There haven’t been many kind words in the days since the Minnesota Vikings fired Mike Zimmer.
Any way you look at it, many players were hitting Zimmer with the door on the way out. But he’s not the only one that deserves criticism. Instead, Zimmer’s downfall was a shared effort between the three men that led the organization.
Zimmer brought the persona of a grizzled veteran when he arrived in Minnesota. His bluntness cost him previous opportunities to be a head coach. He was tough on his players but also cared about their growth. While Zimmer probably didn’t send any Christmas cards, many of his players thrived and grew to be a part of the NFL’s top defense in 2017.
Cousins was supposed to be the missing piece for the Vikings to get to the Super Bowl. But before he ever threw a check down to C.J. Ham, he was a controversial figure in the front office.
Zimmer foreshadowed the issues with signing Cousins at the 2018 NFL scouting combine. If the Vikings gave him a massive contract, that money wouldn’t be available to keep his defense together.
“When we sat down in those meetings, I said, ‘Look, we’ve won this many games and these many years because of this football,’” Zimmer said. “What I don’t want to do is say…we’re going to [sign Cousins] and take away from the rest of the things that have gotten us to this point.”
Things got worse with the hiring of John DeFilippo. According to the Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling, Spielman and offensive line coach Tony Sparano loved the idea of bringing DeFilippo’s shotgun-based approach to Minnesota. But the idea didn’t match with Zimmer’s philosophy.
At this point, Zimmer was working with a quarterback he didn’t want in a scheme he hated. His defense was on the verge of being broken up, and his incoming rookies didn’t fit the type of player he wanted.
A disciple of Bill Parcells, Zimmer believed it was time to start buying the groceries. He fired DeFilippo late in the 2018 season and replaced him with Kevin Stefanski. Zimmer doubled down by hiring Gary Kubiak as a consultant. He tied the offense to Dalvin Cook, and he sent anyone who disagreed out of town.
“You try your best to adapt, and the guys that we do have…can you do some things from your scheme to adjust to their skill set?” Spielman asked. “But when you have the coaching turnover that it is, and you’re always trying to marry up the personnel to the scheme, there are ways that some of these coaches have to say ‘Hey, I have to adjust my scheme to what the players can do as well.’”
Some of Spielman’s statement is true, but he created his own predicament. By signing Cousins to a deal in free agency and then extending him for two more years after the 2019 season, the Vikings became gold medalists in financial gymnastics.
A restructure here. A deferred bonus there. It all added up to Minnesota struggling to put together a winning roster.
A highly-compensated star quarterback can make up for these flaws. On paper, Cousins fits the bill. He owns the sixth-highest passer rating among NFL starters since 2018 and has back-to-back seasons of 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. You could make a case he’s the Vikings’ best quarterback since Fran Tarkenton.
But there were moments where Cousins’ performance didn’t match his salary. There were the up-and-down outings in 2018 that ultimately cost them a playoff spot. There was the 2019 season where the offense hampered him until the Vikings’ playoff win in New Orleans. Then he chucked a league-leading 10 interceptions in the first six games of the 2020 season.
Mix in questions about his leadership, and Cousins had become a tease.
With any team that fails, most of the blame falls on the head coach. You could call the Zimmer era a success considering he has the third-best winning percentage in franchise history. But the past couple of years revealed a fatal flaw: He forgot who he was.
Gone was the stern but likable character that Zimmer was upon his arrival in Minnesota. He pointed the finger at everyone. It was Cousins’ fault that the offense wasn’t performing. The media was putting him on the hot seat. It was Spielman’s roster-building and enough on-field transgressions to fill a 1,200-word PowerPoint slide that booted him out the door.
Inside sources exposed these things to the public. But while Zimmer ran out into the mob, Spielman snuck out the back door.
Spielman hung around the facility to address the team. He thanked everyone that worked for him over his 16 years with the organization. The Vikings’ social media team put out a nostalgic video package thanking him for his work.
Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf said that the team was looking for a more collaborative front office in the press conference that announced their firing. Zimmer and Spielman may not have talked to each other for the final months of their partnership. But they were bound together in their demise.