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Zulgad: Mike Zimmer takes one more opportunity to show everyone that he’s boss

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Jan 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer waves to the crowd after the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zimmer had no interest in talking about his job status, or his eight seasons as Vikings’ coach, following a regular-season ending 31-17 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday. “Let’s not go there today,” Zimmer said when asked to reflect on his time in Minnesota. “You want to talk about it tomorrow, let’s talk about it tomorrow. This isn’t time to recollect for eight years.”

The press conference at which Zimmer reflects on his time with this franchise is unlikely to ever happen.

While Zimmer wasn’t believed to have been officially told by owners Zygi and Mark Wilf that Sunday would mark his final game on the Vikings’ sideline, all indications are that he knew he wasn’t going to be able to survive a second consecutive sub.-500 season. The excuses that ownership might have accepted a year ago — issues with COVID-19, young cornerbacks who didn’t develop as expected, a defense that struggled to stop the run — weren’t going to fly this time.

So the Vikings’ meaningless win against the Bears — a game in which Minnesota showed up for the second half after a brutal first two quarters — gave them an 8-9 record and dropped their first-round draft pick from ninth to 12th.

As for Zimmer’s likely last appearance on the sideline at U.S. Bank Stadium, it should be remembered as the game in which the veteran coach was at his most petulant. Zimmer made sure he did things his way, even if it wasn’t the best thing for his football team.

This started before the game when rookie quarterback Kellen Mond and guard Wyatt Davis were both placed on the inactive list for a game against the 6-10 Bears. A week ago in Green Bay, when quarterback Kirk Cousins was on the COVID-19 list, it made sense for Zimmer to start veteran backup Sean Mannion. Mannion isn’t good, but that wasn’t the point. The Vikings were still alive in the playoff race and Mond hadn’t taken a snap since the preseason. Mond also had taken reps in practice that week and playing him would have been unfair.

The situation on Sunday was different. This game was made for Mond to get the start, or at least see action. Instead, Zimmer showed general manager Rick Spielman and ownership that he was the boss for at least one more game and that meant Cousins was going to play the entire thing. Even as Cousins got beat up in the first half, and the Vikings’ offense eventually got booed off the field, Zimmer treated this game as if it meant something.

What if Cousins had been injured and his potential trade value was impacted? You think Zimmer cared?

Davis, who like Mond was a third-round pick by Spielman last spring, will finish his first NFL season having played 28 special teams snaps in six games and having zero snaps on the offensive line. Word was Davis wasn’t in the greatest shape when he showed up for the Vikings’ offseason program, but by Sunday it just looked as if Zimmer was being vindictive toward a couple of Spielman’s draft picks.

He was going to try to win a game with no interest in helping anyone but himself. So if that was Zimmer’s philosophy wouldn’t it have made perfect sense to spend the week working on drawing up a game plan that focused on standout wide receiver Justin Jefferson?

Jefferson entered Sunday needing only 124 yards receiving to break Randy Moss’ single-season record of 1,632 yards set in 2003. Jefferson finished 17 yards shy of breaking the mark, catching five passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. It would have been one thing if Sunday’s focus was on making the playoffs. This was an opportunity for the Vikings to rally around Jefferson and create excitement on a day where none existed.

Zimmer couldn’t be bothered.

Jefferson was the target of a screen pass with 4 minutes, 42 seconds left that he failed to catch. So go back to him, right? Nope. On third-and-14 from the Vikings’ 41-yard line, running back Kene Nwangwu took a handoff and gained 4 yards. That kept the clock running as the Vikings ran on the field to punt and Jefferson’s opportunity to have a special day ticked away.

What was really curious was that the game plan didn’t feature Jefferson more in the first half. He was targeted three times, catching two passes for 32 yards before being targeted four times and catching three passes for 75 yards in the final two quarters. This included a 45-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.

Zimmer said he was aware of the record, adding, “I don’t care about records. All I care about are wins.”

Who better to help your team get a win than your best player?  Zimmer didn’t care about that because seeing Jefferson break Moss’ record would have done nothing for him. Zimmer’s goal on Sunday was to show everyone he was going to get the final word for the 2021 season.

In the end, he did exactly that. On Monday, he can recall that fondly as he likely cleans out his office.