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Time to Move On from Mike Zimmer

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve not been on-board with the fire Mike Zimmer crowd or the blow it up crowd, but at this point the time is right for big changes in the Vikings coaching staff. The timing of mid-season or end of season isn’t as important as taking the time to evaluate the coaching staff and getting the right replacement on board.

This isn’t simply about the loss to Dallas, but along with the loss of Danielle Hunter, that doesn’t leave much hope for a significant post-season run, although getting a 7th seed is still a possibility for the Vikings given the way the NFC is shaking out this season. But whatever happens the rest of the season and possible post-season, the time is still right for major changes in the Vikings coaching staff.

Here’s why.

Zimmer Hasn’t Learned to be a Top-Tier Head Coach

Mike Zimmer has plenty of street cred as a defensive coordinator, having led top ten defensive units most of the last ten years, but as a head coach he still has yet to master game management skills, and really do much to coach or lead the offense.

Throughout his tenure with the Vikings, Zimmer has effectively been the defensive coordinator that also is head coach. It’s not unusual for a head coach to be the de facto coordinator on one side of the ball, but for Zimmer, he’s never really graduated from coordinator to head coach in terms of game and clock management, or doing much with the offense. Instead, he’s delegated running the offense to his offensive coordinator, and has never really gotten involved on that side of the ball. That’s not the end of the world, especially if a head coach doesn’t have that much to offer on that side of the ball, but the clock and game management issue is a significant one that has haunted Zimmer and the Vikings throughout his head coaching tenure.

The Vikings have not won their share of close games under Mike Zimmer, and some of that comes down to not making the most of their opportunities when it comes to game and clock management. This showed up in the game against Dallas on Sunday night, and it has been a long-standing issue that hasn’t improved much over the years. Zimmer has gotten better at gauging 4th down attempts this season, but for all the focus over the years on game and clock management, he hasn’t improved much in this area after seven seasons.

The other aspect of game management that has been lacking under Zimmer as head coach is the sense of when to be more aggressive, and when not to be. This is particularly true in regard to managing the offense, which again it appears he isn’t as proactive as a head coach as he should be.

Lastly, Zimmer has struggled throughout his head coaching tenure in game planning and rallying his players in what is often a long and grueling season. A good part of that may simply be his approach. Zimmer’s tendency, from a coaching perspective, tends to lean toward protecting his players from giving up big plays, rather than challenging them to step-up. For any NFL team, with varying levels of ability among players, there is rationale for both approaches, but to the extent the more protective/conservative approach is used, it can be self-fulfilling. As can a more challenging approach to coaching players and preparing them.

Zimmer’s approach, leaning more toward protecting his players rather than challenging them in his scheme and coaching decisions, may fail to realize the full potential of the talent he has under him, and create a mentality that makes it more difficult for players to step-up when needed. A recent illustration of this is Cameron Dantzler. Dantzler was one of the best cornerbacks in the league the last part of the season last year, and has proven he can play against good receivers, but Zimmer had him playing soft coverage most of the game against Dallas, in replacement of Patrick Peterson, rather than challenging him to provide tight coverage against one of the better receivers in the league. The signal here to Dantzler is that his coach doesn’t have faith in him to provide tight coverage, which is a blow to the confidence and swagger good cornerbacks need to have.

Another case is Kirk Cousins. As a top QB with ten years in the league, Cousins is ready for more responsibility and leadership. But the coaching staff has not done enough to hand more ‘field general’ responsibilities to Cousins, even though he has the experience and know-how to handle it. Encouraging and even challenging Cousins to take a greater role when it comes to audibles, timeouts and tempo could help alleviate some of the issues the Vikings coaching staff has struggled with in game management, and perhaps even foster more confidence in the huddle as guys know Kirk has full control over the offense, rather than being limited in the actions he can take.

All of these seemingly little things can have a cumulative effect when it comes to getting a team to step-up in big situations or in big games, as they effectively inhibit or prevent that from happening, both in approach and game management decisions.

Zimmer is Becoming Replaceable as a Defensive Coordinator

One of the reasons to maintain Zimmer as a head coach, is to keep his prowess as a defensive coordinator and a top ranked defense. But increasingly, his ability as a defensive coordinator seems more replaceable.

Finding a guy that can put together a decade of top ten defenses is no easy task, but a certain amount of that is simply having the defensive talent to get there consistently. Zimmer has had that, but it’s not always clear that he’s done as much with as he could have at times, and that seems increasingly so this year. The early part of the season was more of a read and react situation with Zimmer, who can make good adjustments to take away what offenses are doing, but sometimes can be a little slow in doing so. At the same time, he seems to find himself reacting more to what the offense is doing, rather than being more proactive and forcing an offense to react to what he is doing. The difference here is important as it’s the difference between taking the other team out of what they like to do, versus changing your game plan based on what the other team is doing.

Schematically, Zimmer and his staff did what was advertised as a total rework of their scheme, the first in about 20 years, but there really isn’t much difference on the field. There are more zone blitzes than in the past, and perhaps more pattern-match coverage schemes, but overall its really more about players than plays, and it’s difficult to see what value-added comes from Zimmer’s scheme and play-calling. That’s not to say there isn’t any, because as an experienced play-caller that’s seen it all, he has the ability to put players in the right positions to defend just about any offensive concept, but he’s not perfect in that respect.

