Mediocrity is not a place Vikings fans thought they would be miring in come this time of year. Even more surprising are the calls from some sectors for the jobs of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer. And while that may be a bit premature, given both men’s success with the Vikings, it is not exactly difficult to see where they are coming from. Despite all the positives both men have brought to the franchise, their shortcomings are still there and still glaring.
Spielman has built an exceptional roster on both sides of the ball. Regardless of who leaves or stays this offseason, there is no doubting Spielman’s ability to draft from the first round to the seventh. He can find talent in free agency and identify quality reclamation projects as well as anyone. Nothing about Spielman’s reign in Minnesota would indicate he is a poor roster builder.
That said, the one weakness that has plagued his tenure continues to loom large. The Vikings remain inadequately prepared on the offensive line from a talent standpoint. And that is not necessarily for lack of trying. While Spielman has generally stayed away from taking linemen early in the draft since the Matt Kalil debacle, many of his draft picks in that area have either under-performed or flamed out entirely. The one notable exception was Brian O’Neill this year, who Spielman took in round two. Even when Spielman has tried the free agency well, he found mixed results. Riley Reiff has been a solid addition, but Tom Compton and Mike Remmers were major liabilities this year, for example.
When 2019 closes, the safe bet is that Spielman will remain in his position, regardless of the Vikings’ performance. However, should 2019 finish like 2018 did, he may enter 2020 on a piping hot seat. For him, the prescription for long-term job security seems fairly simple: build up the offensive line to at least an above-average unit.
With Zimmer, the diagnosis or his failings this year and the projection for him going forward are not as clear. Without question, he has built a quality culture in Minnesota. His defensive play-calling is among the league’s best. His ability to develop all manner of position groups is beyond commendable. Like Spielman, there is far more positive than negative with Zimmer.
But again, 2018 manifested some weaknesses with Zimmer’s coaching career. Big games were not merely a Kirk Cousins issue. They seemed to be a coaching problem, as well. Zimmer’s vaunted defense often needed significant halftime adjustments after getting torched early on. Flat was a word consistently thrown around whenever the Vikings played an upper-echelon opponent this season. Of course, as full-grown adults, the onus of motivation has to fall largely on players themselves. However, the apparent lack of preparedness from Zimmer teams has become a bit of a trend. Look at last year’s playoff games. This year’s primetime games. Time after time, big games were effectively over before the Vikings even figuratively got off the bus.
To be clear, no one should be in a hurry to see anyone lose their jobs. Spielman and Zimmer have built something solid, and as disappointing as 2018 was they still have time to see their vision through. But.
The Cousins signing was indicative of a team that plans on going all-in. They are hitching their wagon to this train, and if it derails, so do they. For a short window, the Vikings have a number of star-caliber players on bargain deals. In today’s NFL, that is a perfect recipe for building a Super Bowl roster. Yet, the Vikings have yet to build Super Bowl results. Worse, they failed to yield playoff results this past season.
For all the success, all the brilliant moves, the Cousins deal will ultimately define Spielman’s legacy, and to a lesser degree, Zimmer’s. So much of their fate will come down to whether or not Cousins is the guy to finally lead a Vikings Super Bowl threat. Should that happen in the next two years, both guys will have serious long-term job security. But if 2019 resembles 2018, then we may be looking at some thinner ice under their feet.
Both Spielman and Zimmer have contracts through 2019. But in the NFL, contracts are essentially meaningless, especially for coaches and general managers. After all, Jeff Fisher signed an extension with the Rams in 2016, eight days before being fired. Assuming the Vikings do not finish closer to last than first in the division, it seems that Spielman and Zimmer have enough equity built to see this plan through to the end, that is to say, through 2020. After that, it is anyone’s guess.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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