It’s always ugly at the end.
If you Google search news stories surrounding any NFL coach right after they got fired, you’re going to have breakdowns of everything that went wrong. Everyone picks at the bones and lots of people have reasons to point the finger at one person, when there’s always plenty of blame to go around. To paraphrase Kirk Cousins – who has said nothing publicly about his coach and GM being fired – it’s always a combination of factors for why a team doesn’t succeed. (Stunning that Cousins hasn’t taken any responsibility for what happened, by the way. Totally. Stunning.)
Some recent hits from coaches who were canned: There were reports that Doug Pederson was “treated like a child” by Eagles management. Dan Quinn was blamed for picking the wrong offensive coordinators. Mike McCarthy was labeled as the guy who ruined Aaron Rodgers’ late prime.
So that’s how it goes. But two weeks after Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman were let go, there have been a few things that have reverberated from their firings that go beyond “this guy didn’t win enough.” Eric Kendricks alluded to a “fear-based” organization in his press conference following the Wilfs going scorched earth. NFL legend Deion Sanders said that Spielman and Zimmer hadn’t spoken for months. The head-butting leaked into the public with Zimmer taking shots at the roster depth throughout training camp and slamming rookie Kellen Mond in a press conference after the Vikings’ loss to the Packers in Week 17.
While Zimmer had unhinged moments in front of the media i.e. defending Bashaud Breeland’s inappropriate tweet and openly bullying one particular reporter, Spielman hid away. He talked once during training camp and once at the bye week and left Zimmer to take the rest of the bullets. When he did talk, Spielman refused to comment on first-round pick Jeff Gladney, who was cut after being indicted for domestic abuse. Instead the focus was on close games that the team unluckily lost.
In the days before the firings, The Defector ran an article focusing on nepotism in the NFL centered around the Vikings. The report included details of players feeling alienated by the team hiring family members over the best people for the job. The article’s author told the Purple Insider podcast that there was speculation from those in the league that Zimmer’s past with offensive coordinators made the job so unfavorable that they didn’t have much choice but to hire Gary Kubiak’s son Klint.
This wasn’t just ugly. This was ugly, ugly.
It’s hard not to wonder where we’d be if the Wilfs had seen the writing on the wall one or two years ago. If they had moved on from Zimmer and Spielman after 2019, we might be talking about Kevin Stefanski and George Paton entering Year 3 of their tenure. Who knows who would be playing quarterback at this point.
Maybe it’s harder to play the hindsight game with 2019 because the team reached the postseason and won a playoff game. But 2020 was a total system failure. They made strange moves like trading for Yannick Ngakoue and Zimmer couldn’t coach up his less-talented defense. It was also becoming clear that the relationship between HC and QB was non-existent. After a 7-9 season, which included two of the seven wins coming against the Detroit Lions, it would have been the right time to reset the franchise.
You could say it’s 20/20 hindsight to say that they should have moved on, hired a new HC and GM and drafted Justin Fields or Mac Jones but is that really something that nobody could have seen coming as a better option? The issues with Zimmer and culture stemmed back to 2016, where he frustrated players to the point that they ignored his orders in a late-season game in Green Bay. Throughout his tenure these problems repeatedly came to light, whether it was criticizing Case Keenum during his winning streak in 2017, taking jabs at fired OC John DeFilippo or upsetting players by saying he had a “bad defense” after a loss in New Orleans.
On Spielman’s side, his list of free agent moves and draft picks was already going sideways by 2020 and the inefficient moves like extending Cousins, overpaying a linebacker and running back, franchise tagging a safety and so on were adding up.
Then after the brass was canned, receiver Adam Thielen revealed on his podcast that ownership spoke to the players’ leadership council. Uh, maybe they should have checked in with them when Stefon Diggs was forcing his way out because nobody would listen to him about the offensive philosophy.
The Wilfs are known as tremendous owners. They aren’t meddlers. They build top-notch facilities. They have open pocket books. But maybe aiming to be like the Pittsburgh Steelers with consistency and stability only works if you have the right people to do that. If you have Mike Tomlin, a steady, professional coach. If you have a front office who’s on the same page with Tomlin. If you have a quarterback who has rings. Being in a steady state of chaos, frustration and panic to win-now isn’t exactly the same thing. That’s how it has been for four years in Minnesota.
There’s always a lesson to learn from every collapse in sports. With this one, it’s that the Wilfs must have a finger on the pulse next time. They can’t let the team slump into mediocrity in the standings and drama in the building. Whether that’s putting measures in place to mitigate that possibility or simply better knowing what’s going on inside their practice palace in Eagan.
And remember that being patient isn’t always a virtue. Maybe the Vikings would be playing this weekend as an up-and-coming team if they had been a little more reactionary to the first three years of the Cousins era.