Mike Zimmer has had a pretty good run with the Minnesota Vikings when you consider the shelf life of head coaches in the NFL. Under his watch, the Vikings have won a pair of division championships, made an appearance in an NFC Championship game and rank third in franchise history in wins (64) and winning percentage (.576).
Because he’s mentioned in the same breath as Bud Grant and Dennis Green, a season like the one that just transpired is given a free pass. A coach with Zimmer’s track record should give Vikings fans peace of mind heading into next season. But his performance in the first seven years of his career mimics another head coach who is synonymous with 7-9 finishes, Jeff Fisher.
Fisher’s career got off to a similar start when he became the interim head coach of the Houston Oilers in 1994. Despite a 1-5 record in the final six games of that season, Fisher kept the job and began doing what he does best: churning out mediocre seasons.
The first four seasons of his career began with a 7-9 mark in 1995 and three straight 8-8 seasons. The Oilers became the Tennessee Titans in 1999, and just as it appeared as though Fisher would toil around the .500 mark, his newly-branded team reached the Super Bowl that year.
Although they would come up one yard short of winning Super Bowl XXXIV, Fisher set his ceiling as a coach with back-to-back 13-3 seasons. He had done enough to instill doubt in any owner who thought about firing him.
The Titans limped to a 7-9 record in 2000 before going 23-9 over the next two seasons and winning an AFC South title in 2001. Things looked good, but Tennessee recorded eight or fewer wins in six of his final eight seasons in Nashville before he was fired in 2010.
When Fisher resurfaced with the then-St. Louis Rams in 2012, the pattern continued. In five seasons, Fisher never recorded more than seven wins but still managed to hang on longer than most head coaches would with a 31-45-1 record.
Thus, the king of mediocrity in the NFL was born.
The situation between Fisher and the Titans is eerily similar to the one the Vikings have right now with Zimmer. Although Zimmer’s most recent season of 7-9 wasn’t great, it was just the second losing season the Vikings have had since Zimmer was hired in 2014. In addition, he is three seasons removed from a 2017 season where he reached the NFC Championship Game.
Those accolades combined for a record that is eerily similar to Fisher’s in his first seven full seasons as a head coach.
Looking at the two records, it’s easy to assume that Zimmer could pull off another couple of good years, as Fisher did before retiring. The Vikings have some young building blocks that are starting to come of age and with veterans like Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, Minnesota should be able to pull off a quick rebound in 2021 and beyond.
But that’s where the comparisons of the two teams end. When Fisher was at his best, he was doing so with a rising team full of young stars.
Steve McNair and Eddie George were a 26-year-old quarterback and running back duo that helped anchor the offense. A 23-year-old Jevon Kearse was taking the NFL by storm during his rookie season to boost the defense. Even with mediocre veterans everywhere else, the young, franchise-changing talent helped propel the Titans over the next several years to help Fisher sustain success.
There also was upside with Fisher as a coach. After being promoted as a 36-year-old, Fisher was still learning his trade when he went through his trio of 8-8 seasons. Once the Titans reached the Super Bowl in 1999, he was the 90s NFL version of Sean McVay as a young coach who seemed to have plenty of potential.
Comparing that situation to the current state of the Vikings is where the issues begin to unfold. While the Vikings do have young pieces from their 2020 draft class who they can build around, the rest of the team is starting to get older. Barr, Kendricks and Michael Pierce will all turn 29 next season. Harrison Smith will turn 32 in February. Hunter, who won’t turn 27 until next October, is coming off a serious neck injury.
Even if the Vikings receive the improvement that they’re expecting from Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler next season, it’s possible that other areas of the defense regress in 2021. But that’s just considering what’s on the field.
Zimmer doesn’t have the allure of upside that Fisher had during the early years of his career. As someone who will turn 65 in June, Zimmer still does things like run on second and anything, burn timeouts at will and call 78-year-old Bill Parcells for coaching advice.
In short, it’s easier to move on from an old coach.
But even then, the fear of letting go of a coach that has had Zimmer’s success has that franchise-haunting aura around it. It’s why after an upset playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints last season, the Vikings opted not to trade Zimmer to the Dallas Cowboys and keep him over 38-year-old Kevin Stefanski.
It’s also why the idea of hiring Stefanski may have made the Vikings think twice. Much like when Fisher took over the Oilers, the Vikings were in shambles when Zimmer replaced Leslie Frazier in 2014. Things have been on the rise since then and the Vikings have had their best era of sustained success since Green was ordering deep bombs to Randy Moss and Cris Carter.
In other words, the Vikings don’t want to risk going back to their dark days by taking a risk on another head coach. It’s the same type of logic the Titans used as Fisher was struggling to reach eight wins on an annual basis.
It’s not certain whether Zimmer’s future will reach the consistent mediocrity that Fisher was known for, but it could eventually reach that point. As a coach that seems good enough to get to the brass ring, but unable to bring it down, the Vikings seem to be content with just letting him reach for the sky.