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Zulgad: Who stays, who goes? How the Rick Spielman-Mike Zimmer situation will play out

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 18, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (L) speaks with general manager Rick Spielman (R) prior to their game against the Kansas City Chiefs at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings’ regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium carries no intrigue. The game must be played because the schedule mandates it, but the sooner it finishes the better. That’s when the real action will start.

General manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer could both be shown the door as early as Monday and, if that’s the case, there’s a long list of players who might not be back, including quarterback Kirk Cousins. A CBS Sports report on Saturday indicated decisions have been made and that Zimmer will be out.

That’s what happens when a team signs a quarterback to a huge free agent contract and makes only one playoff appearance (with one win) in four years. It doesn’t help when the final two seasons, the team finishes under .500. So what’s going to happen in the aftermath of an extremely disappointing 2021?

RICK SPIELMAN

There is a chance the longtime Vikings executive will be fired, but it seems more likely that Spielman will end up with a new title. That title will indicate a promotion, but the reality will be his involvement with player personnel decisions and the draft will be greatly reduced, if not completely eliminated.

Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have been loyal to Spielman since he was hired in May 2006 as the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel after Fran Foley was fired during a short but rocky run in that same position. Spielman remained in that role until he was promoted to general manager after a 3-13 season in 2011 under Leslie Frazier. That gave Spielman authority over the roster — something he didn’t have under Brad Childress and in Frazier’s first season as coach — and he played a key role in Frazier being dismissed after a 5-10-1 finish in 2013.

Spielman brought in Zimmer and now again could be around after a coach is fired. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reported in December that Spielman could be promoted into a “cushy senior role” and that still remains likely.

The question is how cushy the role would be? The Wilfs are huge football fans, and are closing out their 16th season as NFL owners, but they have long relied on Spielman and their coach for guidance and firing both would leave them having to make decisions they might not be comfortable making.

There’s a legitimate case to be made that giving Spielman a major say in his successor, or when it comes to the next coach, would be a mistake. But the guess here is the Wilfs don’t have enough confidence in themselves to jettison Spielman. They also are smart enough to realize it’s time for a new general manager to evaluate the roster, take over the draft and have the biggest say in hiring the coach.

Some very tough and unpopular decisions are going to have to be made and any personal relationships that exist will only get in the way.

The verdict: Spielman sticks around, with a new title, that will give him less to do with the football operation.

MIKE ZIMMER

Zimmer has been acting like a coach who is about to get fired, and anything short of him being dismissed on Monday would be a surprise.

The 65-year-old is completing his eighth season as Vikings’ coach and is 71-56-1 with three playoff appearances. Zimmer took a 13-3 team to the NFC title game in 2017 before losing to the Eagles, and his 10-6 Vikings upset New Orleans in the first round in 2019 before losing at San Francisco.

Zimmer and Spielman both received contract extensions for three years after that season — there were rumors Zimmer would be fired, or even traded to Dallas, if the Vikings had lost to the Saints — so he will have to be paid by the Vikings in 2022 and 2023, even if he’s no longer on the sideline.

Zimmer, a longtime successful defensive coordinator in the NFL, was hired by Spielman to improve a defense that was last in the NFL in points allowed and second to last in yards in Frazier’s final year. Zimmer had the Vikings in the Top 10 in points surrendered from 2015 through 2019, but the past two years have seen a drastic fall.

With Zimmer still calling the defensive plays, that unit is 25th in points given up and 31st in yards allowed after being 29th and 27th last season. Zimmer vowed that that would improve, and Spielman made plenty of changes on defense, but the Vikings have battled injuries and COVID issues this season and Zimmer seems to have run out of answers.

It’s also probably going to be seen as a strike against Zimmer that he agreed to promote Klint Kubiak from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Klint’s father, Gary, stepped away as the Vikings’ OC after last season. The Vikings have fallen from fourth in the NFL last season in yards to 12th and 11th to 14th in points. The 34-year-old Kubiak has looked overmatched at times and relying on an inexperienced and young assistant to take on this big of a role was a mistake.

Zimmer’s dismissal doesn’t need to be acrimonious. The Vikings didn’t win as much as they would have liked with him, but he put a competitive team on the field for much of his tenure and many of the off-the-field issues that previously arose with this franchise were curtailed.

Zimmer is the ninth head coach in Vikings’ history and he probably only ranks behind Bud Grant and Dennis Green when it comes to the top of the list.  This is simply a case of it being time for a change.

The verdict: Zimmer is fired on Monday and lands as an NFL defensive coordinator next season, if he decides he doesn’t want to take a year off.

KIRK COUSINS

This one is going to play out far slower than the potential moves with Spielman and Zimmer, but if both are gone, or at least if Spielman is in a different role, it won’t be surprising to see Cousins with a new team next season.

Signed to a three-year, $84 million free agent contract in 2018, with the thought that he could immediately lead the Vikings to a Super Bowl championship, Cousins will be ending his fourth year in Minnesota with back-to-back sub-.500 seasons and with one playoff appearance, one victory and no NFC North titles.

The Vikings’ initial decision to sign Cousins to replace Case Keenum after the 2017 season was a good gamble. Signing him to a two-year, $66 million extension in March 2020 wasn’t, but the Vikings had to do something to clear salary-cap space.

Whoever is running this franchise in 2022, will face the same dilemma. Cousins is set to make $35 million next season in the final year of his current contract and will carry a $45 million salary-cap hit. The cap is scheduled to increase to $208.2 million, but Cousins still would take up 21.6 percent of that. The Vikings could either try to extend Cousins again, or trade him. That would give the Vikings a cap savings of $35 million and a manageable dead money hit of $10 million.

The most logical path to a trade would be for Cousins to approve a deal and agree to work an extension with his new club that would give the 33-year-old a multiyear contract and save his team more money against the cap. The Vikings likely would be looking for a first-round pick, and a desperate team, like Cleveland, might be willing to offer that.

Of course, there is a chance a new GM and coach could look at Cousins and the Vikings’ offense and think the QB might be worth an extension and begin cutting salary from elsewhere. But the goal should be for a new GM to find a quarterback in the draft in order to create big cap space with a productive young player whose style fits today’s game more than Cousins’.

Ultimately Spielman’s inability to find that young quarterback is a big reason these changes are likely to be made.

The verdict: Cousins is traded by the Vikings — the deal wouldn’t be official until the new league year opens on March 16 — and the search for a quarterback begins anew.