Given all that, the question of how much value-added Zimmer provides over an average replacement at defensive coordinator has become a bit more bigger of a question- meaning perhaps it isn’t a significant as it once was. There is also a question of how much Zimmer brings to the defensive table compared to his staff, and what he adds to each position group. There is also the question of the level of confidence the players have in Zimmer at this point in time. Clearly defensive players have a lot of respect for Zimmer’s track record, and the coaching and atmosphere he’s created on the defensive side of the ball. All the returning Vikings returning players on defense this year will attest to that, and his ability to attract players like Patrick Peterson and Xavier Woods speak to that as well. But for all the good things about Zimmer as a defensive coach his players like, there may also be some known fallibilities they also recognize, which may create some gaps in confidence at times. We really don’t know how Zimmer stands overall on that score, but its likely that Zimmer may have lost some of his shine with some players over the years, even though they have an overall positive view of him as a coach and coordinator.

The bottom line here, however, is that Zimmer’s value-added as a defensive coordinator may be more replaceable now than it was in the past.

Vikings Headed For Player Turnover

Another reason this may be the right time to move on from Mike Zimmer as a defensive head coach and defensive coordinator is that contractually there are a lot of free agents among starters at the end of this season. Sheldon Richardson, Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Nick Vigil, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, MacKensie Alexander, and Xavier Woods are all set to be free agents at the end of the season, and its unlikely the Vikings will retain all of these players. At the same time, Harrison Smith is well into his 30s, and Eric Kendricks turns 30 next year.

That contractual flexibility on the defensive side of the roster, along with the fact that there were a lot of one-year deals signed last off-season, means a new defensive coordinator and staff will have the opportunity to bring in or retain the players he needs, without being contractually obligated to those he doesn’t.

Offensively, the Vikings have top players at the skill positions under contract, and have perhaps the two starting tackle spots filled well too, if Darrisaw improves as you might expect over his rookie year, with some viable interior line players under contract as well.

All that could make it easy to attract a top head coaching candidate- most of the pieces are in place offensively, and a new defensive coordinator will have maybe half the pieces under contract, with the ability to sign or draft the other half.

Special teams suddenly isn’t terrible either.

It’s About Zimmer- Not Cousins, and Not Spielman

But for all the reasons it makes sense to move on from Mike Zimmer, and proceed with all the coaching staff changes that may entail, it doesn’t make sense to blow it up and fire everyone and begin jettisoning key players in order to start over from scratch.

The reason is simple. Zimmer isn’t good at his job of head coach, while Kirk Cousins and Rick Spielman are good at their jobs. That isn’t popular with some of the fan base, but any objective assessment of either, relative to other QBs and GMs, will show they are among the top performers in their job. I’d also be more than a little surprised if the Wilfs were looking to move on from either Spielman or Cousins at this point, though I suspect they will be ready to move on from Zimmer by the end of the season, barring some resurgence that gets the Vikings deep into the post-season.

But the fact remains, despite the disappointing season, that the Vikings have many of the pieces in place, and its better to build on those pieces, rather than throw them away with no certainty their replacements will be better. In large part that’s what makes the problems with coaching more frustrating- the other pieces are there, but the coaches can’t seem to harness the talent.

Keep in mind also that most first-round QBs fail to live up to expectations, and this year’s crop is no different. The same is true with GMs. In all likelihood moving on from Cousins and Spielman would simply push back the date when the Vikings will be competitive again, and with no certainty of when that date will be. On the other hand, transitioning to a new head coach and staff doesn’t have to mean a couple years of rebuilding, given the players and pieces the Vikings have in place. The Vikings could be competitive next year with a new coaching staff, provided the make the right hires and fill out their defensive roster well.

Look Before You Leap

The key of course in making any change is to do the best job you can to make sure the change is a positive one. That means being able to secure the services of a top head coach, rather than being forced to pick from the leftovers and/or being spurned by your top choice(s). Beginning the search and laying the groundwork for commitment from your top pick makes sense, and if that proves difficult, it could lead to a reassessment- if it begins to look like you can’t secure the services of an upgrade at head coach.

Also, at this point in the season, with ten games left to play, it makes more sense to keep Zimmer in place and let him sink or swim between now and the end of the season. There isn’t a top head coaching candidate on the Vikings staff to try out the rest of the season, and the most likely interim candidate, Andre Patterson, would likely be largely the same as Zimmer defensively, but would reduce his ability to coach the defensive line and bring in someone with less experience in game management and everything else a head coach does.

One candidate that leaps to mind as a possible replacement for Mike Zimmer is Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. He’s coached a top 3 offense in each of the last 3 seasons- including the one prior to Tom Brady’s arrival. He’s a former quarterback and QB coach, prior to becoming the offensive coordinator for Tampa under Bruce Arians three years ago. At age 41, he’s young but has had a lot of success already. Of course the issue with Leftwich is he’ll likely be at the top of every list for teams in need of a new head coach. There are other candidates too, of course, but probably not a lot of good ones- so choosing wisely and making sure you can bag the candidate of choice is key.

I suspect if they Vikings do move on from Zimmer at the end of the season, they will present a more attractive landing spot for a top head coaching candidate than most others. But that doesn’t mean they get their pick. Any number of factors play into which team a top head coach candidate decides to favor, and some are out of a team’s control.

Bottom Line

Apart from a fairly sharp reversal of fortune over the coming ten games and post-season, it looks increasingly like Mike Zimmer has done what he can do as head coach of the Vikings, and that level isn’t a championship one. Beginning the process of finding and securing his replacement should be a part of the Vikings front office plan over the next couple months, with a final decision reserved for the end of the season.


Should the Vikings move on from Mike Zimmer at the end of the season?

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  • 82%
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  • 3%
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    Only if he fails to make the NFCCG or Super Bowl
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