Zulgad: Distraction eliminated: Vikings make the right call by extending Mike Zimmer

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers
Jan 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer stands on the sideline during action against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter in a NFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

There was enough speculation surrounding Mike Zimmer’s job security last January that ownership put out a statement providing a vote of confidence for the coach before the Vikings played New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs. When the Vikings upset the Saints before losing at San Francisco in the second round, there were many who felt Zimmer had earned a contract extension.

Only it didn’t happen.

Early this month, Chad Graff of the Athletic reported that with training camp approaching Zimmer was “irked” that he still hadn’t gotten a contract extension. So were owners Zygi and Mark Wilf really going to allow Zimmer to coach in the last year of his contract?

We got the answer on Wednesday afternoon when Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reported the Vikings were finalizing a mutli-year contract extension with Zimmer. Matthew Coller of Purple Insider reported it will be a three-year agreement.

Whether it was the Vikings intention to have Zimmer work in the last year of his contract at one point, this was the right move. Rookies and quarterbacks are due to report Thursday to TCO Performance Center in Eagan and the rest of the roster is due in next Tuesday. This will be a training camp unlike any other for the 64-year-old Zimmer and everyone associated with the Vikings.

The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the NFL offseason program — other than the virtual sessions that were conducted with players — and we now appear set to have a scaled back training camp that will include no preseason games. This season is certain to be filled with unexpected hiccups and distractions and having Zimmer coaching in the final season of his contract would have been an unnecessary one that would have been a topic of conversation both inside TCO Performance Center and out.

If the Wilfs wanted to strive for stability and focus, they had no choice but to make this move. It wasn’t reported on Wednesday but one has to think that general manager Rick Spielman, whose contract has run the same length as Zimmer’s for several seasons, also has been given an extension or is close to getting one.

The fact Zimmer is getting a three-year extension means his deal is now tied to quarterback Kirk Cousins’ contract in terms of length. Cousins also is signed through 2022, although it would be possible for the Vikings to get out of it after 2021.

The negatives on Zimmer include the fact he has only two playoff wins in five games and that includes one-sided losses in the 2017 NFC title game at Philadelphia and last season in the second round at San Francisco. There also is a feeling that he, like so many coaches, might have a shelf life in terms of how long he should remain in one place before his message starts to lose its impact.

But Zimmer has more positives than negatives. He became a first-time NFL head coach in 2014, when the Vikings hired him to replace Leslie Frazier, and has four winning seasons in his six years. Zimmer’s 57-38-1 record in 96 regular-season games gives him a .599 winning percentage, placing him behind only Bud Grant (.621) and Dennis Green (.610) among the all-time winningest coaches in franchise history.

Zimmer, who was hired by the Vikings in large part because of his ability to coach defense, has had a Top-10 defense in points allowed every season since 2015. The Spielman-Zimmer combination also has brought a professional approach to an organization that had some bumpy times before Zimmer’s arrival. This likely wasn’t lost on the Wilfs as they considered their options after last season and through the summer months.

While Zimmer and Cousins’ contracts being the same length is interesting, there is case to be made that Zimmer asked for three years for a few reasons. One is that judging him on 2020 might not be fair and, if he had only receive a one-year extension through 2021, that would have made it easy for ownership to fire him if things did not go well this season. Remember, Zimmer was only given a one-year extension (through 2020) after the Vikings’ disappointing 8-7-1 finish that landed them outside the playoffs in Cousins’ first year in 2018.

The 2020 Vikings should be a competitive team and with each conference adding an extra playoff spot Minnesota should contend to get into the seven-team field. But the Vikings will be operating without top wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was traded to Buffalo, and, maybe more importantly, Zimmer’s defense will open camp with all three starting cornerbacks from 2019 gone. Mike Hughes is expected to grab one of the jobs, but that leaves two spots for inexperienced players to go against several standout quarterbacks on the Vikings’ schedule.

With no OTAs, minicamps, preseason games and less-than-usual on-the-field training camp work, Zimmer could not be blamed if he told ownership that a guy like first-round corner Jeff Gladney might have to play immediately and work through some struggles. Zimmer has done a great job working with cornerbacks in the past — this was especially true with Xavier Rhodes in the 2014 camp — but that was a success because there was plenty of time to focus on Rhodes’ craft.

Zimmer’s goal will be to develop the Vikings as best he can under trying circumstances and then really hit the gas pedal in 2021. Until Wednesday, we did not know if he would get that chance. The Wilfs have answered that question and eliminated a potential distraction in doing so. Safe to say, Zimmer is no longer “irked.”