Mike Zimmer knows his team is expected to win this season. The Minnesota Vikings wrapped up a 7-9 season and, with limited cap space, he needed to find a way to improve his roster. Entering a pressure-packed season, Zimmer returned to what he knew, bolstering the defense to complement his fourth-ranked offense.
It took a $45 million shopping spree in free agency, but Zimmer finally had his defense where he wanted it. After the Vikings spent two early picks on offensive linemen and signed Dede Westbrook late, he had the crew he wanted to ride or die with this season.
But three days into training camp, Zimmer was presented with a different challenge. Instead of having this season come down to an injury or a bad decision on third down, he realized that his biggest obstacle might be his own players who have chosen not to get vaccinated.
On Saturday, the Vikings pulled several players from practice after Kellen Mond reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. While the team did not announce which players were removed, Kirk Cousins and Nate Stanley did not practice, leaving Jake Browning to take every rep.
“This delta variant is rough,” Zimmer said to reporters on Saturday. “You can see the cases going up every single day now. That’s why, for the sake of everybody’s health, I think it’s important to get vaccinated. But some people don’t understand, I guess.”
This doesn’t seem like a big deal before a training camp practice but could have bigger implications down the road. Zimmer imagined a scenario where a positive test occurred before a game that determines playoff seeding — or in the playoffs. Should that happen, his fate could be decided by a game where he has to go into battle with Browning at quarterback, or worse, a game that doesn’t get played at all.
It’s why Zimmer has spent the offseason preaching to his players to get vaccinated. It’s also why the Vikings have brought in NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills, along with former players Alan Page and John Randle, to encourage the team to get vaccinated.
Still, The Athletic’s Chad Graff reported that at least five starters are not vaccinated, creating a depth issue. It’s also why when Zimmer was asked about Browning, the first thing he brought up was his vaccination status.
“Jake is really smart. He’s vaccinated,” Zimmer said. “…He’s out there. He’s available. It’s important to be available in a team sport.”
Zimmer’s frustration is understandable when he’s had to shuffle his own coaching staff due to COVID protocols. Offensive line coach Rick Dennison was required to receive the vaccine as a Tier 1 coach and initially refused, leaving the Vikings to re-assign him as a senior offensive consultant.
This doesn’t seem like a big deal considering Dennison is still on the staff, but until he is fully vaccinated, he will be limited to communicating with the coaching staff through Zoom meetings. For a head coach who celebrated the ability to gather in a room back in April, the outcome has to draw even more frustration.
Being on the hot seat is part of life as a head coach. Zimmer put himself in the best possible position to succeed. The only problem is, his downfall could be caused by something he can’t control.