The Vikings parted ways with Mike Zimmer on Monday after eight seasons, 72 wins, three playoff berths and two playoff wins. The now 65-year-old took over in Eden Prairie back in 2014 as a perpetually overlooked, longtime defensive coordinator known more for his leathery personality than his ability to run a franchise. That quickly changed when Zimmer won 11 games in his second year and 13 games in his fourth season, with Case Keenum under center and Latavius Murray as his featured back. Zimmer came to define a team that was almost always competitive and represented an adequate foil to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. It’s often impossible to share a division with a generational quarterbacking talent, but the Vikings managed to win the division twice during Zimmer’s tenure despite some unfortunate circumstances.
Zimmer’s tenure was dotted with both on- and off-field instances of horrendous luck. Blair Walsh’s missed 27-yard field goal in the 2015 season’s playoffs deprived the No. 3 seed Vikings a shot at matching up against the formidable but flawed Panthers, who eventually reached the Super Bowl. First-round pick Teddy Bridgewater sustained a horrific knee injury that nearly ended his career, and effectively removed him from the Vikings’ roster, forcing the team to hunt for adequate quarterback play. The quest took them from dealing a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, to Keenum, to Kirk Cousins, who received the NFL’s first fully guaranteed contract in free agency.
WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
Despite a slew of notable offensive stars, Zimmer’s loaded defense suffered continuous decay over the years, ending up in 2021 to be a patchwork quilt held together by the mastery of veteran, 32-year-old safety Harrison Smith. Unfortunately, Zimmer’s schematic prowess was not enough to pilot a unit that lacked any kind of presence up front and was unbearably weak at cornerback. The injection of longtime NFL megastar Patrick Peterson was not enough to bolster a unit that surrendered one of the most notable passing touchdowns of the year: a last-second, game-winner at the hands of Jared Goff and the Lions, giving the lowly franchise its first victory of the year.
WAS IT THE RIGHT MOVE?
Yes. With Aaron Rodgers’s revival in Green Bay seemingly tying the quarterback to the NFC North for another handful of seasons, it’s time the Vikings rethought themselves schematically and brought in some new blood. Justin Jefferson is a star player, and Adam Thielen, even at 31, is as effective a mismatch as there is on the outside in the NFL. Dalvin Cook remains an elite talent. With a few defensive upgrades via the draft and free agency (and some tremendous luck in the health department) the Vikings could easily compete in the NFC North. While we don’t know what the long-term future of Cousins will be beyond 2022 (it would be difficult to trade him before then), it would also help to get a second perspective on his skill set before moving on from a player who will still be good enough in his early 30s to occupy a starting role somewhere.
WHO SHOULD REPLACE HIM?
If the Vikings hope to stay in the defensive realm (Zimmer replaced Leslie Frazier, now the Bills’ defensive coordinator and another potential head coaching candidate this cycle), I said on our last episode of The MMQB podcast that Matt Eberflus from the Colts makes a ton of sense for a few reasons. The first is that Eberflus has done more with less defensively than any coach I can remember in recent history. I’d love to see how he takes his stunt-heavy approach and pours that creativity into a Minnesota front that has some relative heft but not much else. Eberflus is disguising his coverages in ways the NFL has not seen. Might that be a helpful approach long-term against Aaron Rodgers? Also working for Eberflus is his ties to a Colts offensive staff that may be the next trendy “tree” from which a good deal of coordinators and QB coaches are plucked.
Some other names that make sense here:
• Mike McDaniel, offensive coordinator, 49ers: If you’re going to compete with the Packers, you run outside zone. McDaniel is Kyle Shanahan’s longtime run guru and could bring with him a host of brilliant assistants from the West Coast to supercharge an offense that Kirk Cousins is already familiar with (and is quite fond of). McDaniel seems to be flying soundly under the radar during this cycle, which is difficult to understand. A deep thinker with a unique, personable approach to players, the Yale graduate is a different kind of candidate, but one the modern player would likely appreciate.
• Jerod Mayo, linebackers coach, Patriots: With Brian Flores recovering his footing well in Miami, the wrap on Bill Belichick assistants has recovered somewhat. Mayo is energetic and could represent a personality juxtaposition for the Vikings that could galvanize the locker room.
• Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Buccaneers: I hesitated to put Bowles on a lot of specific team candidate lists because he has it really great in Tampa. He’s the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the NFL. He’s working for a head coach that gets his staff out of the building at a generous hour. He’s in beautiful weather and has the benefit of any cracks in the defense being smoothed over by the performances of the greatest quarterback in NFL history. But … Minnesota is a good job with a stable QB situation in a place where ownership has shown patience. Bowles leapt at a bad opportunity on his first go-round. He won’t do that again. How does taking the reins from Bruce Arians eventually in Tampa compare to coaching the Vikings now?