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A good way to judge team expectations is to look at Vegas over-unders. The House isn’t a fan of any team and it has money on the line, so it’s going to tell you what the world thinks is most realistic. In three of the last four years, the Minnesota Vikings failed to go over their Vegas expected win total, which seems like the best way to summarize the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota. During his time, the Vikings raised expectations to the point that they were expected to compete for the NFC North and make the playoffs year in and year out. But the Vikings failed to meet those expectations over the last four seasons, resulting in Zimmer’s firing on Monday.

Related: Vikings fire Zimmer, Spielman

When Zimmer was hired by the Vikings in 2014, the team was in disarray. The Vikings had the worst defense in the NFL and no answer at quarterback. Two years later, they celebrated a division championship and lined up for a game-winning field goal against the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card round of the playoffs. Two years after that, they were one game away from the Super Bowl.

In some people’s eyes, Zimmer’s time in Minnesota will be defined by the things that got in the way of fulfilling the club’s potential. Whether it was Adrian Peterson’s absence in 2014, Blair Walsh’s shanked kick in 2015, Teddy Bridgewater’s injury in 2016 or Sam Bradford’s absence in 2017, the truth of the first four years of Zim was that the Vikings had to overcome problems that usually sink teams. Maybe there’s an alternate universe in which a healthy Bridgewater or Bradford either wins the No. 1 seed in the NFC in 2017 or beats the Philadelphia Eagles to earn a the team’s first Super Bowl appearance since the '70s but it was not to be, as fans would say, because Vikings.

The first four years of the head coach’s tenure were littered with what-ifs and talks of curses but during that time Zimmer garnered the reputation as a never-say-die coach whose teams could find themselves in the thick of the playoff race no matter what went wrong. The trails and progress of 2014-2017 forged the belief from fans are ownership that Zimmer teams were impervious to being bad. Despite all the aforementioned road blocks, the Vikings went 32-16 during the first stanza of Zimmer’s tenure.

While the Vikings came out of the 2017 season on a high that made them believe they were a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl team, there were things lurking in the shadows that went unnoticed. The 2017 season made it easy to forget the drama of 2016 in which Zimmer’s offensive coordinator quit midway through the season and the locker room walked away feeling alienated. The lack of turnover on the Vikings’ defense made it easy to think they would repeat their performance year after year. And the effectiveness of the team’s cap management made it easy to think Kirk Cousins’ contract wouldn’t be a major issue.

But throughout the Cousins years, things got rocky and Zimmer wasn’t able to right the ship. In 2018, he feuded with offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, eventually firing him with three weeks to go in the year. The Vikings lost in an offensive no-show to the Chicago Bears to miss the playoffs that year. Cousins and receiver Adam Thielen shouted at each other on the sidelines while Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman sat alone on the bench.

That’s when the heat turned up. By 2019, no longer was Zimmer the guy who overachieved with a team that once seemed lost at sea. He was now the leader of the biggest underachieving team in football and desperately needed a bounce-back year with Cousins at the helm to stick around. Coaches in the NFL simply do not get back-to-back failed seasons, as we have learned with his firing.

You might look back at the 10-6 record and playoff win in 2019 and see it as the Vikings returning to legitimacy as a contender. As Zimmer showing his ability to turn things back in the right direction. But that’s reading only the cover of the book. Minneapolis Miracle man Stefon Diggs revealed in a 2020 interview that he felt alienated by the head coach when he campaigned for the team to throw more often, only to be ignored. At the time, many thought Diggs was being a diva. What has happened since in Minnesota and Buffalo have proven he was simply right.

Pressure built when the Vikings repeatedly failed to beat good teams. That issue reached a crescendo in a 23-10 loss to the Packers at US Bank Stadium with the NFC North on the line. Leading up to the 2019 playoff game in New Orleans, there were reports the Vikings could trade Zimmer to Dallas if the Vikings lost. People within the organization were pining for the team to hire Kevin Stefanski as the head coach.

But Zimmer’s tenure will indeed be remembered as one where he wouldn’t go down without swinging, poking eyes and biting. He dialed up a brilliant gameplan against Drew Brees and the Saints and Cousins rewarded the team’s investment with game-winning drive. In the locker room after the game, Zimmer talked about the outside criticism for Cousins and his QB screamed, “You like that?”

That would be the final time the Vikings were a winning team. They no-showed the following week in San Francisco and never cleared .500 again.

The last four years have felt like riding a merry-go-round. There’s lots of ups and downs but the team ultimately just went in circles. At the 2020 NFL Combine, Zimmer likened his roster to the 2014 group he inherited. Age and the Vikings’ cap manipulation eventually caught up with them as Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Linval Joseph were let go and the rebuild began. However, the Vikings made the decision to give Cousins a contract extension, which kept the pressure to be a winning club directly on Zimmer and Spielman. A set of bizarre moves that included trading for Yannick Ngakoue and franchise tagging Anthony Harris shined a light on the fact that the playoff win over the Saints could only wash away so much distaste left over from 2018.

The Vikings started the season 1-5 but ended up getting themselves in the hunt late in the 2020 season. They repeated nearly the exact same formula this year, only with different names and more close losses. The offseason was spent signing veteran players who had a low percentage to be difference makers with the hope that Zimmer could coach ‘em up. It turned out that nobody is good enough at dialing up blitzes to overcome bad drafting, ineffective signings and a shade of bad luck.

Fans rode the roller coaster of game-winning drives and heartbreaking meltdowns but the result ended up the same: The Vikings went into the final weeks needed a whole lot of luck to make the playoffs.

Once again, they hit the under. Expectations weren’t met.

When the Vikings were eliminated in Green Bay, Zimmer held a defensive post-game press conference in which he solidified one of the common criticisms during his tenure: That he pointed the finger everywhere else but at himself. He mocked a reporter’s question about the disappointing season and slammed rookie Kellen Mond.

The day after the game, an article was published by The Defector breaking down the issue with the Vikings’ nepotism in hiring coordinators.

Endings in the NFL are rarely ceremonious. The head coach whose teams were known for their fight went out in back-to-back seasons in meaningless games. Few coaches survive that.

We will always wonder how things could have been different if certain injuries didn’t happen or if certain draft picks were hits instead of busts or if the Vikings picked another quarterback to lead them after the 2018 season. But the scoreboard is the scoreboard and now the Vikings franchise looks much like it did when Zimmer arrived. There’s lots of work to be done and new expectations to be set.


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