Following the hiring of new Head Coach Kevin O’Connell in February, optimism has filled the air in Minnesota. It seems to be a new era of Vikings football under O’Connell and the rest of the newly hired coaching staff. The departure of former Head Coach Mike Zimmer certainly left a sour taste in the mouths of Vikings fans. However, Zimmer’s eight years in Minnesota were far more successful than his current reputation conveys.
Before he was fired, Zimmer had been the seventh longest tenured head coach in the NFL, meaning he had outlasted many other coaches in the league. Most coaches who are looked back on in disdain typically only survived as a head coach for a couple of seasons and failed to receive a contract extension. Yet Zimmer was able to secure an extension as recent as 2020. So clearly, several things went right during Zimmer’s time in Minnesota. But do they outweigh the several things which went wrong and resulted in his dismissal just two seasons after the extension?
A Fairly Successful Stint
A simple look at each of Zimmer’s eight seasons signals that the Vikings were far from the disaster that the attitudes about Zimmer may imply. Under Zimmer, the Vikings never finished a season with fewer than seven wins and posted a cumulative record of 72-56-1. Zimmer’s win percentage matches those of Hall of Fame coaches Bill Parcells and Chuck Noll. While Zimmer’s playoff resumé is far from Parcells’ or Noll’s, he did have some playoff success. In 2015, the Vikings finished as the third best team in the NFC, but lost in the Wild Card Round due to a missed Blair Walsh field goal. In 2017, the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game following a spectacular 13-3 season. And in 2019, the Vikings shocked the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card Round with an overtime victory. Although far from outstanding, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings were never a below average team.
O”Connell now inherits a roster which, similar to the Zimmer Era, is capable of winning in the near future. However, O’Connell’s reign comes with much more uncertainty. Zimmer never led a bad football team and Vikings fans could annually expect to be .500 or better. Given the struggles of last season’s first-year head coaches, the Vikings succeeding early on is far from a guarantee in 2022. Only time will tell if O’Connell will outperform Zimmer, but it is significant to emphasize that Zimmer always kept the Vikings away from the bottom of the league’s rankings.
Protecting the Football
Whether the seasons coached by Zimmer are viewed as successful or disappointing, some qualities of the Zimmer-led Vikings are irrefutable. To begin with, the Vikings were one of the best teams at limiting turnovers over Zimmer’s eight years. Over this time, the Vikings ranked in the top five in fewest interceptions thrown in five different seasons and top ten in fewest total turnovers in five different seasons. While much of the credit can be given to the quarterbacks, Zimmer’s offensive philosophy certainly influenced this ability to protect the football. Instead of taking dangerous risks which could put the ball in harm’s way, Zimmer resorted to a heavy run scheme used to set up easier pass plays. Although often criticized for encouraging conservative play-calling, Zimmer and the Vikings were able to win many games due to this approach.
Limiting turnovers could become much more challenging under Coach O’Connell. The Vikings offense will be switching gears into a more open offense with fewer runs and more big play opportunities. While this sounds appealing, protecting the football becomes much more challenging in such a system. During O’Connell’s three years serving as the Offensive Coordinator in Washington and Los Angeles, his offenses never ranked in the top half of the league in terms of fewest interceptions thrown or fewest total turnovers. Although never the play caller, O’Connell has already made it evident that his offense will emulate those that he previously coached. Vikings fans should expect a significant twist in play-calling, but likely also an increase in turnovers.
Pass Rushing Specialist
Another undeniable characteristic of Mike Zimmer’s teams was their success at rushing the passer. From 2014-2021, the Vikings ranked in the top ten in total sacks in six seasons thanks to Zimmer. This included a second place finish in this category in 2021 despite losing star edge rusher Danielle Hunter midway through the season to injury. Even with D.J. Wonnum leading the pass rush, the Vikings consistently put up impressive sack numbers. Although criticized for a lack of creativity, Zimmer excelled at scheming favorable matchups for his defensive line and incorporating linebackers and defensive backs into the pass rush. Zimmer’s vaunted tactics allowed the Vikings to have one of the best third down defenses of all time in 2017 and another top ranked third down defense in 2018. One of the biggest highlights from Zimmer’s stint in Minnesota was the Vikings’ surprising win over the Saints in the 2019 Playoffs. As major underdogs, the Vikings needed something special. On obvious passing downs, Zimmer placed four edge rushers on the defensive line and it worked to perfection. Some of the biggest plays in the game were Vikings’ sacks, which ultimately helped win a playoff game.
