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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.

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Kirby O'Connor

Kirby O'Connor is a graduate of Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, where he studied Electronic Publishing and minored in Art. Kirby is a lifelong, die-hard Vikings fan thanks to his father. You can find him on Twitter @kjocon14.

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  1. This is absolutely a “prove-it” year for Zimmer, and I’d argue it’s one for Spielman, too. Yes, Spielman had a very well-reviewed draft this year and added draftees who could compete for the plethora of open back-up and starting positions on the team, but if the team fails to reach the playoffs this season, unless it is due to a truly Biblical level of injuries, I think both Zimmer AND Spielman will be allowed to walk next season and the Wilfs will go into full rebuild mode in both the front office and the the locker room.

    Zimmer’s turn as head coach has reminded me of Leeman Bennet’s with the Falcons in the late 70’s and early 80’s, with both teams on a roller coaster ride of playoff appearances in alternating years and reaching the conference championship game once. The main difference was that where Zimmer hasn’t had a losing season since his first year, Bennet’s down years came with losing records. Bennet was fired after the Falcons went 5-4 in the strike-shortened 1982 season and one-and-done in the playoffs (losing 302-4 to the Vikings!). If the Vikes go 9-7 this year and don’t make the playoffs, or make them but are bounced right away, I think the Wilfs move on, across the board.

  2. Well if mn dont win north im guessing hes on way out. Wilfs all but committed to kirk to 2022 unless next yr is real bad. . kubiak could be elevated or they could look for offensive hc to pair with cousins. Speilman probably gets another yr or 2 then be on hot seat possibly

  3. After the last couple of drafts, Jake, it would be very easy for the Wilfs to extend Spielman, but I think they’re looking at him and Zim as a package deal. If the season doesn’t go well, they’ll probably both be gone. The only way I see Zim going and Rick staying is if the 2019 and 2020 draftees play superbly but most of the vets flop as Zimmer loses control of the team. I think Kubiak is done with head coaching. It’s conceivable that he finishes the season if Zimmer is fired in-season, but I think they’re new GM will be tasked with finding a new HC, and probably a young one (O or D, as Sean McDermott is doing a pretty good job of holding the flag up for young DC’s turned HC).