The scene is Christmas Day. You’re sitting in your living room, spending time with your loved ones. Football is on TV on a Friday afternoon. Exciting, right?
Next thing you know, you’re watching Alvin Kamara run through 11 grown men like your dog mindlessly chasing a butterfly through the backyard.
For Mike Zimmer, that’s living your worst nightmare. Nearly 600 yards of offense for his opponents on national television had him so down in the dumps he didn’t hesitate to announce that this was “the worst [defense] I have ever had.”
Those same Vikings finished the season with a mediocre 7-9 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in Zimmer’s seven years as head coach. However, this time the difference was that his defense was not the same top-level unit that it had been even in the team’s leaner seasons.
Minnesota’s young and talent-deprived defense ranked 29th in points allowed, 27th in rushing yards allowed, and 22nd in receiving yards allowed — all the worst marks ever by a Zimmer defense. However, it’s safe to say that Zimmer and Co. learned from their mistakes, spending tons of money in free agency to bolster the defense with proven veterans instead of younger prospects.
When free agency began, the Vikings were surprise spenders in the first wave, inking one of the better interior defensive linemen, Dalvin Tomlinson, to a multi-year deal. They addressed the lack of a veteran presence in the cornerback room by signing perennial Pro-Bowler Patrick Peterson. They also added Stephen Weatherly and Nick Vigil, more low-key signings for depth.
Finally, in the third wave, Minnesota hit some jackpots during bargain-bin shopping. They were able to secure even more veteran presence and competition in their cornerback room with Bashaud Breeland. They also signed Sheldon Richardson, who actually turned down a better deal from the Cleveland Browns; he’s a pure pass rusher who adds to a solid defensive line rotation.
Minnesota now has what, on paper, looks to be one of the better defensive units in the league. They have an offense that will try to build off a top-10 campaign from last year with an upgraded offensive line. So, what are the excuses?
From Teddy Bridgewater’s horrific injury to Zimmer’s eye to coach Tony Sparano dying on the eve of training camp, adversity sticks to Zimmer’s team like a magnet. Just about every team and player in the league faces adversity, of course, although perhaps not to the extent that Zimmer and his Vikings have.
In a performance-based industry, it is fair to wonder how long the Wilf family will tolerate the drought in a state grasping for success. With just two playoff wins in seven years (one of which was a literal miracle), patience is running low.
Perhaps Zimmer himself knows that time is not on his side. With the salary cap crunch due to the coronavirus and a quarterback who commands a lot of cap space, building a championship-caliber team is harder than usual. Nevertheless, the Vikings, led by salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski, have done a marvelous job digging up bargains. With Kirk Cousins’ contract set to hit the books as $45 million, this may be the last chance for Minnesota to go all-in with this regime.
What remains unknown is how long Zimmer’s leash is. In March, Chad Graff of The Athletic reported that the Wilfs value stability and trust within the leadership of their franchise. Think the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose head coach, Mike Tomlin, has been with the team since 2007. To be fair, the Steelers have two Super Bowl appearances and a win under Tomlin, but even when things got rough in 2018 and 2019, when other franchises may have dumped their head coach for the new, hot commodity, Pittsburgh did not. Simply put, they won’t fire the coaching staff unless the team turns into the Detroit Lions.
The 2021 season could go many different ways. If the Vikings don’t make the playoffs after loading up this offseason, there is a good chance that Zimmer is gone. If they make the playoffs and fail to win a game, I’d argue for the same results. However, it becomes complicated if the Vikings win one game and lose in Round 2. When this last happened, Zimmer was granted a contract extension. And if they lose in the NFC Championship again, it gets even cloudier.
While those scenarios are far off, the speculation will continue. Zimmer is currently given the fifth-best odds among all head coaches in the league to lose his job. It may be that the Wilfs actually embrace their Steelers-esque mentality and give Zimmer another chance, but roster building is only an uphill battle from here.
This offseason, Vikings have built a team the way Mike Zimmer likes it: with a defense that has him “energized” again. Forget the past and forget the future. There are no more excuses in the present.