When it comes to the hierarchy of head coaches in Vikings history, Mike Zimmer has to be toward the top of that list. Ranking second all-time in wins (96) and winning percentage (.599) behind Bud Grant and Dennis Green, Viking fans have had it good over the years as Zimmer has led the Vikings to respectability including a pair of NFC North titles.
But as is the case in the NFL, teams always want to get more than just being relevant. As the Vikings head into the 2020 season, Zimmer has yet to receive a contract extension and along with General Manager Rick Spielman, the current regime will enter this year with lame-duck status.
A report earlier this week by The Athletic's Chad Graff suggested that Zimmer is "irked" by the current situation and would prefer more long-term security prior to this season. But that decision has its share of risks and benefits, raising the question if the Vikings are better with stability or shaking things up.
The case to extend Zimmer
As we mentioned, Zimmer is one of the most successful coaches in franchise history, but it's not a Jeff Fisher and Tennessee Titans situation. Zimmer is one of the top coaches in the league and was even ranked as the 10th best head coach in the league according to CBS Sportsline's Sean Wagner-McGough.
While you could argue that Zimmer should be higher on that list, it's pretty clear he deserves to be in the same breath as other the other coaches on that list and that's likely because the other nine have taken their team's to Super Bowls (more on this in a second).
There's also the way that Zimmer has produced consistent results on the field. The Vikings have been a perennial top-10 defense under Zimmer and while some years have gone off the rails, it's been because of off the field issues as opposed to terrible coaching.
There's also the rift that an impending "free agency" could cause for the Vikings. There is no franchise tag for coaches in the NFL and at the end of the season, Zimmer could use the grudge of no extension to pick and choose where he wants to coach in 2021.
This scenario similarly played out in 2018 before the Vikings exercised Zimmer's option for this season. When asked if he was OK with coaching out the final season of his deal after a rough 2018 campaign, Zimmer said "Sure, I'm cool with that. Free agent, right?"
This creates a scenario where even if Zimmer does get results out of a rebuilt defense, the Vikings would have to compete with other teams just to keep him around.
The case against extending Zimmer
At this point, we know what the Vikings have in Zimmer. He's an old-school coach from the Bill Parcells tree that wants to jump ahead on teams using an aggressive defense and then use his running game to bleed the clock and play keep away from opposing teams.
This style was great about 15 years ago, but the NFL has continued to shift toward a high-paced, passing offense, making Zimmer one of the last of a dying breed.
In addition, his ways have been noted to alienate himself from his players and even his own coaching staff. Zimmer disagreeing with his offensive coordinator has become as much of a fall tradition as the leaves changing colors and his own players have had moments where they're not sure about the direction of the team.
The most recent example came with Stefon Diggs, who skipped practice back after a Week 4 loss in Chicago last season and spawned an obscenity-laced tirade where Zimmer said "We don't need him."
For what it's worth, Diggs did not mention Zimmer in a piece on The Players Tribune saying goodbye to Minnesota.
Players have also shown loyalty to Zimmer in the past, taking less money to stay (see Anthony Barr), but even that has started to crack. Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander both left in free agency and locker room leader Griffen has not come to terms on a potential return with the Vikings and appears headed elsewhere.
These decisions have produced a bit of an uneven result record-wise with the even-numbered years (23-24-1) seeing less success than odd-numbered years (34-14). This could just be bad luck (Adrian Peterson's child abuse situation in 2014, Teddy Bridgewater's knee injury in 2016, etc.), but also a signal that when things go south, Zimmer doesn't really know how to recover in season.
What should the Vikings do?
Although Zimmer has plenty of good and bad throughout his career, he's probably one of the top coaches in the NFL. It may seem like a cop-out, but the biggest issue with not extending Zimmer is who replaces him once he leaves?
The most logical idea would be to look for an offensive head coach and Kansas City's Eric Bienemy would be an intriguing option. But teams also haven't hired him despite leading the highest-scoring offense in football the past two years and although Pederson won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia, the overall coaching tree from Andy Reid (Brad Childress, Matt Nagy) hasn't produced much success.
There are other offensive candidates who could also emerge after this season, but there's no guarantee that they will do a better job than Zimmer has over the past six seasons.
In a way, it's tough to remember how bad the Vikings were before Zimmer showed up. While they went to an NFC Championship Game in 2009 under Childress, that success was more based on Brett Favre. Leslie Frazier got the Vikings to the playoffs on the back of Peterson's massive 2012 season but also saw his defense rank dead last in 2013 before being replaced by Zimmer.
The best option for the Vikings may be to offer another one-year deal to see what Zimmer does with this new group of players. If things go well, Minnesota can wait and work out a long-term extension after this season and move on if they don't.
Whatever happens, the Vikings will have to tread carefully if Zimmer is the head coach they want. If they don't Zimmer could be the head coach they wish they still had.