As we approach the finish line of the 2021 regular season, the Chicago Bears come to US Bank Stadium in Week 18. It’ll be a game that features two teams staring down the barrel of significant organizational changes next week. Despite the Minnesota Vikings and Bears combining for two division titles and two wild card berths since 2017, the operating presumption is that both teams will be moving on from their head coaches, Mike Zimmer and Matt Nagy. Nagy’s Bears have reached the postseason more recently and with more regularity, but Zimmer’s .549 winning percentage (including playoffs) with Minnesota trumps Nagy’s .515 winning percentage — which also includes the postseason.
However, instead of getting our Speculation Spencer on about what could potentially lie ahead for the Vikings as early as Monday, let’s take a look back at Zimmer’s successful tenure.
When the Wilfs hired the former defensive coordinator from the Cincinnati Bengals, the Vikings were coming off a combined record of 24-39-1 from 2010-13, with defenses that ranked 31st and 32nd in points allowed in 2011 and 2013. It was crystal clear that the franchise needed a complete and immediate defensive overhaul, and Zimmer was the right man for the job. Over his last five seasons as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, Zimmer’s defense ranked in the top 10 in points allowed on four different occasions. The Vikings were a quintessential football marriage for Zimmer’s debut as an NFL head coach.
Following Leslie Frazier‘s even-keeled public demeanor, Zimmer instantly excited the fanbase with his no-nonsense approach, starting from the very moment when the Vikings introduced him as head coach in January 2014.
Zimmer provided an immediate sense of optimism during his first season in Minnesota. He revitalized a Vikings defense into the 11th-best scoring defense in 2014, one year after they ranked dead last. Although Minnesota finished 7-9 in his debut season, Zimmer gave Skoliders a unity of purpose and the utmost confidence. They believed there was no better head coach to get this team over the hump.
In Year 2 of the Zimmer era, the Vikings experienced a major jump by capturing the NFC North with an 11-5 record, led by a defense that ranked fifth in points allowed. The highlight of the season was a Week 17 winner-take-all matchup for the divisional crown at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers. As was the story all season, Zimmer’s defense dominated Aaron Rodgers. Minnesota left Lambeau with a 20-13 victory and with the NFC North title — their first since 2009.
We all know what happened the following week.
The next season, after losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to arguably the scariest and biggest freak injury that the NFL has seen in the 21st century, Zimmer and his sixth-best scoring defense led the Vikings to a respectable 8-8 record. While the immediate trade for Sam Bradford didn’t yield the results they were hoping for in 2016, Minnesota’s defense was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. The Vikings put the NFL on notice following three consecutive years of defensive domination.
Year 4 was the storybook season for Zimmer. Everything came together after leading the Vikings to a 13-3 record — their most regular-season wins since Randy Moss‘ 1998 rookie season — and a defense that led the NFL in both points and yards allowed. The Vikings sent Rodgers packing to a chorus of (questionable) US Bank Stadium cheers following a broken collar bone courtesy of Anthony Barr. They captured their second divisional crown in three years.
The signature moment of the Zimmer Era came in the NFC Divisional Round, a moment that Skoldiers will remember for the rest of their lives. Everyone will know exactly where they were when the Minneapolis Miracle took place. Personally, I was busy trying to convince my girlfriend-now-fiance that the Vikings still had a chance to pull it off, all while she was crying in the bedroom closet. Upon hearing my screams from the living room of our apartment at C&E Lofts in St. Paul, it didn’t take long for Kortni to find a different reason for new tears.
The storybook 2017 season didn’t provide the happy ending culminating in a Super Bowl appearance in our backyard, that campaign. But it is undoubtedly on the Mount Rushmore of Vikings history, thanks mainly to Zimmer and his best defense in the entire league.
Make no mistake about it: Signing Kirk Cousins has undoubtedly left a lot to be desired over the past four seasons. Consider that Zimmer’s defense had yet another top-10 season while Kirky and the offense couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain in his first season in purple. But 2019 provided yet another unforgettable moment when the Vikings went down to the bayou and beat the New Orleans Saints in the wild card round with their second postseason walk-off touchdown pass in three years against them. This time it was courtesy of Cousins and Kyle Rudolph in overtime.
Even though the past two seasons have been a far cry from the defensive wizardry that we’ve come to expect out of the Vikings, Zimmer’s legacy in Minnesota is still completely intact. Zimmer has earned every bit of being included alongside Bud Grant and Dennis Green as one of the best men that this franchise has had the privilege of calling their head coach. He’s provided Vikings fans with countless memories that will live forever.
One of the biggest unwritten rules in determining the success of head coaches for professional sports is comparing the state of the franchise from when they took the job to when they left it. And not a soul can question whether or not Mike Zimmer elevated the Minnesota Vikings from the ashes when he took the job back in 2014.
And if the Wilfs decide to make a change (or two) next week, Vikings fans must remember the wise words from the late, great Dr. Seuss:
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Tip of the cap, coach. You’ll never have to pay for another drink anytime you find yourself at a watering hole in the great state of Minnesota.