Zulgad: Counting on Kirk: Mike Zimmer’s future appears to be tied to Cousins

Mike Zimmer has spent his entire coaching career trying to stop quarterbacks, so it can’t be lost on him that his future, at least as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, is likely tied to the success of a quarterback.

The Vikings might be built around Zimmer’s defense, but it will be Kirk Cousins’ performance that will play a large role in determining whether Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman will return in 2020. Cousins’ play also will decide whether he opens next season with a rich new contract or playing out the final season of his three-year, $84 million deal as a lame duck QB.

Cousins’ first year in Minnesota might have been a statistical success (4,298 yards, 30 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) but it was a failure as far as the Vikings were concerned. Coming off a 13-3 season in which backup quarterback Case Keenum led Minnesota to the NFC title game, the Vikings went 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs on the last day of the season when they lost to a Bears team that already had the NFC North wrapped up.

Kevin Stefanski, who took over as interim offensive coordinator for the fired John DeFilippo late in the season, was given the full-time job and veteran NFL coach Gary Kubiak was brought in as assistant head coach and offensive advisor to install the type of scheme Zimmer wanted. The Vikings also made tweaks along the offensive line and switched to a zone scheme in hopes of fixing a unit that struggled throughout last season.

All of these changes should enable Zimmer to concentrate on his beloved defense, but he and Spielman both know another disappointing season could be the end of their time in Minnesota. The pair had their contracts extended through the 2020 season after last year but that means little.

“We have the potential to be pretty good, yes,” Zimmer said Wednesday when asked if this was the best team he has had in his six seasons in Minnesota. “But it’s potential, so you got to go out and do it. You got to perform each and every week and you’ve got to play good. You can have all the potential in the world and not play good.”

The real question is what do owners Zygi and Mark Wilf expect in 2019? The Vikings have won two NFC North titles since Zimmer arrived in 2014 but have only one playoff victory. They have gone 7-9, 11-5, 8-8, 13-3 and 8-7-1. The addition of Cousins was an all-in move designed to get this franchise to its first Super Bowl since the 1976 season.

It didn’t come close to working, at least in year one.

For Spielman, it was his latest shot at finding a long-term solution at the quarterback position. Spielman gained substantial control of the 53-man roster after Brad Childress was fired as coach during the 2010 season and was given full control in 2012 when he was named general manager. The list of quarterbacks for whom Spielman is responsible include Christian Ponder; Donovan McNabb; Matt Cassel; Josh Freeman; Teddy Bridgewater; Shaun Hill; Sam Bradford; Case Keenum; and Cousins.

Ponder and Bridgewater were draft picks, with Ponder being Spielman’s biggest flop and a gruesome leg injury essentially ending Bridgewater’s time in Minnesota. While Zimmer has made no secret of how much he liked Bridgewater, it’s also no secret his expertise doesn’t fall on that side of the ball.

What makes this interesting is that under Zimmer the Vikings’ defense has become one of the best in the NFL. Since 2015, the Vikings have ranked fifth, sixth, first and ninth in points given up and 13th, third, first and fourth in yards surrendered. Zimmer was hired to makes a bottom-ranked defense one of the best in the league and he has done that.

So if the Vikings disappoint — finishing outside of the playoffs or losing in the first round — would the Wilfs fire Spielman and retain Zimmer? Especially if Zimmer’s defense remains near the top of the NFL in points and yards allowed, but Cousins doesn’t have more success than he did in 2018? There’s a case to be made that Zimmer should stick and Spielman shouldn’t. The issue is it would be odd to hire a new GM and then tell him he couldn’t bring in his own coach.

That means as tough as it might be for Zimmer to stomach his future is tied to Cousins more than anyone else on this roster.