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The Vikings Probably Won't Fire Mike Zimmer After Loss to Lions, But His Time is Running Out

Zimmer played a direct role in several key aspects of the Vikings' disastrous loss to Detroit.

The Vikings' catastrophic loss to the previously-winless Lions on Sunday dropped them to 5-7 on the season and reignited conversations about head coach Mike Zimmer's job security.

It seems highly unlikely that the Vikings will fire Zimmer on Monday morning, for several reasons. They're on a short week with the Steelers coming to Minneapolis for Thursday Night Football four days from now, so that would be an awfully quick turnaround for an interim coach. Also, because of the expanded playoffs, the Vikings are still alive in the NFC wild card picture despite their horrific loss in Detroit. At 5-7, they're just one game out of the No. 7 seed with five games left to play, so they might view firing Zimmer now as sending the wrong message to the team.

But make no mistake, Zimmer's seat is hotter right now than it has ever been, and time is running out on his eight-year run in Minnesota.

Go back in time almost exactly 20 years and you'll find an eerily similar parallel in Vikings history. The 2001 Vikings were 5-7 when they traveled to Detroit to take on the 0-12 Lions in Week 14. They trailed that game 20-7 at halftime, went on a run to take a four-point lead in the second half, but ultimately lost 27-24. Head coach Dennis Green, in the tenth season of a successful run, was fired a couple weeks later.

The 2021 Vikings were 5-6 when they traveled to take on the 0-10-1 Lions. They trailed 20-6 at halftime, went on a run to take a four-point lead in the second half, but ultimately lost 29-27. If history repeats itself, this loss will be one of the final blows that leads to the end of Zimmer's tenure.

The difference between the two? Green was 97-62 (.610) with eight playoff appearances and four playoff wins in ten seasons. Zimmer is 69-54-1 (.560) with three playoff appearances and two playoff wins in seven (going on eight) seasons. Zimmer hasn't had the same level of success as Green, and even that wasn't enough to save the latter's job.

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A big part of the case for firing Zimmer — whether it comes after a potential loss to the Steelers this week or at the end of the year — is that he has directly contributed to several of the Vikings' close losses this season, most notably this latest disaster. It was Zimmer's defense that gave up 20 points in the second quarter to a Lions team that hadn't scored 20 points in a game since Week 1. It was Zimmer's defense that allowed Jared Goff to go 75 yards in two timeout-less minutes to win the game at the very end. He was the one who decided not to bring any pressure on Goff on that drive, which allowed the Detroit QB to pick apart the Vikings' secondary.

Zimmer's in-game decisions — things like clock management, timeouts, and challenges — have left plenty be desired all year and throughout his tenure. That popped up again on Sunday in Detroit. Hindsight is 20/20, but Zimmer's decision to go for it on fourth down late in the first half cost the Vikings three points, and his decision to go for two after the Vikings' first touchdown ended up costing them three points as well because they had to continue going for two after that. His two late timeouts also gave the Lions a chance to get organized before their game-winning touchdown.

This entire season, and this loss in particular, have felt like pretty compelling evidence that the Vikings need to make major changes before next year. Conversations about the futures of Rick Spielman and Kirk Cousins also need to be had, but those are for another day. Zimmer is the head coach, and it seems like the Vikings have hit their ceiling with him in charge. 

The 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the 2017 NFC championship game might've been the beginning of the end. The 27-10 loss to the 49ers in the 2019 playoffs was another example of the Vikings falling flat and getting dominated in the trenches in the biggest of moments. And although the disappointing 5-7 record this season hasn't been entirely Zimmer's fault, he's the head coach. At some point, when every single game comes down to the final play regardless of the quality of the opponent, that falls on him.

Zimmer is great defensive mind who players love. He's had a strong run in Minnesota. But the Vikings' instability on offense has been a theme during his tenure, his in-game management is a liability more often than an asset, and his defenses are no longer getting the job done when they need to.

A loss to the winless Lions carries a different amount of weight than a typical loss. So  although Zimmer getting fired right away is unlikely, it's beginning to feel more and more likely that this is his final season in Minnesota. Even if the Vikings do manage to turn their season around down the stretch and make the playoffs — which is a daunting but still possible task at this point — it's probably time to make a change heading into 2022.

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