Mike Zimmer Could be in a “Prove It” Year

The Minnesota Vikings have seemingly been fully committed to both head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. Both received extensions that kept them in Minnesota through the 2020 season. However, as we move closer to both training camp and the start of the season, the team has yet to work out a longer extension for either Spileman or Zimmer.

According to the Athletics’ Chad Graff, tensions have been growing between Zimmer and the team as another season approaches. Most times that your team wins 10 regular season games and a playoff game, the head coach is in a pretty good position. 

However, this was Zimmer’s third time to the playoffs and the second time that his team has been eliminated by a seemingly much stronger opponent. Assuming Blair Walsh hits a 24-yard field goal in 2015, they probably would have been rolled over the next week by the 15-1 Carolina Panthers on their way to Super Bowl 50.

With this lack of playoff success for a franchise that is starved for a super bowl in their 60th year of existence, does Mike Zimmer deserve an extension? Starting with the simple record stat, Zimmer is 57-38-1 in regular season games and 2-3 in the playoffs. The farthest he’s taken his team is the NFC Championship game, where they were dismantled by the Philadelphia Eagles.

The jewel in Zimmer’s coaching crown is his defense. Zimmer became head coach in Minnesota in 2014. Before Zimmer became head coach, the Vikings were dead last in the league in total defense and scoring defense. They were also 31st in pass defense, but at least they were 17th in rush defense.

In Zimmer’s first season, the defense improved to be in the top half of the league in all those defensive categories except rush defense where they dropped to 25th overall. The Vikings also improved from 5-10-1 to 7-9 in that first season. That 7-9 mark is Zimmer’s worst record as a head coach.

Over the next two seasons, Zimmer’s teams went 11-5 in 2015, capturing the Vikings first NFC North title since 2009, and 8-8 behind an incredibly injury-prone offensive line. 

Then in 2017, the Vikings went on what many younger fans regard as the most magical run of their life. After a gruesome leg injury derailed the Teddy Bridgewater train in 2016, Sam Bradford’s knees gave out after his incredible Monday night performance to open the season. This left the entire season in the hands of journeyman backup Case Keenum.

Keenum, and the Vikings defense, dragged the team to a 13-3 record, the team’s best record since 1998, and a first round playoff bye. After that, they knocked off the New Orleans Saints despite playing poorly for the entire second half of the game. The next week the Vikings went into Philadelphia and the rest is history, 38-7.

Since that NFC Championship, the Vikings have had an incredibly disappointing season under new franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2018. A 10-6 wild card berth in 2019 where they knocked out the highly touted New Orleans Saints, followed by being flattened by the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers.

So, Zimmer’s tenure has been up and down, but never bad enough to really warrant putting him in the hot seat. When the Vikings are good under Zimmer, it’s been because their defense is great and their offense plays well enough. In fact, 2019 and 2017 are the only two seasons under Zimmer where the Vikings ranked in the top 10 in total offense, neither time did they rank higher than eighth.

Zimmer is a defensive guy. That’s fine if you can maintain continuity on your offense. However, given today’s NFL and everybody trying to find the next great offensive minded head coach, any time an offensive coordinator has a good season, he gets a head coaching gig. 

The problem is so bad, that Kevin Stefanski, who is now head coach of the Cleveland Browns, almost got a job offer to be their head coach before last season having only called plays for a few weeks as interim offensive coordinator.

The problem with keeping a defensive minded head coach is the problem of trying to build an offense that can win. Defense can still win championships, but you have to still be able to put points on the board.

Zimmer and the Vikings are actually in the perfect position this season to improve following an excellent draft and keeping Gary Kubiak on the staff as offensive coordinator following Stefanski’s departure. Stefanski called plays last season, but it was Kubiak’s offense that they were running.

The team is also going to be very young. That gives Zimmer a chance to prove that he’s still got what it takes to get a lot out of new players. It also means that expectations may be slightly lower for him given how much veteran presence the team lost this off-season.

So, assuming that the NFL season happens and this year doesn’t get cancelled with the current pandemic, this is the perfect time to give Zimmer a “prove it” year. Sure, he’s got an almost entirely new cornerback room, but if he wants to keep his job, he needs to show us something in this season that warrants him sticking around. 

Otherwise, you might as well open the job up and see if Kubiak wants to be the coach. I know Kubiak originally stepped back due to health concerns, but obviously he’s been willing to take on a bigger role. If Kubiak doesn’t want to coach, then you bring in a young guy with potential and see what happens with a very young roster and tons of draft capital to play with.

If Zimmer does deliver a division title or an NFC Championship appearance with this young team, the front office should do everything they can to keep both him and Kubiak together. Of course, those are big ifs. I’m not ready to fold on Zimmer just yet, but the chips are down and he needs a big hand to stay at the table.