EAGAN — There’s a famous Twilight Zone episode where everyone thinks the world is ending and only one family has a bomb shelter.
As you might expect, the neighbors — that this family thought were their friends — quickly go into every-man-for-themselves mode and take over the shelter. They find out a few minutes later that reports of their demise were inaccurate and the world will keep on spinning. The neighbors just awkwardly leave knowing that nobody will ever look at each other the same after that incident.
That’s how Sunday’s playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints is going to feel if Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins pull off an upset in the Superdome.
Usually the stories leading up to a playoff game surround things like key matchups, injury reports and if you’re lucky a little bullion-board material. But the days between the Vikings’ Week 16 loss to the Green Bay Packers and Sunday’s noon kickoff have been dominated by speculation about the future of, well, just about everyone in the Vikings’ organization.
5. As for #Vikings, ownership likes Stefanski a lot. If the team totally craters vs. #Saints, don’t rule out significant changes in the face of playoff failure and potentially losing Stefanski. I believe this game matters for Mike Zimmer‘s 2020 outlook – not just an extension.
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) December 30, 2019
Prior to Week 17, when the Vikings rested their starters, there was a report from NFL Network that the Dallas Cowboys could consider trying to trade for Zimmer. When news came out late Thursday that Jason Garrett would not be returning as head coach, it added fuel to that fire. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said that his biggest mistake was not interviewing Zimmer for the head coaching job in Dallas and Zimmer is known to be close friends with Jerry Jones’ son.
ESPN’s Dan Graziano wrote:
“I’m keeping an eye on Sunday’s Vikings-Saints game. If the Vikings lose, there are people around the league who wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones take a run at coach Mike Zimmer, a former Cowboys defensive coordinator for whom Jones feels a strong affinity. Zimmer has a year left on his Vikings contract, so it’s possible that the Cowboys would have to trade a draft pick for him in this scenario, but don’t rule it out. If the Saints lose, Allen could be a possibility, as could assistant head coach Dan Campbell, who played for the Cowboys from 2003 to ’05 and had a brief stint as interim head coach of the Dolphins in 2015.”
Speaking of fuel, Vikings owner Mark Wilf attempted to quell the talk of a coaching change on Friday by releasing a short statement on Zimmer and Rick Spielman’s status.
“We value Mike and Rick’s leadership and we have every intent of Mike continuing as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Rick leading our football operations, next year and beyond,” Wilf said.
Of course, they call it the “dreaded vote of confidence” for a reason.
Considering Zimmer is one of the winningest coaches in the NFL despite an uphill battle at the quarterback position, it feels strange to be questioning his status after a 10-6 season. He’s lost his potential franchise quarterback twice to knee injury, reached the NFC title game with a backup QB and bounced back to the playoffs each time the team missed the postseason.
Zimmer was hired to be a defensive mastermind and with the tools given to him via the draft, he’s schemed his team into the top 10 in points allowed each year. Throughout 2019 there was heavy scrutiny of a defense that appeared weak at times but at year’s end they were fifth in points allowed.
And let’s not ignore the obvious: Making a decision on someone’s future based on whether you get beaten badly in one game is crazy. In a sport of small samples where bad teams routinely end up in the playoffs and good teams miss and where the best coaches win 3-of-5 and we see even Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s teams get blown out once or twice a year, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense to decide whether to keep or fire a coach based on a single playoff game.
But the black cloud over Zimmer’s tenure is the lack of wins in games like Sunday’s in New Orleans — the true tests. They lost in the Wild Card round to the Seahawks in 2015 and while they beat the Saints in the Minneapolis Miracle game the Vikings’ defense came apart at the seams in Philadelphia the following week. In the two years Kirk Cousins has been under center, the Vikings have won two games against teams with winning records — both times against beaten-up Eagles clubs who aren’t nearly as good as they were in ’17.
The Monday Night Football loss against the Packers was a final-straw type of game. Even if Zimmer’s defense did the job, forcing three turnovers and allowing 23 points despite an injury to Team MVP Eric Kendricks, it was another L to throw in the pile of disappointments on National TV.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) January 1, 2020
You could point to the number of times the Vikings have shown up to a gun fight with a knife at the quarterback position as the explanation for losing important games and you wouldn’t be wrong but at some point that line of reasoning wears thin. Fans and decision makers start to wonder if the team has peaked with his current coach. Vikings’ ownership expected to at least return to the NFC title game in 2018 after signing Cousins to an $84 million deal. They might end up with zero playoff wins in two years.
All of that explains why a change at head coach could be considered if the Vikings do not have a good showing against the Saints, who rank third in the NFL in scoring behind their all-time great quarterback.
What is harder to say is how everyone will react if the Vikings pull an upset.
The noise has been far too loud to block out.
There have been rumors that people in the front office are making phone calls trying to set up their next jobs just in case. There has been talk that Kevin Stefanski could take over if the Vikings move on from Zimmer. How about Cousins? If the Vikings lose they will be looking very closely at first-round quarterbacks and he knows it.
If they win by a touchdown, does that all disappear into thin air?
Does the years of being harsh on players — sometimes through the media in cases like Anthony Barr and Xavier Rhodes — not still take its toll? Does Zimmer’s unwillingness to back Cousins go unnoticed? Does the QB forget that his head coach said “you’ll have to ask him,” when asked about Cousins’s big-game failures? Will the issues with keeping an OC go away? Do the sideline meltdowns by his team (a la Rhodes in Seattle) go ka-poof? Does the belief internally that Stefanski could be a great head coach just leave the minds of those making the final call?
Does the hope for a Super Bowl go up exponentially with two more difficult road games on the way?
The Vikings absolutely have a team strong enough to win against the Saints and in some ways ownership and fans are scared of that outcome. That makes all the decisions much harder. The Vikings could still move on the way the Tennessee Titans did after Mike Mularkey’s squad upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round two years ago but that move would not go over well with fans.
If they stun the Saints it won’t be easy to move forward with everyone knowing how close they were to pressing the red button.
This is the nature of the beast. Before winning two Super Bowls, Tom Coughlin was being shredded by his former players for being a controlling, out-of-touch maniac. You have to wonder how many coaches just needed a little more time. Maybe if Marty Schottenheimer was given one more chance in San Diego they would have a ring or if the Tampa Bay Bucs had stuck with Tony Dungy things would have fallen into place in 2002 rather than Jon Gruden getting a ring there.
Maybe we will be thinking about the same things with Zimmer someday soon.
Or maybe they will win and we’ll be asking: “What now?”