Mike Zimmer: A Retrospective

The Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota will be long remembered by myself and many Vikings fans as his tenure as head coach was our introduction to the team. When I finally found an interest in the sport and the team, Zimmer had just been appointed the prestigious position of head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. I didn’t know much about the sport or team at the time, all I knew was Adrian Peterson was really good, maybe not as a person, and that Leslie Frazier’s time as head coach was underwhelming. What followed this appointment was a rather interesting eight years of Vikings football.

The Beginning of the Zimmer Era
Zimmer’s first impact was the expected impact; a rough, old school defense that stuffed the run and shut down the pass with his demanding play style implemented on his corners, not to mention Harrison Smith quietly emerging as one of the best safeties in the league with an elite defensive IQ. Other staples of the defense were pass rushers Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, first round draft pick Anthony Barr at the second level, and Linval Joseph helping stuff the run with the rest of the rotation.

Zimmer ran an impressive defensive unit that prioritized intensity and made life nearly impossible for quarterbacks. In his first season, Zimmer’s defense ranked 14 among the league, a whole 17 spots above the previous 2013 season where the team ranked an abysmal 31. Sure there were some overhauls in positions, but it’s important to note that Zimmer, for the most part, had taken a bottom tier defense and took it to the middle of the pack in a single season. That’s nothing to scoff at. His defensive acumen was what landed him the job, and until the year of our lord 2020, that defense remained as one of the league’s most vaunted units. Zimmer’s neglect of the offense however, was something that came back to bite him.

In 2013, Minnesota’s offense ranked 13, most notably eighth in rushing thanks to a prime Adrian Peterson. That statistic dropped the following year, mostly attributable to Peterson’s infamous suspension and the quarterback carousel of Cassel, Ponder, and rookie Teddy Bridgewater. It’s hard to blame Zimmer when the offense was in the middle of retooling into a new identity, one that needed to stop relying on Peterson. Bridgewater was far from ready, Ponder’s fate was sealed, and Cassel was at best a game manager.

The 7-9 record the team had was respectable for a first season. However from the get go, Zimmer ran the defense and offense as completely separate units. Makes sense on paper, but for a team as a whole, this separation was unhealthy and only made the offense feel like they were less important. It was Zimmer’s precious defense after all. Just run the ball and everything would be fine.

The Peak of the Zimmer Era
The Years ahead were incredibly back and forth. 2016 started with optimism until Bridgewater’s career altering leg injury. Spielman’s panic trade for Bradford worked for about 5 weeks until things fell apart and the season ended with a disappointing 8-8. 2017, the peak of the Zimmer era, was an unforgettable season for a multitude of reasons.

Zimmer’s defense hit an all time high, the offensive line, which had been incredibly inconsistent up until that point, ranked in the top 10, and most importantly, the offensive unit as a whole was playing incredibly well. Dalvin Cook’s early season ending injury didn’t stop the running game from being incredibly efficient as the one two punch of Murray and Mackinnon was both dynamic and helped the team control the clock in tight situations. Diggs and Thielen were slowly emerging as an elite duo at wide receiver, and most surprising of all, the guy under center was Case Keenum.

Bradford’s iron man streak in the purple and gold came to an end early in the season and Bridgewater was a long way from recovering. Case took the helm and didn’t look back, helping lead the team to a 13-3 season and the number two seed for the playoffs. The all-time playoff classic against the Saints had Vikings fans over the moon. It would take divine intervention to stop this team, his name was Nick Foles.

The Decline of the Zimmer Era
Kirk Cousins, one of the most polarizing names in Minnesota sports. His arrival in 2018 felt like a no brainer, but after going through two offensive coordinators and a rough schedule, plus the emergence of a Chicago Bears team that made the best offenses look like a Division 1 high school team, the team finished with and 8-7-1 record, and the birth of the weirdest narrative in Kirk’s career; his inability to win big games.

The entire time the season felt like a farce. Sure, Minnesota had started off the season strong and they were beating weak opponents. But then Josh Allen happened, and we were all reminded that once a year Zimmer just decides out of the blue to play down to competition and it really hit him in the ass here. The missed overtime field goal at Lambeau led to what was an ultimately irrational release of Daniel Carlson. The entire season it felt like the team just wasn’t playing up to their potential. The next season was a prove it year for the team, or else some heads would have to roll.

