MINNEAPOLIS – The week leading into the Minnesota Vikings’ NFC wild-card appearance was riddled with speculation surrounding coach Mike Zimmer’s future. The rumor mill was on the verge of spinning out of control, so much so that Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf released a statement 48 hours before his team beat the New Orleans Saints in overtime at the Superdome.
“We value Mike and Rick’s leadership,” the statement said of Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman, “and we have every intent of Mike continuing as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Rick leading our football operations, next year and beyond,” the statement read.
Wilf’s statement refuted rumors the Vikings were considering parting ways with Zimmer if the team had failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. There also was chatter that Dallas, on the verge of firing Jason Garrett, wanted to bring Zimmer back as its next head coach some 14 years after he left his job as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. The only way that would have happened is if the Vikings had traded Zimmer to Jerry Jones in exchange for who knows what.
In the end, the Wilf family followed through with its intent, albeit at the 11th hour, by giving Zimmer, 64, a multiyear contract extension that keeps him at the helm of the Vikings as they aim to string together back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time during his tenure. It’s an extension that not only provides Minnesota with stability during an unprecedented season amid a global pandemic but also gives Zimmer the luxury of time to see his vision through.
Zimmer had one year left on his old deal, which was set to expire after this season. Talks on an extension began shortly after the Vikings’ season ended in the divisional playoffs, sources told ESPN, but took far longer than expected to come to fruition. On the day rookies are reporting to TCO Performance Center for their initial COVID-19 tests, Zimmer agreed to terms of a deal that solidifies his future entering his seventh season in Minnesota.
If all goes according to plan, Minnesota should be Zimmer’s last stop as a head coach before retiring.
The Wilfs defused a situation that could have been a major distraction at the start of training camp. In reaffirming their belief in Zimmer’s leadership, Vikings owners believe that continuity, the buzzword that has been used to describe what will help Minnesota reach its goals, particularly for the offense in 2020, starts at the top.
The Wilfs are essentially signing themselves up for more of the same, and in their minds that’s exactly what this team needs – not an overhaul of management and direction – to earn its first Lombardi trophy.
The ability to win consistently with defense has been made more difficult in an innovative league where passing concepts are constantly tweaked and retweaked for competitive advantage. In an era where pass-happy teams and flashy quarterback play dominate the spotlight, Zimmer has never wavered from his belief in defense, which has led him to compile the third-winningest record in franchise history at 57-38-1 (.599) with three postseason appearances in six years. His defenses in Minnesota have ranked no lower than ninth in scoring over the past five years, achieving top-five finishes in 2015 and 2019 and a No. 1 mark in 2017.
The turnaround has been swift from seven months ago, when Zimmer and Spielman (more on that in a minute) had their futures in question.
The Vikings entered the offseason amid a host of uncertainty about whether their roster would be good enough in 2020 to get one step closer to reaching the NFC Championship again.
In the same week Minnesota traded wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, Zimmer parted ways with five starters and four others for a total of nine losses on the defensive side of the ball. Even after signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a two-year contract extension, which was an all-in move, the Vikings would face a roster revamp that would shape the direction of the franchise for the next few years.
Expectations to win it all in 2020 would have been unrealistic. Zimmer choosing to push for a multiyear extension is backed by his track record for success and what he undoubtedly knows he needs to make this thing come together: time.
Since being afforded that luxury, the Vikings’ 2020 season is less of a pressure cooker and more of a chance to focus on player development before expectations peak for 2021.
The draft haul Spielman and his staff pulled off in April earned rave reviews around the NFL. The talent brought in with Justin Jefferson, Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland and 12 others will be what Zimmer uses this season to build for the future.
Of course, relying on rookies and new faces to fill the roles once occupied by veterans like Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander will come with its share of lumps. But dismantling parts of the defense with a chance to start over with young talent could be the best thing for the long-term health of Zimmer’s unit, which he and the Vikings expect to win with consistently.
With Zimmer’s deal done, the attention shifts to what’s next for Spielman. Since Zimmer arrived in 2014, both he and Spielman have had their contracts aligned. While a deal has yet to be reached with the Vikings GM, sources indicated one is likely forthcoming and should solidify the future of both men in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.
And that’s the way things should happen with the Wilfs pushing all their chips to the center of the table with the two men who have been responsible for guiding the franchise over the last seven seasons. A lot of things broke the Vikings’ way in 2017, but it won’t be luck the Wilfs rely on to get their team back to the NFC Championship and then perhaps one step further.
It’s the belief that Zimmer and Spielman are the best duo to help the Vikings accomplish their goals.