Mike Zimmer said this week that the Vikings are “probably two plays from being 2-0 on the road” after tough season-opening losses to Cincinnati and Arizona. Zimmer isn’t wrong — a questionable fumble call on Dalvin Cook in overtime against the Bengals and Greg Joseph’s 37-yard missed field goal against the Cardinals cost the Vikings — but the reality is Zimmer’s team is 0-2 and one more loss in the home opener on Sunday against Seattle will increase the talk about whether Zimmer could be shown the door before his eighth season in Minnesota is complete.
Coming off a disappointing 7-9 finish in which the Vikings started 1-5, general manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer went to work this offseason retooling a defense that the coach acknowledged was the “worst one I’ve ever had.” Free agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson was added to the interior of a line that had 2020 free agent signing Michael Pierce returning after opting out last season because of concerns about COVID. Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter returned after missing last season because of neck surgery and linebacker Nick Vigil, safety Xavier Woods and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland all were signed.
Zimmer had been hired in 2014 because of his ability to build a defense and the expectation was he would be able to immediately fix what had gone wrong in 2020. But the Vikings will enter Sunday ranked 27th in the NFL in scoring defense (30.5 points), 28th in total defense (420 yards), 26th in pass defense (294 yards) and tied for 21st in rushing defense (126 yards).
That needs to turn around starting Sunday. If it doesn’t, and the Vikings are facing a second consecutive 0-3 start, it’s fair to wonder if owners Zygi and Mark Wilf will begin discussing whether they would be willing to pay Zimmer to not coach their team in the final two seasons of his contract in 2022 and ’23.
Where Zimmer, and also Spielman, would find themselves in a tough spot is that the Vikings did not enter this season with the hope they could make only slight improvements. The feeling at TCO Performance Center was this would be a playoff team that could make a run in the postseason.
Two losses does not mean all hope is lost. The Vikings could benefit from the fact the regular season has been expanded to 17 games and there are now seven playoff teams from each conference. But a loss to the Seahawks and future Hall of Fame quarterback Russell Wilson would make that more wishful thinking than reality.
Evening Judd: Will the Vikings start 0-3? An optimistic outlook from an unlikely source.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) September 24, 2021
What’s interesting is that for the second consecutive season, the Vikings’ offense is holding up its end of the bargain. Minnesota is tied for 10th in scoring (28.5 points) and is sixth in total offense (411 yards). Quarterback Kirk Cousins is off to a good start with five touchdown pass and no interceptions, and running back Dalvin Cook, who is listed as questionable because of a sprained ankle, is fifth in the NFL with 192 yards rushing.
This turns much of the pressure back on Zimmer’s pride and joy and that’s defense. While having fans pack U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time since 2019 should provide the defense with a boost, Wilson is one of the NFL’s best and the Seahawks have a pair of excellent wide receivers in Tyler Lockett (12 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns) and DK Metcalf (10-113-1). The Vikings are going to need far more from Breeland, who has struggled through the first two games, or they could turn to Cameron Dantzler, who had such a bad camp he was inactive in Week 1.
The highly paid Cousins often has been a lightning rod in recent seasons — the Vikings have only one playoff appearance and one win in Cousins’ three seasons in purple — but that is changing. If Cousins plays well and the Vikings give up big points and lose on Sunday there will be no talk of Cousins’ starting job being in jeopardy.
What will be discussed is how many more losses the Wilfs will tolerate before they consider an in-season coaching change. The Vikings will have three more games before their bye week, including two more in a row at U.S. Bank Stadium. There’s a case to be made that the Vikings should sweep these next three against Seattle, Cleveland and Detroit. A victory over the Seahawks will be necessary for that to happen.
A failure to do so will cause many to wonder if Zimmer’s time on the Vikings’ sideline could end before the first snowfall.