With the loss of Zimmer and a defensive scheme change, the future production of the Vikings’ pass rush is difficult to predict. New Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell and his formerly coached Denver Broncos ranked only 17th, 8th, and 18th in sacks from 2019-2021. These rankings are fine, but do not compare to Zimmer’s. Although key personnel in the Broncos’ pass rush experienced injuries during Donatell’s time in Denver, Zimmer proved that even less talented players can produce sacks under the right scheme. Under the new system, players like Hunter and Wonnum will have to learn to play a new position at outside linebacker, which could take some time to adapt to. While the Vikings hold a skilled set of pass rushers, elite sack production is no longer a sure thing.
Winning the Border Battle
Lastly, Zimmer rose to the occasion most when battling the rival Green Bay Packers. His success against the Vikings’ primary competitor in the division is extremely undervalued and often goes unnoticed. Over his eight years, Zimmer had an 8-7-1 record against the Packers. Although seemingly average, this record against a perennial Super Bowl contender demonstrates Zimmer’s ability to challenge the toughest of opponents. In contrast, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has an 8-4 record against the Vikings in games that Zimmer did not coach. Rodgers’ spectacular .653 win percentage has certainly taken a hit due to his encounters with Zimmer. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has dominated both the rival Chicago Bears (22-5) and Detroit Lions (18-6), but has lacked the same success against the Vikings. From 2015-2018, Zimmer’s defense held the all-time passer rating leader to a rating under 100 in six games. One of these games included a duel for the NFC North crown in 2015 in which the Vikings emerged victorious. Vikings fans have been dismayed by continuous .500 records, but a .500 record against Green Bay seems desirable.
O’Connell’s success against the Packers will rely on different aspects of the game considering he and Zimmer specialized in different sides of the ball. Zimmer’s defensive preparation often allowed for a relatively strong recent history against the Packers which the Vikings hope to continue. This will likely call for O’Connell’s offense to shine against what is now a loaded Packers defense. Again, only time will tell if he can rise to the occasion like Zimmer could against the Vikings’ biggest rival.
What Went Wrong?
Despite the win percentage, ball protection, sack production, and Border Battle victories, it was mandatory for the team’s ownership to fire Zimmer. To begin with, Zimmer won several games, but often not the ones in the biggest moments. This includes a collapse after a 5-0 start in 2016, an NFC Championship Game disaster in 2017, and a Week 17 no-show in 2018. Besides these pain inflicting debacles, the Vikings annually allowed a major underdog to upset them, highlighting Zimmer’s struggles to properly prepare his team. The Vikings hovered around the .500 mark far too often, which provokes the question of whether or not it would have been beneficial if the Vikings had a worse season after which Zimmer could be fired. Zimmer had stability by avoiding poor records, but he was not beloved because he never led the Vikings to their ultimate goal.
Zimmer’s abilities to protect the football and rush the passer may be missed, but the Vikings still have the personnel which allowed them to do so. There is lots of uncertainty with the new coaching staff, but that applies to every drastic change in leadership. What can be ensured is that the Vikings will benefit from firing Zimmer for a multitude of reasons. A failure to develop young talent, a disconnect with the front office, and especially a poor relationship with the players are just a few of the many reasons Zimmer was not back in 2022. Even if the Vikings suffer from more turnovers or less sacks, it is surely better than a team stuck in mediocrity in a toxic environment. To conclude, Vikings fans can agree that Zimmer will not be missed despite his successes. It is evident that the players are happier with Coach O’Connell and that a culture shift was necessary for the entire organization. Soon, we will get to see if an improved environment can create improved results.