Behold, Black Monday Came for Zimmer and Spielman

Zimmer and Spielman talking
Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

Good news for the Vikings: they rallied to win their season finale 31-17 over the Bears to sweep one of their division rivals. Not that it mattered much for already eliminated Minnesota who saw their 2022 draft position fall several slots.

By Black Monday morning, the win over Chicago already was under the radar as the bad news was delivered to Coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman of their dismissals after two straight non-playoff seasons for a team with much higher expectations.

Team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf thanked Zimmer and Spielman for their accomplishments and dedication over long tenures with the Vikings organization. But in his media session, Mark Wilf said, “We believe it is time for new leadership to elevate our team so we can consistently contend for championships.”

It’s a sad day when these decisions come to pass after an exciting but ultimately disappointing 8-9 season that was so close to a playoff berth with just one less overtime fumble in Cincinnati, one more made 37 yard field goal as time expired in Arizona, one more good drive after a turnover in Baltimore, one more defensive stop on the final play in Detroit, etc. But even if the Vikings had snuck into the playoffs with one more win, the Wilfs probably would have made these major changes unless the team won at least one playoff game.

Despite the many highlights for the Spielman-Zimmer regime, such as the 2017 run to the NFC title game and the drafting/development of stars such as Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook and Danielle Hunter along with many others, there was the 15-19 record since the 2019 playoff win in New Orleans and too many blown games this season.

Some things such as major injuries and Covid causing key players to miss games were out of Zimmer and Spielman’s control. Some other things were under their control, such as a few questionable assistant coaching hires (Klint Kubiak’s too-soon elevation to offensive coordinator a prime example), some poor in-game decisions and a suspect cornerback group along with a few shaky interior offensive line starters. The overall results of the past two years brought disenchantment from the Wilfs and a fan base looking for change at the top.

In my many years as an NFL GM and team president with the Vikings and Titans, I was fortunate not to have to fire a head coach or GM. But as an assistant GM in Minnesota, I participated in several coach firings and hirings. It’s a necessary evil in the pro sports world and I know it was tough for the Wilfs to fire two men they’ve worked with for eight years in Zimmer’s case and 16 years for Spielman. It’s also very hard on the remaining coaches and employees in football operations as they wonder if they will keep their jobs under a new head coach and GM.

Both Zimmer and Spielman have two years remaining on their contracts and the combined payout to them and the assistant coaches who won’t be retained is approximately $15 million. That also should demonstrate the Wilfs’ commitment to winning in that they were willing to make these major moves and absorb the financial cost involved once they felt it necessary to move in a new direction.

From a personal standpoint, I met Zim a few times at the Vikings facility and he was always nice and pleasant. I’ve known Rick for 20 plus years going back to my NFL management days and have always had a great relationship with him. I wish both men well moving forward and I expect them to land with other NFL teams in some capacity if they so choose.

I think the Wilfs are taking the right approach in wanting to first hire the new GM and then have that person participate in the head coach hiring decision. Mark Wilf says they will be methodical during this process as they take the needed time to find the best GM and Head Coach possible but with six NFL head coaching positions open as of Monday night (after Chicago’s Matt Nagy and Miami’s Brian Flores also were fired on Black Monday and surely more to come) along with at least three GM jobs, the competition will be intense for the leading candidates and it looks like there are plenty of well qualified individuals.

I expect the next head coach to be a current offensive coordinator or top offensive assistant from one of the current or very recent playoff teams. It’s an offensive-oriented league and the Vikings job will be attractive due to the team’s terrific offensive skill position talent—led by just selected Pro Bowlers Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook along with a two-time Pro Bowler in Adam Thielen and a quarterback in Kirk Cousins coming off a very good season (but carrying a too expensive $45 million cap number for 2022 which will be a major challenge for the new GM to handle). The offense also has excellent tight ends in Tyler Conklin (a pending free agent) and Irv Smith Jr. as he recovers from his knee injury and some highly drafted and talented offensive linemen to further develop (led by Brian O’Neill).

There’s also plenty of talent on defense with stalwarts such as Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith but starting with an elite defensive end coming off injury in Danielle Hunter whose contract situation will be another major early issue for the next GM to resolve.

Above all, it’s a fresh start on many levels but not a rebuild for a Vikings team that can quickly contend for a playoff spot in a league that regularly turns over playoff teams (seven teams will begin the postseason this weekend who were out last year).

Post-mortem thoughts on an exciting but ultimately disappointing season:

You just had to figure it would end this way—with just one more win, the Vikings would’ve made the playoffs ahead of Philadelphia.

The win over Bears was a microcosm of this roller coaster season. There was the terrible first half that saw the Bears up 14-3 and outgaining the Vikings 210-87 in total yards. The Vikings hung in due to the defense stopping the Bears five times on fourth down, several of which occurred because fired Bears Coach Matt Nagy didn’t run the ball on 4th-and-1.

The Minnesota pass rush that was absent the past two weeks in losses to the Rams and Packers came alive with seven sacks (led by two each from D.J. Wonnum and in what is likely to be his last game as a Viking by Anthony Barr).

It was once again puzzling to see the offense so feeble in the first half and then explode for 244 yards and three Cousins TD passes in the second half. The O-line woke up and Cousins had time to find an open Jefferson who wound up with 107 receiving yards, 16 shy of Randy Moss’ club record of 1,632 yards in 2003 (much to the consternation of the Vikings fans in attendance who booed Zimmer’s decision not to allow Cousins to throw a couple more passes to J.J. in the final minutes. Rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette (103 receiving yards in his best game) and K.J. Osborn also caught TD passes.

Patrick Peterson capped a good first season in Purple with the game-clinching 66 yard interception of the beleaguered Andy Dalton who wilted under the Vikings second half pass rush.

One feather in Zimmer’s cap is his higher level of success the past two years against the Vikings’ biggest rivals going 2-2 against Green Bay and 3-1 vs Chicago after struggling to a 1-6-1 record against these foes in 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately Minnesota was 4-7 out of the division this season but their 4-2 record in NFC North games is something positive for the new coach and GM to build on.

Around the NFL Observations:

There are lots of intriguing wild card playoff matchups this weekend. Most interesting to me are two of the three night games—they are both rubber games after the teams split their two regular season matchups: Patriots at Bills on Saturday and Cardinals at Rams on Monday.

Green Bay and Tennessee hold the first round byes as top seeds in each conference. I predict the Packers will emerge from the NFC while I like the Chiefs to repeat as AFC champs. But it won’t be easy for either team with plenty of quality teams in postseason including the defending champion but beaten-up Bucs led by the GOAT Tom Brady. Hopefully there will be more excitement locally about the playoffs next season if the Vikings make the field under their new regime.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl