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On the way out? Why Vikings’ disappointing season likely won’t cost Mike Zimmer his job

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Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Vikings won 27-24 in overtime. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

You didn’t have to search very long on social media on Christmas Day to see that many fans were as disgusted with Mike Zimmer as the Vikings coach was with his defense, following an embarrassing 52-33 loss at New Orleans. The defeat put an end to the Vikings’ playoff hopes in a roller-coaster season that began off the tracks, got back on them (briefly putting Minnesota in the playoff picture) and then derailed again with a three-game losing streak that dropped Minnesota to 6-9 entering its regular-season finale on Sunday in Detroit.

The loss to the Saints had many calling for Zimmer to be fired. Yes, starting defensive players such as end Danielle Hunter, nose tackle Michael Pierce, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and cornerback Mike Hughes were out, but many of the guys who replaced them were drafted or signed to play in Zimmer’s defense and giving up 52 points (the most surrendered by the Vikings since 1963) and 583 yards (the most in franchise history) would have been unacceptable under any coach. It was even worse given that Zimmer is known for being a defensive mastermind.

So could Sunday be Zimmer’s final game as Vikings’ coach after seven seasons?

Don’t count on it. In fact, if you think there are going to be any significant changes made when it comes to general manager Rick Spielman, Zimmer or quarterback Kirk Cousins, odds are you will be disappointed. There are a few reasons for this.

The pandemic during which this season was played is going to serve as a primary reason (or excuse) for why many things went wrong at TCO Performance Center. The Vikings drafted an NFL record 15 players last April and then had no offseason program during which to develop them. There also were no preseason games and the training camp schedule was impacted. Zimmer and Spielman are going to tell owners Zygi and Mark Wilf that with the potential for a normal offseason in 2021, there will be valuable development. They also will point to the fact that guys like cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler got valuable playing time after being thrown into starting jobs this season.

Zimmer, who on Monday took responsibility for the team’s brutal defensive play against the Saints, is sure to bring up that his defense will look much better with Hunter and Pierce playing on the line. Hunter, one of the top defensive ends in the NFL, missed this season because of a neck injury, and Pierce, the Vikings’ biggest free agent signing last March, opted out because of concerns about COVID-19. Hunter, assuming he’s healthy and doesn’t try to break the bank by getting a new contract, will provide the pass rush the Vikings lacked, and Pierce is the type of run stopper that current starter Shamar Stephen isn’t.

It won’t be that difficult of sell to get the Wilfs to buy into the fact the Vikings’ offense is in good shape. While Zimmer’s insistence on establishing the run at every turn can be maddening, especially in a pass-happy league, the Vikings are sixth in total offense and 13th in scoring.

Cousins signed a two-year, $66 million contract extension last March that will pay him a base salary of $21 million, with a $31 million cap hit, next season. Spielman has decided that he’s found his QB in Cousins and the GM certainly will take a bow for replacing Stefon Diggs with standout wide receiver Justin Jefferson, whose rookie contract makes him a bargain. The Vikings also have Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook signed to a multiyear deal. The offensive line, and the pass protection in particular, remains an issue but Spielman will point to the development of draft picks Ezra Cleveland and Brian O’Neill and hope ownership didn’t notice how ineffective left guard Dakota Dozier was this season.

As the Vikings got off to a 1-5 start, there were plenty who saw this as an opportunity to get a high draft pick and maybe go in a different direction at quarterback. Zimmer, however, now will probably encourage Spielman to use the Vikings’ first-round pick on a defensive lineman.

Frustrated yet? There will be another potential discussion that likely won’t take place but will be a key reason why GM and coach will return. Spielman and Zimmer were signed to contract extensions, believed to be for three years, last summer. There is no way the Wilfs are going to fire them after a pandemic-impacted season in which revenues took a hit and then pay a new GM and coach millions. NFL owners are billionaires but they don’t like to flush their money.

There was a feeling that if the Vikings had lost their opening-round playoff game to the Saints last season that Zimmer might have been out and the coaching job would have gone to then-offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. The Vikings upset of the Saints in New Orleans — which was followed by a loss to San Francisco — ended the talk of Zimmer being shown the door (or traded to the Dallas Cowboys) and resulted in Stefanski taking his offensive knowledge to Cleveland to become the Browns’ coach.

The Spielman and Zimmer contract extensions will begin in 2021, meaning there will be pressure for them to win. Those two would be under contract through 2023 and Cousins through 2022. If the Vikings were to flop next season, the franchise could be looking at major changes. But Zimmer has a habit of making the playoffs every other year, and that might just buy him more time.

This might not be what those infuriated by the Christmas Day Debacle want to hear, but it’s likely how things will unfold.