been the scapegoat for a lot of people, myself included (as I latched onto him during the live chat we did Thursday night, and also talked about the next morning on our new morning show, titled Morning Joes). Barr is a great example as he is playing bad, even for him, but you also have to question a scheme that continues to allow him to be exploited the way he was on Thursday night. Barr has been a liability for a while, but when your supposed defensive genius of a coach continues to allow him to cover wide receivers on a team with playmakers at every position like the Rams, you also have to question the scheme.

But, unfortunately for Zimmer, it’s his job to ensure that these Pro Bowl and All-Pro level players continue to play at those levels. Vikings Legend Bud Grant basically said that a NFL head coaches job is to manage personalities and to get players to play at the level they can. Ironically, Grant is known for not being able to get his players to play well during big games, which was evident by the upsets they were a part of in the Super Bowl. Zimmer has been great at getting his many superstars to play together, but it seems like everything is out of sync this year and that again is a bad sign for Zim. Not to mention that his big bad defense seems to shrink during big games even when they were otherwise typically playing well.

Then again, things could turn around and I could look back on this article and smile (while deleting it from the sites) while trying to change the name of purplePTSD. Let’s hope that’s what happens, otherwise, it’s going to be a LONG season and really a long couple years. However, if the team does make a swap from Zimmer to DeFilippo as Walters suggests, perhaps he and George Edwards will be able to focus more on the offense, draft some (Big Ten) offensive lineman and still take advantage of this young core before they age out. The fact that this is the article I’m writing before the fifth game of the season is evidence enough for me that things have turned sideways, so nothing would surprise me at this point.