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Zulgad: Vikings get it right with firings, but that doesn’t mean pressure is now off owners

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Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi Wilf, left, and Mark Wilf, center, talk with head coach Mike Zimmer, right, before an NFL preseason football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Zygi and Mark Wilf have stressed the importance of maintaining continuity since purchasing the Vikings in 2005. On Monday, the Wilfs decided that pursuing a championship was more important than the stability they had with Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer.

Spielman, who had been with the Vikings since 2006 and served as general manager since 2012, and Zimmer, who had been the team’s coach since 2014, were both fired with two years left on their contracts. “We strongly believe we need new leadership to elevate our football team,” Mark Wilf said. “We’re looking for strong leaders, communicators and collaborators.”

Vikings’ ownership made the right moves by showing Spielman and Zimmer the door. While both did some good work during their time in Minnesota, the Vikings had grown stale under their guidance and there seemed to be no chance that would change.

The Vikings completed a second consecutive disappointing season on Sunday, beating the woeful Chicago Bears in a meaningless game to finish 8-9. Zimmer was hired in 2014 because of his expertise on the defensive side of the ball, but his once very good defenses had become a liability.

The Vikings finished 24th in scoring defense (25.1 points per game) and 30th in total defense (383.6 yards per game). The Vikings had injury and COVID issues on that side of the ball, but what team didn’t?

The Vikings’ decision to promote Klint Kubiak to offensive coordinator to replace his father, Gary, who retired, went worse than anyone could have expected. Kubiak was overmatched as a play-caller — it was the first time he had that assignment — and it became clear if his last name had been anything but Kubiak that he wouldn’t have gotten the job. The Vikings put him in that spot thinking it would help keep the offensive continuity for quarterback Kirk Cousins, but it quickly became clear that thought was flawed.

There was a belief among many in the days leading up to Monday’s moves that Spielman would be kept around with a new title. But the Wilfs’ decided to make a clean break, probably in part because Spielman’s presence might have stopped a few top GM candidates from having interest in the job. Among the biggest reasons Spielman was jettisoned was the decision to sign Cousins to a three-year, $84 million free agent contract in 2018 and then to a two-year, $66 million extension in March 2020.

Cousins put up some nice stats, but in four seasons he has led the Vikings to one playoff appearance, one postseason win and the team is 33-31-1 in the regular season. Cousins’ defenders will say it’s unfair to place the blame on him. But when a contract eats up as much salary-cap room as Cousins’ does, that player will be counted on to overcome adversity and lead his team to the playoffs on a yearly basis.

The Wilfs now will begin the search for a general manager and it’s likely that hire will be the point person in finding the next coach. This is where it gets interesting. Zygi and Mark Wilf are football fans who have long let their top executive and coach run the show with what appears to be minimal to no interference. The Vikings’ ownership doesn’t plan to use a search firm to find its next general manager, meaning the decision will be made internally.

But who will the Wilfs rely on to help in that search? And who are the internal candidates? Mark Wilf declined to discuss that on Monday, but did say that the search process already has begun. What is clear is that the Vikings’ GM and coaching jobs are two of the best available in the NFL. The Chicago Bears and New York Giants also have GM openings, and the Bears, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins are looking for head coaches. The Las Vegas Raiders also could be in the mix if they don’t retain interim coach Rich Bisaccia, who has his team in the playoffs.

“We strongly believe we need new leadership to elevate our football team,” Mark Wilf said. “We want strong leaders, people that communicate and collaborate around the building, getting the right kind of leaders that our players can relate to and that our fans can relate to.”

What the Wilfs also need to find is a general manager who can judge quarterback talent. Spielman ended up with Cousins in large part because he either swung and missed on a first-round draft pick (Christian Ponder) or had injury issues with his choice at QB (Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford). Cousins was supposed to be the answer, but it hasn’t worked out and Zimmer never seemed interested in having him as his QB.

The new general manager and coach will make the call on whether Cousins returns for the final season of his contract, or is traded so the Vikings can potentially save $35 million to the cap. Cousins’ cap hit for 2022 is currently $45 million, but there is almost no way he plays on that contract. It also seems unlikely the Vikings’ new front office would give him an extension, meaning a trade could be coming.

What the Vikings really need is to find a quarterback in the draft, so they can get five productive seasons out of that player at a very reasonable rate. It had become clear as much as Spielman liked to make moves in the draft that identifying quarterback talent was not his strength.

But for all of this to play out to perfection, the Wilfs must first find the right person to do what Spielman couldn’t. Potential candidates could include Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds; Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay; Eagles director of player personnel Brandon Brown; and Cardinals vice president of pro scouting Adrian Wilson.

It will be up to that hire to make decisions on some longtime members of the Vikings’ roster.

“This was not an easy decision,” Mark Wilf said of Monday’s firings. “It’s a difficult day all around, but part of the territory for this business. We recognize that. … We believe we can be super competitive in 2022. This is not in the mode of a full rebuild.”

That is assuming, of course, that the Wilfs get the GM hire right. The pressure is now on them.