The Minnesota Vikings made a commitment for the future Wednesday by extending head coach Mike Zimmer’s contract by a reported three years, ending an offseason of speculation that Zimmer could be a lame-duck coach in 2020.
The writing was on the wall last January when Vikings ownership crafted a statement of support for head coach Mike Zimmer in advance of the team’s Wild Card playoff game in New Orleans. The fact that the Vikings won that game only reinforced that Zimmer was likely staying put. Just as negotiations in the past have gone, the Vikings waited until early in training camp to get the deal finalized.
Only six NFL head coaches have been with their current teams longer than Zimmer, and all six have Super Bowl rings: Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Pete Carroll. In a league where 22 of the 32 coaches were hired in 2017 or later, Zimmer has been a rare constant in a role with unbounded scrutiny. His playoff success, however, is what prevents him from being lumped in with the league’s coaching elites, even though his regular season .589 winning percentage has always given the Vikings a chance.
Zimmer’s only sub-.500 season came in 2014 when he inherited a 5-10-1 team with a league-worst defense and got them to 7-9. Since then, he’s either been in or close to the playoffs each year, finishing one game out of playoff position in 2016 and a half game removed in 2018 when the Vikings lost a Week 17 win-and-in contest at home to the Bears.
The 64-year-old’s tenure has been filled with stark dichotomies; some innate with Zimmer’s personality and philosophy, others out of his control.
In appearance, Zimmer doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of today’s NFL head coach, and he’s OK with that. While the league is trending toward young, smooth-talking, offensive-minded head coaches with perfect hair, Zimmer openly roots for older hires like Vic Fangio as he addresses reporters in baggie sweatpants and a hoodie. Zimmer embodies the old-school mentality as much as any coach today, preaching toughness and leaving little room for nonsense off the field.
His defenses have been the pinnacle of continuity with minimal personnel or staff turnover in his first six years. His offenses, however, have cycled through five offensive coordinators and five quarterbacks with constant turnover on the offensive line. Some of the inconsistency — caused by failing to mesh with coordinators Norv Turner and John DeFilippo — have been on Zimmer, while factors like Kevin Stefanski and Pat Shurmur getting head coaching offers or Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford suffering knee injuries could be chalked up to the cost of doing business.
Zimmer has been extremely adaptive with schemes on defense. Once he realized teams were getting wise to his double-A-gap pressure package, he steered away from his signature look and found different ways to pressure the quarterback. He started using a big nickel in the slot against physical receivers. He’s moved defensive ends inside on passing downs with superb results.
Meanwhile, Zimmer been more resistant to modern offensive trends, doubling down on the team’s run-first mentality and sometimes scoffing at analytics that push coaches to be more aggressive on fourth down. Yet the Vikings did keep up in some capacities by increasing their use of motion and play-action. And their run-heavy scheme was successful enough to win double-digit games in three out of five years.
His first six years have been marked by exhilarating playoff wins followed by dramatic letdowns. His 2017 team was the best equipped to win a Super Bowl — in their home stadium no less — but after beating the Saints on the Minneapolis Miracle were crushed 38-7 by the Philadelphia Eagles the next week. Similarly, his 2019 team stunned the Saints in their first playoff game only to falter badly at San Francisco in the Divisional Round.
Ultimately, Zimmer has held to his convictions, and that transparency earned him enough favor in the locker room and with the organization to stick around for the foreseeable future. From the Vikings’ standpoint, adding a hot-seat head coach to a list of growing distractions would have made little sense in a strange 2020 season. By extending Kirk Cousins earlier in the offseason, the Vikings signaled they were seeking continuity, which Zimmer’s new contract provides.
In many ways, Zimmers first several years were packed with change: instituting a new system, switching stadiums, switching practice facilities, constantly switching quarterbacks. With the quarterback and coach seemingly settled for a few years, the Vikings hope to find their organizational rhythm.