Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
The Minnesota Vikings are never out of the news cycle for very long.
Just a week ago The Athletic reported that head coach Mike Zimmer was “irked” by his lack of a contract extension and then on Wednesday NFL Network reported that Zimmer has signed a multi-year contract.
Taking extension talks right up to the final hour before training camp is notable considering Zimmer’s track record as the coach who presided over the complete turnaround of the organization but there was some tension regarding his future at the end of last season when reports surfaced that he could be traded to Dallas. Now that we know Zimmer will be in Minnesota for at least several more years, what does his extension mean for the franchise?
Well, several things...
The Vikings’ defense will give them a chance to win
We often analyze a coach through the lens of whether he can lead a team to the Super Bowl but the other way to look at his track record is through the worst-case scenario. During Zimmer’s six seasons, there have been a lot of worst-case scenarios. Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford’s season-ending injuries, issues on the offensive line, multiple eye surgeries of his own. Heck, a protester even hung from the stadium roof in 2016. Yet every year aside from his first season in 2014 he’s come out with at least a .500 record. That’s largely because of the defensive consistency.
You know the stats by now but it’s worth repeating that Zimmer’s last defense that wasn’t top 11 in points allowed came in 2010. His ability to gameplan/scheme along with develop talented players has consistently shined through over his 20 years as a defensive coordinator or head coach. Pro Football Focus pointed out on Twitter that they have graded Zimmer’s defenses as top 10 in tackling every year except 2016. Since 2015 they have allowed the second fewest touchdown passes and rank fourth in QB rating allowed.
Since the Vikings are paying for what Zimmer will do rather than what he has done, his ability to adapt his defense to match up with offensive trends around the NFL is relevant looking forward. In 2018 the Vikings’ defense struggled with some new concepts deployed by the Rams, who shredded them on a Thursday Night Football game. Zimmer and his staff adapted quickly and finished fourth in yards against and ninth in points allowed.
With the league ever-evolving on offense, having confidence that the head coach can match wits schematically has immense value.
Zimmer has time to retool/rebuild/develop the roster
The recent Vikings’ rosters have certainly featured talented players but they have also seen the Everson Griffens, Danielle Hunters and Anthony Harrises grow from relative no-names to stars. Zimmer will be tasked with having to develop the next round of these types with his new-look squad.
The Vikings enter 2020 with at least two new starters on the defensive line and three new cornerbacks from last season. The task of bringing draft picks like Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, James Lynch and DJ Wonnum doesn’t happen overnight -- especially in an offseason that was torn apart by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the NFL Combine, Zimmer compared the situation to 2014, when he took over a defense that ranked 32nd in points allowed. His staff will have to teach and evaluate in short order with only a few weeks of practices likely happening this year.
Zimmer won’t treat the job differently now that he has a contract extension but it won’t be a part of the story every time a young player makes a mistake. He will have the time to see the talented group of draft picks through and get every opportunity to build them into a top defense as he did between 2014 and 2017.
Gary Kubiak will be with the Vikings too
Over the last year Zimmer and Kubiak worked closely together and formed a bond as two coaches with a great deal of experience and success on their respective sides of the ball. People within the organization have noted the connection between the two and overall positive influence of Kubiak.
The offense also ranked eighth in points scored with Kubiak’s offense (operated by Kevin Stefanski), which was the highest of any year under Zimmer. Quarterback Kirk Cousins posted a career best quarterback rating, PFF grade and win total. Kubiak’s offense ramped up play-action passes, boosted the Vikings’ QB to fourth in the NFL in rating when using a play fake.
Whether you believe running the ball is still as necessary as it was when Kubiak started coaching or not, success on the ground was a major part of the Vikings’ offense last year and that’s exactly how Zimmer wants it.
Keeping Kubiak around could end up being as big as Zimmer himself. In recent years, reaching the Super Bowl without an elite offense has proven very difficult. Of the last 10 teams to reach the Super Bowl, only the 2015 Broncos did not rank in the top five in scoring.
The head coach may outlast the quarterback
One interesting element of the Zimmer conversation has always been his carousel of quarterbacks. It’s clear the organization is locked into Cousins given that they signed him to a contract extension on the first day of free agency but his deal runs through 2022 and carries a $45 million cap hit in the last year of said contract. He also reportedly does not have a no-trade clause.
Zimmer’s new contract could give him an opportunity to pick his next quarterback if the team either plateaus with Cousins or if he struggles to repeat his 2019 performance.
Yes, that’s getting a little far down the road but it plays into Zimmer’s security. If the Vikings eventually decide they can only go so far with Cousins, it gives Zimmer another shot at a reboot, similar to the way Andy Reid’s status seemed up in the air after numerous first-round outs and then the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes.
The bottom line
Like backup quarterbacks, everyone always wonders what’s behind Door Number Two with head coaches but trying to find the stability that he’s brought to the Vikings with another coach might prove to be very difficult. They are in line for another shot within the next few years at competing for the division and a Super Bowl, which is where you want to be.