The Conclusion of the Zimmer Era
2019 was acceptable. I know a lot of Vikings fans relish in the playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, and the emergence of Kirk and Cook having career seasons, hell my favorite moment as a Vikings fan happened that season. Kirk’s clinical comeback against the Broncos, a team we shouldn’t have been losing to in the first place, was a football core memory for me. I’ll never forget Kyle Rudolph’s wide open touchdown, but people forget that season ended in the divisional round. That’s not that great of an accomplishment for a team that still had super bowl ambitions.

Then the off-season rolled around and Spielman made some cap conscious decisions. He gutted the veteran defense in an attempt to avoid their worst years and make way for the younger talent as the team was transitioning, but that’s never a great idea with a team that was already just narrowly making the playoffs.

The 2020 season was a disaster and arguably should’ve been Zimmer’s last season as the writing was already on the wall. The young defense struggled to gain consistency, Kirk’s early struggles forced Minnesota into chase mode, and the offensive line was once again below average. Other than the emergence of Justin Jefferson, 2020 was a hard season to stomach. Beating the packers is always nice but what’s nicer is actually being in the playoffs. Hunter was out for the year thanks to his infamous “tweak” and his replacement was traded for less than what Minnesota had given up for him in the first place.

It was an all around disappointment and should’ve marked the end of the Zimmer era, but Spielman pressed on as if Zimmer got the sack, he’d also likely be given the same fate. You don’t usually get to pick that many head coaches as a general manager. It was nut up or shut up for Zimmer and Spielman in 2021, and they chose the latter.

I’m not going to dwell too much on this season as it’s still fresh in our minds and we all already know the problems. The playing down to competition, the collapses in the final two minutes, and the constant drama that was coming from the team left and right. The offense tried their best but at times it felt as though the defense was holding them back, almost as much as Zimmer’s old school approach. The problem with playing 70s football in 2021 seems pretty obvious but Zimmer’s stubbornness made it so if he was going down, he was taking the season with him. Zimmer and Spielman got the sack shortly after the season ended with an 8-9 record, a year too late if you ask me.

After the Zimmer Era
After the firing, all kinds of drama surfaced from players and staff alike. Team leaders such as Eric Kendricks and Brian O’Neill didn’t pull any punches when talking about how the team was institutionally run with fear. There was no positivity, no reinforcement. Rookies were neglected and publicly shamed in interviews, just ask Kellen Mond how that felt, and the relationship within the team’s triangle of power was just abysmal. Spielman and Zimmer were butting heads constantly, spiting each other whenever possible, and of course Zimmer’s infamous hatred of Cousins. The two didn’t even watch film together until this past season. That’s mind blowingly embarrassing on Zimmer’s part. He never even tried to get along with Kirk. In fairness, he never wanted Kirk and Spielman didn’t listen, but Zimmer never even gave it an effort. He was stubborn until the end and honestly, it’s good riddance in that regard.

Zimmer definitely stabled the franchise after Frazier, there’s no doubt about that. He came in, set a standard, and reached some great heights. And who knows, maybe in an alternate universe they beat the Eagles and win the Super Bowl in their own stadium. That pipe dream is long gone though, and all that’s left is Zimmer’s awkward mess. There is optimism however.

Many are excited to see what Kwesi and Kevin O’Connell bring to the table, myself included. Team morale has already drastically improved. There’s a new era in Minnesota, and Spielman’s hodgepodge of a roster is going to be put to the test with an actual functioning coaching staff. Fingers crossed for an 11 win season.

A Final Reflection of the Zimmer Era
10 years from now, we’ll probably look back on these years with slight envy but mostly relief as the team would no longer be stuck in the past. Zimmer’s old school approach was his ultimate undoing, and his vaunted defense ironically became a liability as Kirk and the offense had to bail them out on multiple occasions. Hell, they’ve been doing that since the Minneapolis Miracle.

It also partially depends on how the Kwesi O’Connell era goes, but for the most part, the Zimmer era may just be one of Minnesota’s what ifs. What if Blair Walsh hadn’t missed? Perhaps Bridgewater stays healthy? Maybe the team remembers there was a game after the divisional round in 2018? What if this, what if that, all of them hypotheticals, and all of them in the past. It’s just best to look forward to what the future has in store, because nothing can be worse than Sean Mannion during a cold night at Lambeau.

This may have been long winded, but as tumultuous as Zimmer’s run was, he at least deserved a proper sendoff. Well I don’t know about proper, but he definitely got a sendoff. You never forget your first head coach, and with the ups and downs, I can say thank you Zimmer. Please never coach a football team again, sincerely, the state of Minnesota.