Before Mike Zimmer was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, he was a fire-breathing assistant for the Cincinnati Bengals. One of the key figures on Marvin Lewis’ staff, Zimmer saw the Bengals succeed on the field but become dysfunctional off it before coming to Minnesota in 2014.
Zimmer’s tenure with the Vikings has been more of the same. The Vikings have had their highs, like reaching the NFC Championship game in 2017, and lows like the 7-9 season last year.
The recent dip sets up what will be the most pivotal year of Zimmer’s career, and there’s no better place for it to take place in Cincinnati. The Vikings will be in a stadium just north of his Kentucky ranch, and Zimmer will enter this season with more questions than answers.
It starts at quarterback, where Kirk Cousins takes on a defense he should shred. With a career that has been built on slaying bad teams, Cousins should be able to lead the passing game to victory; however, that’s not a given.
Cousins has made a habit of getting off to a slow start during his time in Minnesota. Last season, Cousins tied with Carson Wentz with 10 interceptions through the first six games, and it sank the Vikings into a 1-5 hole they couldn’t climb out of.
Avoiding a slow start from his quarterback becomes more difficult for Zimmer now that Irv Smith Jr. is injured. With an unproven cast behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, Cousins could be thrown back into 2018, when defenses keyed in on his top targets throughout the season.
Then there’s the offensive line. With Christian Darrisaw recovering from groin surgery, Rashod Hill will go up against Trey Hendrickson. A free-agent target last spring, Hendrickson ranked third among qualifying edge rushers in pass-rush productivity and collected 14.5 sacks while playing for the New Orleans Saints last season.
Not to mention the rest of the offensive line, which has two new starting guards, a first-round center who has disappointed, and a star right tackle. Even if Brian O’Neill is dominant again, the rest of the offensive line may make his performance irrelevant.
The other side of the ball is loaded with players on one-year contracts. Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, and Xavier Woods represent bandaids on a defense that ranked 28th in yards allowed last season. Although Danielle Hunter returns to the defensive line, the Vikings still have concerns about Anthony Barr’s health ahead of Week 1.
These are just the concerns on the field, which pale in comparison to what’s going on off of it. The Vikings continue to be one of the least vaccinated teams in the NFL, with five key starters going into the season unprotected against COVID. With no depth behind them, the Vikings could be their own worst enemy, walking into games with the possibility of throwing half their roster into quarantine.
For an established coach like Zimmer, these situations could grant him leniency if the Vikings miss the playoffs again. But this is not a team that has modest ambitions.
With Cousins’ arrival in 2018, the Vikings were expected to make a Super Bowl push. The Vikings have one playoff win and a slew of questions heading into their opener three years later. That makes every game important, especially Week 1 in Cincinnati, which the Vikings should win.
But that’s another wrinkle in what seems like a normal game for the Vikings. If they don’t beat the Bengals, they could head to Glendale to face an Arizona Cardinals team that also has a coach on the hot seat, plays in the toughest division in football, and would like to win that game for late-season playoff purposes.
When they return home the following week, they’ll be greeted by Russell Wilson, who has never lost to the Vikings in six career starts. Add in a Week 4 game against Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns, and there’s a chance the Vikings could start 0-4 if they lose in Cincinnati.
All of this contributes to the usual circus that follows Zimmer. Although he has enough material to write his own book, the coda could end up being a Week 1 game near his estate.