The Vikings fired Mike Zimmer this morning, in a widely expected move. But beyond wins and losses, another reason to fire Zimmer has emerged: he had become a cancer for the team culture and locker room.
While Anthony Barr said today in a press conference that he felt Zimmer was under-appreciated (like himself), comments from other players like Eric Kendricks were less than flattering. “There
were some things left out there” in his relationship with Zimmer Kendricks said, adding “I don’t think a fear-based organization is the way to go.” That doesn’t paint a pretty picture of how Kendricks, a team captain, felt about Zimmer’s leadership style.
Brian O’Neill, also a team captain, had this to say regarding the team culture, particularly for younger players:
It could be something as little as “Hey, how are you doing?” in the hallway or feeling like guys walking by in the hallway and they say ‘hello how are you doing? Good morning.’ We spend so much time together and the season is so long that little personal things here or there could make a big difference for a young guy or even a rookie that’s coming in and isn’t really sure how he fits, if he belongs. Little different personal things like that because guys play their best when they feel good about themselves and their role within a team. The more we can cultivate a culture that guys feel good about being themselves and they’re important to the team and everybody’s in this together. And when young players start to learn that earlier on, they start to do better, and that everybody’s behind us and all of our successes and all of our failures go together. The more that we can understand as players and coaches that we’re all in this together, I think we’d go a long way to making this a better place. - Brian O’Neill
The Vikings struggled mightily to develop offensive linemen in the Zimmer era.
Those comments paint a poor picture of how the Vikings culture had deteriorated under Zimmer and gives perspective to some of Zimmer’s other comments and actions in recent weeks- even all the way back to the off-season.
Zimmer’s decision to play starters in a meaningless game against the Bears on Sunday seems more spiteful in that context, denying young players a chance to show and develop their skills, as does his not doing more to give Justin Jefferson the receiving yards record and his insulting comments about Kellen Mond.
But going back further, to this past off-season, Zimmer admitted during a press conference that at one point during the 2020 season he confided to Andre Patterson that they’d be lucky to win 5 games with this group. That may have been an under-reported comment at the time, but for returning players, that’s not exactly a vote of confidence. And following free agency and the draft, returning players that had showed promise as rookies and hoping for a chance at a starting position, guys like Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand, discovered early on that those hopes were misplaced as Zimmer gave the starting jobs to new veteran acquisitions Bashaud Breeland and MacKensie Alexander without any competition. Even as Breeland and Alexander struggled, ranking at or near the bottom of the league in PFF grades, they maintained their starting jobs. Dantzler, who was one of the highest PFF graded cornerbacks in the league the last part of his rookie season, reportedly did not react well to this news during the off-season and was in Zimmer’s doghouse for reportedly not working hard in practice.
Chad Graff reports that offensive players often felt ignored by Zimmer, who spent most of his time with the defense, and sometimes felt he threw them under the bus following losses rather than blaming himself or his defense.
Undoubtedly those things begin to resonate with players, particularly young players, who are depending on the coaching staff and the head coach for their support and development. Looking back, it appeared that Zimmer, under pressure to deliver this season or lose his job, made the decision to bring in veterans on defense and relegate untrusted younger players to backup jobs. He also let go first-round pick Mike Hughes, who Zimmer said wasn’t the same after his injuries, but who has since flourished with the Chiefs- ranking 14th among all cornerbacks by PFF coverage grade this season - higher than any cornerback on the Vikings.
Zimmer, who entered the NFL as a defensive backs coach, also parted ways with defensive backs coach Jerry Gray following the 2019 season. Gray was subsequently hired by the Packers, and has been instrumental in developing Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, and Eric Stokes into good cornerbacks. Meanwhile Zimmer has struggled to develop any in Minnesota since then. Even Xavier Rhodes, who was a cap casualty for the Vikings following the 2019 season, flourished last season in Indianapolis after back-to-back poor seasons with the Vikings.
Zimmer’s Issues May Have Engulfed Rick Spielman As Well
It was rumored as recently as last week that while Zimmer would likely be fired, GM Rick Spielman would be retained, but may have a different role within the organization. He appeared to have a closer relationship with the Wilfs than Zimmer did, who trusted him and had worked with him and promoted him over their 16 years working together.
But his handling of Zimmer, his coaching and player moves, and the declining culture may have swayed them toward the need for a clean sweep and a new general manager as well. I suspect that the extension of Harrison Smith, in a fairly lucrative extension for a player his age, may have raised some eyebrows among some players and was seen as unfair compared to how contract issues with Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr were handled. Spielman is responsible for managing roster moves and player contracts, and perhaps the Wilfs felt he didn’t do enough in that regard with recent deals.
Mike Zimmer was seen as a fairly gruff coach when he was hired, and he had been passed over several times because of it, but players responded well to him because while he could be hard on them, he also had the reputation of having their backs, developing and supporting them. And so he did in his first years as the Vikings head coach. But as his job security became more tenuous, that support seems to have waned, particularly for young players. And so what was once seen as a positive for Zimmer as a coach, became a negative which appears to have swollen over the last year.
Zimmer, unlike Rick Spielman, did not address the team during their Monday morning meeting when the news of their firing was announced. His statement, issued later in the day, notably failed to thank either the Wilfs or Rick Spielman for hiring him, and only thanked players that had welcomed him when he was first hired- a pretty short list of the current roster.
Statement from Mike Zimmer pic.twitter.com/EcXSv85Au2— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 11, 2022
And so, given that background, it’s no surprise that the Wilfs, in listing some of the qualities they’re looking for in a head coach, in addition to being a strong leader, also listed good communicator and collaborative ability as key qualities they’re looking for in a new head coach.
The positive thing that comes out of these otherwise not so positive revelations is that a new regime, provided they’re the right hires, could bring about a culture change pretty quickly, which could have outsized effects on results going forward. And for a team that had ten games a year ago decided by one score or less, and fourteen games this year by one score or less, a more positive culture could be one of those seemingly little things that push those close losses into victories.