When the Minnesota Vikings hired Mike Zimmer as their head coach, he reached out to Bill Parcells for advice. Zimmer’s mentor was bullish on his pupil’s prospects in Minnesota, and many conversations between the two were never made public.
NBC’s telecast pulled back the curtain during Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. Cris Collinsworth mentioned that, when Zimmer finally got his big break, Parcells had given him three rules to live by as a head coach.
Those rules initially played out in Zimmer’s favor, but they might be the reason for his demise.
Your friends will disappoint you
At the beginning of Zimmer’s tenure, he had a good idea of who he wanted on his staff. One of the first people he reached out to was Norv Turner. With Turner’s expert knowledge on offense, Zimmer could worry about the defense. But after only two seasons, Turner abruptly quit in the middle of the 2016 season. The move was shocking, but it was Zimmer’s first experience with one of Parcells’ rules.
Zimmer moved through a successful 2017 season before alienating his staff the following year. He never clicked with John DeFilippo, and his relationship with Kevin Stefanski was frosty at best. Even Jerry Gray and George Edwards, two staples of the coaching staff, left following the 2019 season.
With a rapid turnover rate, Zimmer looked within the organization to fill the holes. Promotion from within is not necessarily a bad idea to fill a coaching staff, but several of these hires came with little experience.
First, it was promoting Gary Kubiak to offensive coordinator. When he left after one season, he replaced him with his son Klint. The same thing happened on defense, where he made his son, Adam, co-defensive coordinator with Andre Patterson.
This approach wasn’t just limited to the coaching staff. After the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins in 2018, Zimmer knew that changes were coming. But he resisted the idea and demanded that several of his players remain with the team. A direct outcome was that the Vikings were often a year too late in making their decisions.
Xavier Rhodes was a shutdown corner at the peak of the Zimmer era but fell off, and the Vikings released him after the 2019 season. Anthony Barr signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract before the 2019 season. Since putting pen to paper, Barr has battled several injuries and has only 1.5 sacks in his past 26 games. The Vikings gave Harrison Smith a four-year, $64 million last August, but he hasn’t made the same splash plays that will someday put him in the Ring of Honor.
Zimmer has shown loyalty to his coaches and his players throughout his tenure. But it appears that some of the people he was loyal to have also become his worst enemies.
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Throughout their history, the Vikings have been no strangers to drama. There was the Love Boat. There was the Brett Favre/Brad Childress beef. Randy Moss slandered Tinnucci’s. Percy Harvin threw a weight plate at Leslie Frazier.
You get the idea.
While the Vikings seem to have another level of chaos, things like this happen for any head coach. It’s how you handle them that determines your success.
Zimmer mastered this at the beginning of his tenure. After the NFL suspended Adrian Peterson for the final 15 games of the 2014 season, Zimmer led the Vikings to a 7-9 record. The Vikings started 2-2 in 2015, but they finished 9-3 and claimed their first division title in six years. Even when Sam Bradford injured his knee in the first game of the 2017 season, Zimmer turned to Case Keenum and rode him to the NFC Championship game.
But Zimmer didn’t have the answers when things got tough. A 6-0 start in 2016 disintegrated into a 2-8 finish. The 2018 spat with DeFilippo dashed any Super Bowl hopes. And with each injury, Zimmer didn’t have the depth necessary to overcome them.
Things hit another gear the past two seasons. When the Vikings lost preseason games before the 2020 season, it took six games to find their footing. When half the team didn’t get vaccinated the following summer, Zimmer never gave his younger players a chance to step up.
Even when Cousins tested positive for COVID-19, the Vikings turned to Sean Mannion, a career backup coming off his stay on the reserve list.
It all led to Zimmer blaming things he couldn’t control and pushing aside his responsibilities as a head coach.
Zimmer has tried to build a support system in Minnesota. But as coordinators got hired away, Zimmer realized that it’s lonely at the top.
We already talked about the Turner situation, but many other advisors came and went. Pat Shurmur finally brought the offense that Zimmer had been dreaming of, but the New York Giants hired him in 2017.
When Shurmur asked to interview Stefanski as an offensive coordinator, Zimmer blocked it. But that only delayed the inevitable. After one season as an offensive coordinator, Stefanski left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Then there was the failed Klint Kubiak experiment.
All of these moves led to a situation where Zimmer is now. He relies on his philosophies and the people he trusts. When Rick Spielman brought in a truckload of rookies, Zimmer sided with his veterans even if they were struggling.
Zimmer even brushed aside Cousins, who the Vikings signed as the franchise quarterback. After four seasons, he agreed to meet with Cousins for a 45-minutes a week. But it appeared to be done with the same enthusiasm as a college freshman taking a 3 p.m. class on a Friday.
In the end, Zimmer stands by himself while Cousins and Spielman point the finger at each other. A fan base that once revered him is now clamoring for a change. It has to be a rough feeling, but it’s one he should have been prepared for had he listened to his mentor.