If it wasn't clear already, Sunday night's blowout loss in Green Bay removed all doubt: it's time for the Minnesota Vikings to move on from head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. Not one or the other, but both longtime decision-makers and leaders of a franchise that has been perpetually stuck in NFL purgatory during their tenures.
It may also be time to part ways with quarterback Kirk Cousins, the third piece of a triumvirate that has been an abject failure over the past four seasons, but that's a complex conversation for another day in the near future.
The Vikings were outclassed, dominated, and embarrassed by their hated rivals at Lambeau Field in a game that eliminated Minnesota from playoff contention and wrapped up the No. 1 seed for the Packers. It was essentially over before it started because Cousins was on the COVID list, but that doesn't excuse Zimmer and Spielman from causing things to get to this point. And with how uncompetitive the team looked in all three phases, the presence of Cousins almost certainly wouldn't have been enough to alter the result anyways.
If the Wilfs end up firing their coach and/or GM next week, it will be a decision based on years of underperformance and mediocrity. The Packers loss was merely a jarring nadir in front of a national audience, a lifeless effort that should signal the end of a disturbingly average era of Vikings football.
Let's start with Zimmer, who seems like the safer bet of the two to be let go shortly after the season concludes with Sunday's meaningless game against the Bears (though it sounds like no final decision has been made yet). He has now missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since being hired by the Vikings eight years ago. For a coach who has never made the playoffs twice in a row during his tenure, nor won more than a single game in any postseason, this flop of a season should be the end of the line.
Zimmer was brought in back in 2014 to fix the Vikings' defense and establish a winning culture. Early on in his tenure, he did exactly that. The Vikings won the NFC North in his second season behind an emerging defense and came a Blair Walsh shanked field goal away from a playoff win. Blame for the disappointing 2016 season fell on the offense, and that bad taste was quickly washed out when the Vikings went 13-3 the following year behind the best defense in the league.
But the beginning of the end may have been when Minnesota was blown out 38-7 by the Eagles in the NFC title game. They were overpowered in the trenches and out-coached in that game, which would go on to be recurring themes during many important games in years to come.
Then came the Cousins era and four years of mind-boggling mediocrity. At least in 2018 and 2019, Zimmer's defenses continued to thrive and he could again pin blame on the offensive side of the ball, whether the alleged culprit was playcalling and scheme in '18 or the offensive line in '19. Zimmer's defense fell off in a big way in 2020, letting down a mostly successful offense, but he could argue that was because free agent departures, injuries, and COVID circumstances left the unit devoid of talent.
All of the excuses have dried up this year. Zimmer hand-picked an array of players this offseason to reload his defense — and it failed spectacularly. The Vikings rank 31st in total defense, 25th in scoring defense, and are middle-of-the-pack in defensive DVOA and EPA. They're no better than they were a year ago. Sure, injuries and COVID absences continued, but every single team deals with those. Zimmer needed to elevate the roster he had, and he didn't do that.
During his press conference on Monday, Zimmer pointed out that the Vikings have had a bunch of close losses this year, so the story of the season could be much different if a few of those had gone their way. Guess what? They've also pulled out a number of wins that could've easily been losses. When just about every single game goes down to the wire, regardless of the strength of the opponent, that falls on coaching.
Zimmer's defense hasn't been able to stop the run all year. The secondary has come up empty again and again in big moments. Zimmer's in-game clock management has been poor. His fate arguably should've been sealed when a bizarre late-game defensive strategy led to a loss to the then-winless Lions. His constant outdated insistence that the Vikings need to run the ball more — which popped up again after the Packers loss — makes it easy to understand how the team has gone through six offensive coordinators in the last six years.
It's been a good run in Minnesota for Zimmer. There's no questioning how much he cares about the Vikings franchise and its pursuit of a Super Bowl, considering everything he's been through over the last eight seasons. He's a good football coach who could certainly have success as a head man or defensive coordinator somewhere else in the future, if he decides to pursue that.
But it's time for his tenure with the Vikings to end. Three playoff appearances in eight years just isn't good enough. The franchise needs to try something new.
Onto Spielman, for whom that statement also applies. He's been in Minnesota since 2006 and has been the GM since 2012. It's been thought for several years now that he and Zimmer may be a package deal. That loss to the Packers, in the context of the past four (Cousins), eight (Zimmer), or ten (Spielman) seasons, was more than enough evidence that it's time for major changes from the top down.
Spielman theoretically has more of a case to stick around than Zimmer does. He's shown a proficiency when it comes to trading down in the draft and accumulating value, and has hit on star players like Justin Jefferson, Brian O'Neill, Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, and more.
But Spielman's entire body of work leaves a lot to be desired. His strong suit is the draft, yet four of his five first-round picks between 2016 and 2020 — Laquon Treadwell, Mike Hughes, Garrett Bradbury, and Jeff Gladney — became busts. The trade-down approach hasn't yielded as many hits on Day 3 as you might expect. And not a single one of his four third-round picks in this most recent draft has been able to get on the field this season, which is a concerning development.
Then there are the panic trades. When Irv Smith Jr. suffered a season-ending injury in August, Spielman traded a fourth-round pick to the Jets for tight end Chris Herndon. He has played just 184 snaps this season, with as many combined penalties and drops (four) as catches. That's a remarkable whiff of a move, and it's not a one-time thing for Spielman. He made a similar mistake one year prior, trading a second-round pick for Yannick Ngakoue after Danielle Hunter got hurt, only to flip Ngakoue for a third-rounder two months later when it became clear he wasn't a fit in their defense. Earlier examples include trading a fifth-rounder for Kaare Vedvik only to cut him three weeks later and the 2016 trade of a first-rounder for Sam Bradford.
Perhaps most importantly, there's Spielman's track record of evaluating quarterbacks. If the Vikings are going to move away from Cousins this offseason (or next) and look for a potential QB of the future, history suggests they should have someone other than Spielman leading that search. As the Vikings' VP of Player Personnel from 2006-11, he was part of the group that whiffed on Tarvaris Jackson and Christian Ponder. His first QB pick as GM was Teddy Bridgewater, who didn't appear to be on track to become more than a solid starter before an injury derailed his career. Spielman then didn't draft a QB before the seventh round until taking Mond last year, and that clearly hasn't panned out so far.
And of course, Spielman played a major role in bringing in both Zimmer and Cousins and entering into this cycle of mediocrity.
Like Zimmer, Spielman has had a good run in Minnesota and has done plenty of good things. But it just hasn't led to enough success. These past two seasons proved it and the loss to the Packers drove the point home: it's time for the Vikings to move on from both Zimmer and Spielman and try something new as they head into the future.
Is there risk that comes with moving on from a head coach-GM pairing that sets a safe floor of at least seven wins? Sure there is. But it's clearly a better choice than continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If it takes a down season or two to rebuild and raise the team's ceiling, it would be worth it. If the Wilfs' goal is truly to win a Super Bowl, they need to fire both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman next week.
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