As the Vikings walked off the field Sunday, trying to process a 38-7 loss in the NFC Championship Game, a curious sentiment gained a little life among the Minnesota fanbase.
“It is Childress all over again.”
The cynicism was understandable, but surprising. Head coach Mike Zimmer had become one of the most lauded honchos in the league in 2017. His defensive schemes, his team culture and his Belichickian terseness bolstered a legitimate Coach of the Year candidacy. But following a horrific loss to Nick Foles and company, a small, yet vocal minority made their disapproval of Zimmer clear.
Upon further thought, it is not the most outrageous of leaps to make. The previous two coaches in Minnesota had precipitous drops immediately following unexpected success. The aforementioned Brad Childress won back-to-back NFC North titles in 2008 and 2009, leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game the second year. Then in 2010, the Vikings cratered. Chants of “Fire Childress” boomed throughout the Metrodome, and following a 3-7 start, the Wilf family obliged.
His replacement, Leslie Frazier, led a 3-13 team in his first year before jumping to 10-6 and a Wild Card birth in 2012. But then a 5-10-1 2013 season cost him his job, opening the door for Zimmer to take over.
This year has been set up similarly. The Vikings’ 13-3 season far exceeded expectations of most, especially after losing their starting quarterback and running back early on. But a disappointing finish leaves the window open just a crack for a three-peat of sudden coach backslide.
Zimmer’s curtain call for 2017 was not a particularly good one. The Vikings’ gameplan was off on both sides of the ball. They ran between the tackles with fervor, despite the Eagles’ boasting one of the league’s best inside run-stuffing units. On defense, they played an inexplicable amount of zone and loose man in the first half, despite the Eagles’ propensity to use the run-pass option. As a result, Foles carved up the vaunted Zimmer defense. Simply put, Doug Pederson out-schemed Zimmer the whole way.
That being said, this singular lapse of judgment is far from defining the 2017 coaching season.
Zimmer deserves somewhat of the benefit of the doubt for the mere fact that the Vikings became one of the three best teams in football after their starting quarterback and running back went down with injury. Through week four (when Dalvin Cook tore his ACL), the Vikings were 2-2 with major question marks on offense and some vulnerable parts on defense. From there, including the playoffs, they went 12-2. They finished with the top scoring defense in football. Several players had breakout seasons, from Adam Thielen and Case Keenum to Andrew Sendejo and Trae Waynes. All in all, 2017 was a good year to be Mike Zimmer.
So what about the potential drop-off? Why should Vikings fans have confidence that Zimmer does not suffer setbacks like Childress and Frazier did? The cracks are clearly there; in the biggest game of the year, he appeared to have significant brain farts.
The simplest answer to those qualms is the culture. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult to quantify. Zimmer’s culture clearly has the players pointed in the right direction. If that were not the case, they would likely have caved after four games. But there is no tangible proof of Zimmer’s culture being any better than Childress’ in 2009. Zygi Wilf publicly endorsed Childress’ leadership that season, less than a year before Childress lost Wilf’s ear.
The better answer to fans’ questions, and one that requires more faith, is Zimmer’s experience compared to Frazier’s and Childress’. Those two did not enter the NFL coaching pool until 1999. Both held exactly one coordinator position before becoming head coach: Childress with the Eagles’ offense for four seasons, Frazier the Vikings’ defense for four. Zimmer has been a pro coach since 1994. He has held long-term defensive coordinator jobs in two separate locations, Dallas and Cincinnati. Both he held for at least six seasons, even outlasting multiple head coaching changes in Dallas.
The point is that Zimmer has too much pedigree as a defensive stalwart to bring poor gameplans on a regular basis. That is where the majority of fans’ gripes lie. Not with the culture he set, not with personnel decisions. It is almost all rooted in one game of miscalculation. And those miscalculations were magnified by the poor execution of his players on the grandest stage.
2018 could bring a whole new set of problems. Zimmer may lose favor with more fans. He may make the wrong decision at quarterback. His abrupt press conference style may tire with fans and media. Anything could happen.
But fans’ faith in Zimmer should not wane based on one game. He is, at least for now, the right man for his team.
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