No matter how much some Vikings fans might have wanted Zygi Wilf to fire general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer in the aftermath of the Vikings’ 24-10 loss to Chicago on Sunday, that wasn’t going to happen.
The Vikings owner made that clear to reporters late in the regular season, and an embarrassing loss that cost the Vikings a playoff berth wasn’t going to change that. Tom Pelissero of NFL Network tweeted on Monday that Zygi and his brother, Mark, sat in on the Vikings’ final team meeting and, according to a source, “both reiterated their belief” in Zimmer and Spielman.
But that vote of confidence doesn’t mean the clock isn’t ticking on Spielman and Zimmer, or that either has security past 2019. Both are reportedly entering the final year of their contracts — it will be surprising if they don’t get some type of extension before next season — but that will guarantee nothing.
NFL teams are hesitant to have a coach in the final season of his contract, although Wilf did have Mike Tice coach in the final year of his deal in 2005. But that was Wilf’s first season as owner of the franchise and there always was the feeling that he wanted to spend that year getting familiar with things before making significant moves. Tice wasn’t Wilf’s guy and the only surprise about his dismissal was that it came immediately after a win over the Bears in the regular-season finale.
Spielman and Zimmer are a year removed from taking the Vikings to the NFC title game, so Wilf isn’t about to pull the plug, even after an extremely disappointing 8-7-1 finish. So what would get the duo jettisoned?
The important thing to keep in mind here is Spielman is likely attached to Zimmer and vice versa in Wilf’s mind. This isn’t like during the 2010 season when Brad Childress was fired as coach after a 31-3 loss in late November to Green Bay in the Metrodome. It also isn’t the same as when Leslie Frazier was fired as coach following a 5-10-1 finish in 2013.
In the first case, Spielman was serving as the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel and wasn’t making final calls on the team’s roster. Childress took the fall for what went wrong in the season after the Vikings’ lost in the NFC championship game. In the second instance, Spielman was general manager, having been given that promotion in 2012, but he was working with a coach (Frazier) who had been hired by Wilf after Childress’ firing.
Zimmer is Spielman’s hand-picked coach and, for the most part, he has been a good one, although his teams have been inconsistent. The Vikings missed the playoffs in Zimmer’s first season, made it to the first round in his second year, went from a 5-0 start to an 8-8 record in 2016 and then rebounded to go 13-3 and make the conference title game in 2017.
Wilf is going to expect another significant bounce back next year and if he doesn’t get it the first person he’s going to look at likely will be Spielman. There is no question that Wilf and his brother have great faith in Spielman. They hired him in May 2006 after their decision to go with Fran Foley turned into an embarrassment.
But what could end up costing Spielman his job, if the Vikings fall short of expectations in 2019 — and falling short could include a quick playoff exit — is the one position that has given him trouble since the day he set foot in Minnesota.
Spielman has never been able to find and keep a quarterback — Brett Favre begged to play for the Vikings in 2009 and it was bad luck that Teddy Bridgewater’s knee basically blew up before the 2016 season — and that’s why he was willing to invest $84 million and three years in Kirk Cousins on the free-agent market last offseason.
In a salary-cap league, Cousins’ contract limits what the Vikings can do to improve themselves this offseason and that means getting help for a weak offensive line is going to be difficult. The problem is that Cousins proved this season that he doesn’t have the ability to make big plays when it counts the most.
That means Cousins might finally be the guy who costs Spielman his job. There is no excuse if Cousins continues to be a flop. If that happens, the 62-year-old Zimmer almost certainly is going with him. The theory from this end always has been that Zimmer was hired because Spielman realized he couldn’t find a quarterback to compete with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and even Jay Cutler.
Spielman decided he would go with a coach known for his defensive mind and in many ways it has worked out. Zimmer is one of the best coaches in the game at developing defensive backs and has proven that he often has answers for good offenses.
But Zimmer also has shortcomings and his patience with certain positions, including quarterback and kicker, appears to run out quickly. Offense and special teams seem to be a necessary evil in his world. This was fine during the brief time Pat Shurmur was his offensive coordinator, but with John DeFilippo and then Kevin Stefanski running that show this season, Zimmer’s input on offense seemed to go like this: Run the damn ball more.
If Spielman is shown the door, his replacement likely is going to want a head coach who has more patience with overseeing the entire program. He also might want someone younger. Bears coach Matt Nagy, whose team won the NFC North in his first year on the job, is only 40 years old. Sean McVay, who is having great success with the Rams, is only 32.
Zimmer is gruff, inpatient, irritable and, in many ways, a throwback, at least when it comes to his demeanor. He also is a heck of a football coach. Spielman identified that and appreciated what Zimmer could bring. But if things don’t go according to plan in 2019, Spielman no longer might be making the decisions in Eagan and that likely would mean Zimmer would be looking for work as well.
That would leave Cousins as the last-man standing. He could play out the final season of his contract serving as a reminder that Spielman’s failure to solve the most important position in the NFL cost two men their jobs.