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Mike Zimmer’s Tenure Was Even Uglier Than It Looked

Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings looks on from the bench on the sidelines during warm ups prior to the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Mike Zimmer was long a master of disguise. His defensive trademark was showing a Double A Gap blitz at the line of scrimmage, with two linebackers looming directly over the center, prior to the snap. This is a look that leaves the quarterback unsure as to whether or not those blitzers will drop back or—either in tandem, or just one of them—come charging through an overwhelmed interior of the O-line to blow up his shit. It’s a note-perfect blitz, until over time offenses solve it and the threat fades away.

Zimmer was fired yesterday morning after eight seasons. Despite bullying his general manager, who would be fired alongside him, into spending over $46 million to revamp his treasured defense prior to the season, the Vikings ended 2021 with the third-worst defense in football and the worst two-minute defense in league history. You can chalk up Zimmer’s ouster to a lack of production, but it’s already becoming clear that the man was now failing to hide a great many other things. There were hints of this in Tyler Dunne’s extensive profile of Zimmer from 2020, but now you’re starting to hear it from the principles involved.

Yesterday, linebacker Eric Kendricks, who served as one half of Zimmer’s Double A Gap battery along with Anthony Barr, said of Zimmer that “there were some things left out there as far as our relationship's concerned” and then finished his comments with this hit of acid:

And here was tackle Brian O’Neill: “I think having a positive, winning culture where guys are held accountable and push each other every day is kind of where we need to go."

You don’t need to be a reading comprehension wizard to understand that O’Neill was implying that the Mike Zimmer Vikings did NOT have that kind of culture. Even co-owner Mark Wilf said as much after he was asked what the Vikings are looking for in their next head coach: “We don't try to look at who's hot and who's cold, because we're just looking at the criteria I spoke about, which is great leaders, great communicators and great collaborators.”

Zimmer was none of those things. In a year of ostentatiously dysfunctional coaching reigns, here was one that, for eight years running, remained in the shadows thanks to winning (Zimmer leaves as the third-winningest coach in Vikings history behind Bud Grant and Denny Green) and thanks to Zimmer’s ability to pass off his dourness as a form of heartland charm. In fact, there was a time when Minnesota adored him, and you don’t have to go back terribly far to find evidence of it. Six years ago, Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan penned this reverie of Zimmer that, while purple in all the standard hometown columnist ways, wasn’t inaccurate in how locals perceived him:

Mike Zimmer is becoming our guy. Which is a rare thing. His NFL head coaching record is 13-11. He is clearly not “one of us” by birth or accent. He nevertheless has a chance to become one of the most beloved coaches in Minnesota history, where no matter what we say we want we really prefer older and crustier, blunter and bluer.

Everyone loves a straight-talker, or at least they like to say they do. If you go by reports from when he was hired, the whole reason that Zimmer, long an accomplished defensive coordinator, had to wait until he was 57 years old to get a head coaching gig was because he was too blunt of an instrument in job interviews. So when he got the Vikings job AND won games in relatively quick succession, Vikings fans like me felt like they had not only gotten a steal, but also a coach who mirrored the very best of what they think about themselves.

That latter part, as you now know, was bullshit. It always was. Immediately after arriving in Minnesota, Zimmer repeatedly antagonized his own staff, meddled in the offense while simultaneously resenting it, played favorites, and publicly blamed players for his own shortcomings. But the façade only really began to crumble once Kirk Cousins arrived and saddled the Vikings with his own piquant brand of shitbaggery. Since that signing, the public Zimmer began to much more closely echo the petty tyrant behind closed doors, until the two merged together completely at the end of 2021.

Asked why rookie Kellen Mond didn’t start against Green Bay, in a loss that would both eliminate the Vikings from the playoffs and seal his doom, Zimmer gave an answer that was “blunt” but, in a very Minnesotan way, conveyed about 56 other messages in the most passive-aggressive manner possible. I have no clue if Kellen Mond is a decent quarterback or not, but watching Zimmer banish him to the inactive list for an entire season and then shit on him to the press at the end of the season, after a game he barely played in, probably isn’t the best way to divine the answer.

On Sunday, the Vikings played a meaningless game against the Bears that they managed to win, in large part because they were freed from the burden of expectation. The only suspense of the afternoon was in Justin Jefferson’s attempt to break Randy Moss’s team record for receiving yards in a season. Jefferson—who is both the best player on the Vikings and, in his joyousness, an exemplar of the ideal atmosphere the entire team could, and hopefully will soon, operate under—was 17 yards away from doing so on the final drive. The crowd was chanting JEFF-ER-SON so loud, you would’ve thought it was a playoff game. Zimmer didn’t bother getting Jefferson the record, or defending the move afterward. All he had to offer was this curt, miserable line:

There will come a time when I remember Mike Zimmer’s tenure much more fondly than I do right now. He was a brilliant defensive tactician, he was the guy on the sidelines during the Minneapolis Miracle, and I liked watching how red his face could get when he was cold. He is, as of this writing, the longest-tenured coach to be fired this cycle. You’d think, given both his longevity and what he managed to accomplish, that Mike Zimmer was no ordinary head coach. But it’s becoming clearer, as he exits Minnesota, that he very much was.

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