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Coller: Careful what you wish for with the Zimmer hot seat

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
Mike Zimmer

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

This is a first during the Mike Zimmer era: Bet Online released its odds for the first coach that will be fired in the upcoming NFL season and Zimmer made the top five.

The Minnesota Vikings’ head coach is only listed behind Mike McCarthy, Vic Fangio, Matt Nagy and Jon Gruden as favorites to be let go first.

The oddsmakers are no fools. Certainly they are reading the tea leaves and the Vikings match up with situations that sometimes result in a coach being let go. Zimmer has been in Minnesota for a long time without a Super Bowl. Check. The team had disappointing results last year. Check. The team has high expectations this year. Check.

Coaches are generally under even more pressure when it’s their side of the ball that falters. Zimmer’s defense ranked 29th in points allowed last season, by far his club’s worst performance since he arrived in 2014. With the investments the Vikings made on the defensive side of the ball i.e. signing Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson, Zimmer will be under great scrutiny if the defense does not return to its expected form.

Plus there’s a general feeling that the team has reached a crossroads. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is only under contract for two more years -- and you could argue that the structure of the deal sets up for a decision to be made after 2021. That means they could be looking at a complete overhaul if things go sideways this year.

So there’s plenty of reason for Bet Online to have Zimmer on the list. But as we go forward into next season and evaluate the Vikings’ performance, one thing to keep in mind is that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side when it comes to head football coaches.

Zimmer has proven that his teams will be competitive simply by proxy of having him as their head coach. The 2014 Vikings won seven games after starting Matt Cassel and then turning to a rookie Teddy Bridgewater with no Adrian Peterson, very few weapons and a transitioning defense. When Bridgewater and Sam Bradford got hurt in 2016 and 2017, respectively, the Vikings went 21-11. It’s not often a team can lose its starting QB and still win two-thirds of their games.

Signing Kirk Cousins took the pressure on Zimmer to another level because the bar was set at reaching the Super Bowl once Cousins put ink to paper. And there’s no re-writing the 2018 season -- it was one of the great Vikings disappointments in recent years. But they followed up by changing offensive coordinators and returning to the playoffs. Even last season when the Vikings started 1-5, they found themselves in the playoff hunt late in the year.

Let’s be clear: Being in the playoff hunt should not be the standard. You don’t get to hang banners for 7-9 seasons. There are times in the Vikings’ history where it’s appeared they have made moves to stay relevant rather than going for broke and that doesn’t deserve to be rewarded. As it pertains to Zimmer though, there is value in having a coach who sustains a floor of relevance. That means when things do click, your team has a chance to go deep into the playoffs. The opposite of this is much worse and and much more common than consistent competitiveness.

The opposite is having a coach that underachieves. Someone who is given a roster that’s worthy of a playoff run but never realizes its potential because of bad coaching. Or a coach that takes a team with budding talent and keeps it stuck on the ground.

You don’t have to think too hard to come up with a bunch of examples. Detroit fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season in favor of Matt Patricia, who went 13-29-1. Las Vegas ousted Jack Del Rio after a down 2017 season and the Raiders are yet to return to the postseason. Carolina no longer wanted Ron Rivera and Matt Rhule’s tenure began with a 5-11 season. How’s Cincinnati doing post Marvin Lewis?

And that’s not even to mention the high number of coaches who have failed almost instantly. Adam Gase, Vance Joseph, Steve Wilks, Jim Tomsula, Freddie Kitchens and on and on.

Yes, there are times in which a change is needed. The Rams had to move on from Jeff Fisher to turn things over to Sean McVay and it was definitely time for the Packers to fire Mike McCarthy. But those were situations in which a coach appeared to be no longer capable of leading their franchise. After last year’s messy transition season, it still doesn’t feel that way in Minnesota.

It will, however, be a tricky spot for Vikings ownership if they start off the year slowly. The Wilfs' reputation is to avoid being reactionary but their patience will be tested if the Vikings sputter out of the gate. The oddsmakers seem to think they might make a move in that case. Ownership will have to think long and hard though. Sometimes a veteran coach may appear to be holding you back when he’s actually holding you up.

Not that any of us feel bad for the Vikings’ owners, but you have to admit their spot is tough with their head coach. Some teams that have rolled with one leader for a long time have been rewarded like the Pittsburgh Steelers with Bill Cowher or New York with Tom Coughlin. How do you determine when it’s time? How do you figure out how much simply rests on whether the quarterback makes a big play in a big spot? Or whether a draft pick hits or misses?

How do you figure out if a 10-7 season with a single playoff win is a sign of good things to come or the peak of what the team is capable of under the coach? If I had the answer, I’d be paid way more, I guess. But what I do know is that the answer isn’t always to fire someone who’s capable of doing the job well because the job is darn near impossible, as many newbies have demonstrated. 

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