Vikings fire coach Mike Zimmer, general manager Rick Spielman
MINNEAPOLIS — On Monday morning, the Minnesota Vikings made what might have been the most sweeping set of leadership changes in the Wilf family's 16 years of owning the team.
The team fired coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman on Monday morning, parting with two men who'd been in their positions longer than most of their peers around the NFL. Both Zimmer and Spielman had two years remaining on the contract extensions they signed in 2020, but a day after the team finished 8-9 and missed the playoffs for the second straight season, the Vikings opted for a total reset.
"This morning we met with Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer to notify them we will be moving in a different direction at the general manager and head coach positions in 2022," co-owners Zygi and Mark Wilf said in a statement. "We appreciate Rick and Mike's commitment to the team's on-field success, their passion for making a positive impact in our community and their dedication to players, coaches and staff. 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 wish both Rick and Mike and their families only the best.
Our comprehensive search for a new general manager and head coach will begin immediately and will be led internally. We are determined to have sustained success and bring Vikings fans the Super Bowl championships they expect and deserve."
Zimmer had led the team to the postseason in three of his first six years, earning a second contract extension from the Wilfs before the 2020 season. Shortly thereafter, the Vikings gave Spielman a three-year deal to match the length of Zimmer's, rewarding the general manager who'd had full control of the roster since 2012 and hired Zimmer to replace Leslie Frazier in 2014.
Zimmer finished his eight years in Minnesota with a 72-56-1 mark, ranking third in team history in wins, games coached (129) and winning percentage (.559). He was the seventh-longest tenured head coach in the NFL; all six who've been in their jobs longer than Zimmer have won Super Bowls.
"There's always going to be finger-pointing and he's the head coach; he's going to have the most responsibility," said linebacker Anthony Barr, the Vikings' first draft pick after Zimmer became head coach in 2014. "That's just kind of the way it is. It's unfortunate. I wish we would've been able to eke out a couple more wins in those tight situations, but the ball didn't bounce our way in some games, we didn't put ourselves in position."
During Spielman's 16 years in the front office, beginning in 2006 when the team made him the vice president of player personnel, the Vikings went 131-123-2, reaching the playoffs six times. They won only three playoff games, though, losing the NFC Championship Game after the 2009 and 2017 seasons. In Spielman's time with the team, the Vikings were one of only four NFC franchises not to reach the Super Bowl (along with Dallas, Washington and Detroit).
The 2009 NFC title game loss, and the fallout from a disastrous 2010 season, 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 instead of free agents, and made a habit of trading back into the first round, selecting seven players on the first night of the draft from 2012-14. Six of those players — Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater — reached Pro Bowls in Minnesota.
But Spielman's inability to solve the Vikings' longstanding need at the quarterback position might have affected his tenure more than anything else.
He selected Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011; Spielman boasted about how Ponder's early statistics compared favorably to passers like 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 with Ponder on the roster. The Vikings went to the playoffs with Ponder in 2012, but the quarterback lost his starting job in 2013, as the Vikings went 5-10-1 with three starting QBs (Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman) during Leslie Frazier's final year as head coach.
As the Vikings tried to solve their quarterback quandary with a deep study on passing prospects before the 2014 draft, they reasoned they could build a contending team in the short term without an elite quarterback.
After Spielman hired Zimmer to replace Leslie Frazier on Jan. 15, 2014, the former Bengals defensive coordinator arrived in Minnesota branding himself a "fixer" who would build the team around a commanding defense, and put together five units that ranked in the top 10 in the league in points allowed from 2015-19.
His best teams — most notably the 2017 team that went 13-3 with the NFL's top defense — led the league in third-down defense, were 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 in the name of pressuring the quarterback.
The 2017 Vikings set a NFL record allowing teams to convert third downs just 25.2% of the time; the 2018 team again led the league in opposing third-down conversion percentage. Players like Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison 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.
For all of his skill as a teacher, schemer and play-caller on defense, though, Zimmer often struggled to establish a foundation in the parts of his job that stretched beyond his background as a defensive coach.
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 just 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, like calling the team "soft" after the Vikings dropped to 5-1 in 2016 or saying Barr had a tendency to coast, occasionally rubbed them the wrong way. 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. 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 the quarterback position, particularly in the final six years of the Spielman/Zimmer regime, remained a problem that demanded considerable resources.
After a catastrophic knee injury in August 2016 derailed the Vikings' plans to build around Bridgewater — the quarterback 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, believing the Vikings' roster was good enough to contend for a championship in the first year of U.S. Bank Stadium.
Bradford's history of knee issues limited him to two games in 2017, when Bridgewater was still recovering from knee surgery. Zimmer would not commit to calling Case Keenum the starting quarterback in 2017, even though Keenum went 11-3 as a starter after filling in for the injured Sam Bradford and helped the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game that year.
With Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater due to become free agents, Zimmer made it clear at the 2018 NFL combine he was leery of spending big money on a quarterback, saying 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 playoff games in 2019, the Vikings went 34-32-1 in four years after signing Cousins. The quarterback has posted some of the best passing seasons 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 an offensive line that ranked among the team's biggest problems for most of Spielman and Zimmer's time together.
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. This season, the Vikings traded back to select Virginia Tech tackle Christian Darrisaw 23rd overall, passing on several pass rushers (like Michigan's Kwity Paye and Miami's Jaelan Phillips) that Zimmer liked. Wyatt Davis, one of the Vikings' four third-round picks, finished the season without playing a regular-season snap.
While Brzezinski, one of the league's most widely-respected salary cap managers, could stay as part of a new regime, the Vikings' new regime will have some work to do.
Minnesota deferred roughly $18 million of salary cap costs into 2022, as part of its 2021 effort 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 also have just four picks in the first five rounds of the draft, after Spielman shipped out a fourth-rounder for lightly-used tight end Chris Herndon this year, and will face a big decision on Cousins, who carries a $45 million cap charge in the final season of his fully-guaranteed deal.