Bad luck or failure to adapt? Vikings must decide Mike Zimmer's future

2020 has been a rough year for the Vikings, but Zimmer's flaws go beyond some bad luck.
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Mike Zimmer

Friday night's loss to the New Orleans Saints spawned plenty of questions for the Minnesota Vikings, namely the future of head coach Mike Zimmer, who will miss the postseason for the fourth time in seven seasons at the helm in Minnesota. 

One of the biggest reasons this season was a disaster for the Vikings was Zimmer's stubborn mentality and refusal to adapt. The Wilfs now have to seriously review what went wrong, this year and years past, and decide whether to move on from the 64-year-old defensive guru or allow him to return in 2021 for the first year of the three-year contract extension he signed before the season. 

Coming into last offseason, the Vikings were a team that was getting older on the defensive side of the ball. With fresh blood needed, several veterans got the ax and all three starting cornerbacks – Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – found new teams.

The departures meant the Vikings realistically wouldn't be able to replicate the top 10 defenses that Zimmer has produced throughout his tenure in Minnesota. The good news was that the offense featured two dynamite receivers and one of the best running backs in the NFL, meaning the obvious plan of action to succeed in 2020 was to rely on the offense, hoping to outscore opponents while the defense endured a learning curve.

Minnesota signed free agent nose tackle Michael Pierce and elected to keep safety Anthony Harris on an $11 million franchise tender. That money could've been used to land an adequate left guard. Instead, Zimmer approached the season with plans of controlling the clock by running the ball and playing defense, which was a disaster waiting to happen. 

Then the season began and the Vikings looked completely unprepared against Green Bay and Indianapolis. While the Vikings didn't have the benefit of a preseason, neither did the Packers and Colts, who were more than happy to take advantage.

This popped up a couple of weeks later when the Vikings hosted a winless Atlanta Falcons team in Week 5. Coming off a pair of encouraging performances against Tennessee and Seattle, the Vikings were embarrassed by the Falcons and limped into the bye week at 1-5.

Every good coach makes an adjustment during the bye week and Zimmer's was to run the ball even more. It worked for a while but underlined more flaws within his coaching staff, namely with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has had plenty of success in the league but opted to run an offense that echoed the 1998 Denver Broncos.

With every 2nd-and-1 that Dalvin Cook was rammed into the middle of an opposing defense, the Vikings lost opportunities to get the ball to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, which precisely why Stefon Diggs forced his way out of Minnesota.

Even as Cousins shook out of an early season funk (predicated by the performance of his offensive line), the Vikings still opted to grind the game out and winning by less than a score against 4-10 Carolina and 1-13 Jacksonville.

This is why the Vikings' playoff push was never to be taken seriously. With the inability to put bad teams away, the Vikings couldn't hang with teams that were either in the playoffs or on the fringe of the playoff picture.

That falls on Zimmer, especially as his defense imploded toward the second half of the year. Injuries to Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks haven't helped, but the Vikings also had several other players fall short of expectations.

Without help along the defensive line, Ifeadi Odenigbo has looked like a mere mortal after recording seven sacks last season. Jaleel Johnson and Shamar Stephen have been the starting defensive tackles and currently rank 113th and 67th, respectively, in Pro Football Focus' grades among qualifying interior defensive linemen. Yannick Ngakoue still leads the Vikings in sacks and he hasn't played for them since Week 5.

All of this coming from a coach that stubbornly said to the media, "I've never had a bad defense," but it's obvious that there's a first time for everything. Even if you want to chalk up Zimmer's rough 2020 to bad luck, there are several disturbing trends that have occurred. 

Zimmer's team has no-showed at important moments during his tenure, including a 2018 NFC Championship Game where the Vikings had a chance to play in the Super Bowl in their own stadium. 

Going further back, his players have gone rogue including a 2016 disaster where his defensive backs questioned the gameplan against Jordy Nelson. Even on Sunday, the Vikings got pushed around and gored as Alvin Kamara hung an NFL record six rushing touchdowns on Zimmer's defense.

Twenty-twenty has a been disaster for the Vikings and there are plenty of reasons to toss blame, but the man in charge is at the top of the list. It's now up to the Wilfs to decide if Zimmer's style will turn the Vikings into a legitimate contender next year and beyond. 

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