In a sweeping set of moves unlike any they’ve made since they bought the team in 2005, Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf fired coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman on Monday, a day after the conclusion of consecutive losing seasons that had exhausted the Wilfs’ patience with both men.
Spielman, who had been with the team since 2006, hired Zimmer to replace Leslie Frazier in 2014. Both had two years remaining on the contract extensions they signed in 2020, but after the team finished 8-9 and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Wilfs opted for a total reset.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we, as an ownership, try to think long-term,” Mark Wilf said at a Monday news conference. “We know we want to be consistent, but at the same time we evaluated where we’ve been. … We’re clearly disappointed in the football results this year, and over the past few weeks, this is something we’ve been thinking and deliberating quite a bit.”
Mark Wilf said the Vikings had already begun both searches, but would hire a GM first so the person could help pick the head coach.
The tenures of Spielman and Zimmer had strings of success. Zimmer finished his eight seasons with a 72-56-1 mark, trailing only Bud Grant and Dennis Green in games coached (129) and winning percentage (.562) among the Vikings’ nine head coaches. The Vikings were 131-123-2, with six playoff trips, in Spielman’s 16 years.
But their struggles often centered on the same position: Quarterback.
A disastrous 2010 season and three-win year in 2011 led the Wilfs to abandon the “triangle of authority” power structure that gave Spielman, the head coach and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski equal say over the roster. Ownership made Spielman the GM in 2012; he promised to build a contending roster with homegrown players, and stockpiled top-end talent, taking seven first-round picks from 2012-14. Six — Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater — became Pro Bowlers.
But Spielman’s inability to solve the Vikings’ longstanding need at quarterback might have affected his tenure more than anything else.
He selected Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011. Spielman talked about how Ponder’s early statistics compared favorably to passers such as Eli Manning and Drew Brees, and passed on Russell Wilson (whom the Vikings coaches loved after working with him at the Senior Bowl) in the third round of the 2012 draft. The Vikings went to the playoffs with Ponder in 2012, but the quarterback lost his starting job in 2013 and the Vikings went 5-10-1 during Frazier’s final season.
As the Vikings tried to solve their quarterback quandary before the 2014 draft, ranking Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel slightly above Teddy Bridgewater on their draft board, they reasoned they could build a contending team around a developing passer.
Zimmer, the former Bengals defensive coordinator, arrived in Minnesota branding himself a “fixer” who would construct a commanding defense. His units ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed each year from 2015-19.
His best teams — most notably the 2017 team that went 13-3 with the NFL’s top defense — were brilliant on third downs, ranked among the least-penalized clubs in the NFL and pressured quarterbacks with Zimmer’s oft-imitated blitz disguises complementing a four-man rush that didn’t sacrifice run responsibilities on the way to the quarterback.
Players such as Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Barr, Rhodes and Smith became Pro Bowlers who earned lucrative second contracts from the team. Zimmer’s teams effectively battled Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a stalemate, earning hard-won respect from the three-time MVP, who often praised the coach’s system and the players’ skill in executing it.
Zimmer struggled in parts of his job beyond his defensive background.
He went through six offensive coordinators in his final six years with the team. While two (Pat Shurmur and Kevin Stefanski) left Minnesota for head coaching jobs, Norv Turner resigned midway through his third season, Zimmer fired John DeFilippo after 13 games in 2018 and offensive coaches privately aired frustrations about their working constraints, particularly with how much Zimmer wanted the Vikings to run the ball.
While players praised Zimmer’s candor, calling it refreshing to know where they stood, his brusque remarks didn’t sit well with some players. The coach became more sensitive to managing players’ workloads in his later years, but his penchant for strenuous practices wore down some Vikings teams in his earlier seasons, as players’ initial requests for changes went unmet. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs left the team for three days in 2019 and was traded after the season, following a period of discontent over his role in the offense.
And finding a starting quarterback, particularly in the final six years of the Spielman/Zimmer regime, remained a problem that demanded considerable resources.
“While these decisions are not easy, we believe it is time for new leadership to elevate our team so we can consistently contend for championships. . . . We are determined to have sustained success and bring Vikings fans the Super Bowl championships they expect and deserve.”
After a catastrophic knee injury in August 2016 derailed the Vikings’ plans to build around Bridgewater — with whom Zimmer became close after the Vikings drafted him 32nd overall in 2014 — Spielman traded a first- and fourth-round pick to Philadelphia for Sam Bradford, who started 15 games in 2016 but played only two because of his longstanding knee issues in 2017.
Even though Case Keenum won a key Monday night game in relief of the injured Bradford and went 11-3 as a starter that year before leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game on the “Minneapolis Miracle,” Zimmer never called Keenum his starter. Instead of conducting the starting QB’s customary Wednesday news conference, Keenum talked each week in a scrum near his locker.
Zimmer made his concerns with spending big money on a QB clear at the 2018 NFL combine, with Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater due to become free agents. Zimmer said he’d told Spielman, “‘Look, we’ve had a good team; that’s why we’ve won 40 games [over the previous four seasons]. It’s not because we’ve had this one guy or that one guy. Let’s make sure we keep understanding the team is why we have done good things.'”
The Vikings gave Kirk Cousins a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal weeks later, however, and the coach never seemed to click with the quarterback to whom he would be tied for the rest of his time in Minnesota. Sources described Zimmer’s relationship with Cousins as distant; the weekly meetings they held this year, at Cousins’ request, helped build some common ground between the two, but they never became close.
Counting two 2019 playoff games, the Vikings went 34-32-1 in four years after signing Cousins. The quarterback posted some of the best passing statistics in Vikings history, but like Bridgewater and Keenum before him, Cousins was one of the most-pressured passers in the NFL, as the Vikings tried in vain to solve their offensive line issues.
The team committed nearly $120 million to free agents in 2016 and 2017 before using six picks in the first three rounds of the draft on offensive linemen from 2017-21. Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw, this year’s first-round pick, missed four games after groin surgery in August; Wyatt Davis, one of the Vikings’ four third-round picks, did not play a regular-season snap.
While Brzezinski, one of the league’s most skilled salary cap managers, figures to stay, the Vikings’ new GM and coach will have some work to do.
Minnesota deferred roughly $18 million of salary cap costs into 2022, trying to field a competitive roster that could save Spielman’s and Zimmer’s jobs while dealing with a lower cap because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vikings have only four picks in the first five rounds, after Spielman dealt a fourth-rounder for lightly-used tight end Chris Herndon, and will face a big decision on Cousins, who carries a $45 million cap charge in the final season of his fully-guaranteed deal.