On Monday, the Minnesota Vikings moved on from Mike Zimmer. Zimmer was hired in 2014 after Leslie Frazier was fired. After 8 years in Minnesota, what will Zimmer’s legacy be in Minnesota? How will he be remembered?
Zimmer was hired partly because of his defensive mind. Zimmer had been coaching in the NFL since 1994, starting as a cornerbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys. When Zimmer joined the Vikings in 2014, their defense immediately improved. The Vikings defense went to 11th in scoring, after being dead last only one year before. His defense peaked in 2017. In 2017, the Vikings’ defense was the first ranked defense in points and total yards allowed. The roster was stacked with talent as well. Xavier Rhodes was a shutdown corner. Everson Griffen was in his prime. Harrison Smith was the best safety in the league. With this defense, Zimmer would lead the Vikings to an NFC Championship game.
Unfortunately, Zimmer’s defense would never be the same again. The Vikings’ defense would be formidable again in 2018, but steadily declined until 2020. In 2020, the Minnesota defense fell off a cliff entirely. Zimmer will also be remembered for being to defensively focused. It became evident that Zimmer was a defensive coordinator paid head coach money. Early in his coaching career, Zimmer rectified that issue by hiring former head coaches as offensive coordinators. However, that all changed when Kirk Cousins was signed.
The Kirk Cousins Era
After losing in the NFC Championship, Zimmer predicted his own fate with eerie accuracy. Mike Zimmer’s biggest worry was overpaying for a quarterback, when the defense led them to an NFC Championship. Later in the same year, the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins. Cousins was supposed to be the final piece on a Super Bowl roster. The Vikings went 8-7-1 in 2018 and missed the playoffs. Over Cousins’ next 4 years in Minnesota, the Vikings made the playoff only once in 2019. Like it or not, Zimmer’s legacy will always be marked with a black line: what happened pre and post signing Kirk Cousins.
Mike Zimmer’s record against winning teams speaks volumes. Zimmer went from 12-20 against winning teams to 7-26 after signing Cousins. Before Cousins, Zimmer’s Vikings seemed scrappy. They seemed like they wanted to play for Zimmer and were capable of pulling off upsets. After Cousins, the narrative changed. The Vikings lost all sense of personality with a Cousins led offense. Cousins and Zimmer never seemed to get along. Despite spending 3 years paired together, the pair wouldn’t sit down to have weekly meetings until 2021. Zimmer never hesitated to throw Cousins under the bus. Ultimately, their relationship wasn’t one that promoted success.
Most of Mike Zimmer’s success as Vikings’ head coach came in the regular season. The post season was a different story. The Vikings made the playoffs under Zimmer for the first time in the 2015 season. They lost in the wild card round after a painful missed kick. They made it again in 2017, but no showed in the NFC Championship. In 2019, after an upset win against the Saints, the Vikings were demolished by the 49ers. Zimmer finishes with a not so pretty playoff record of just 2-3.
When it mattered the most, Mike Zimmer couldn’t get the job done. 2017 was the closest the Vikings had been to a Super Bowl since Brett Favre. After the jaw dropping Minneapolis Miracle, many fans felt like it was finally the year. All the defense had to do was stop the Eagles. It didn’t happen. The top defense in scoring that year let Philadelphia put up 38 points. That was often the case with Zimmer. When it mattered the most, he typically let us down.
There’s no doubt Mike Zimmer was a good defensive mind. He took an underperforming defense and turned it around in 2014. However, that spell seems to have worn off. In 2020 and 2021, the Vikings defense was awful. The Vikings offense was stacked with talent, but it was unable to pick up the slack. Zimmer will be remembered for his defensive approach, but he will also be remember for what almost happened. What if the Vikings won the Super Bowl back in 2017? What if the Vikings hadn’t signed Kirk Cousins? If both of those things had happened, Zimmer would likely still have a job.
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