The Minnesota Vikings fired general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer on Monday, after a second straight absence from the playoffs for a 61-year-old franchise still seeking a title.
The move came a day after the 45th anniversary of Minnesota’s last Super Bowl appearance, after owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf met with each of the top two leaders of the football operation.
“We appreciate Rick and Mike’s commitment to the team’s on-field success, their passion for making a positive impact in our community and their dedication to players, coaches and staff,” the owners said in a statement distributed by the team. “While these decisions are not easy, we believe it is time for new leadership to elevate our team so we can consistently contend for championships.”
Zimmer went 72-56-1 in eight seasons, plus 2-3 in the postseason. The Vikings won the NFC North in 2015 and 2017, but in the end the state of the division was the same as at the beginning – with rival Green Bay in firm control.
Zimmer went 7-8-1 against the Packers, enjoying as much strategical success against three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers as any coach during his time, but the overall deterioration of the once-dominant defence he built soon after his arrival was a big part of what led to his dismissal. The Vikings gave up the third-most yards and ninth-most points in 2021, including a league-most 146 points in the final 2 minutes of either half or overtime.
The 65-year-old Zimmer had the seventh-longest tenure among head coaches in the NFL this season, with the 25 others in the league all hired within the last five years. The six peers ahead of him on the seniority list have all won a Super Bowl: Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Andy Reid.
The 2017 team proved to be the peak of the Spielman-Zimmer regime, when Case Keenum took over for the injured Sam Bradford at quarterback and produced a career season while the defence led the league with the fewest yards and points allowed.
The first crack in the foundation became clear in the NFC championship game, a 38-7 loss at Philadelphia one week after the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Keenum’s 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs as time expired beat New Orleans in the divisional round, but the Eagles were the ones who made it to the Super Bowl in Minnesota’s stadium. In yet another sign of the high-pressure environment that is the NFL, Eagles coach Doug Pederson was fired one year before Zimmer.
Since Spielman was hired as vice president of player personnel in 2006, the only other NFC teams that haven’t made it to a Super Bowl are Dallas, Detroit and Washington. Twelve different teams have won the conference in those 16 years, the last 10 of which Spielman had full authority over the roster as the general manager.
Spielman was responsible for firing Leslie Frazier after the 2013 season and replacing him with Zimmer, who made his name as a demanding defensive co-ordinator for Dallas and Cincinnati before finally getting his chance to run a team in Minnesota.
Zimmer never gave up the defensive play-calling and, as Rodgers and other opponents will attest, remained one of the game’s best strategists. His straightforward and hard-nosed approach won the respect of most of his best players on defence, but his style cut both ways.
Zimmer was never sold on Keenum and never seemed to mesh well with current quarterback Kirk Cousins. He publicly second-guessed his offensive co-ordinators on several occasions for calling too many passing plays, including just last week after the Vikings were eliminated by a loss to the Packers. After Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal in the 2015 playoffs that would have given the Vikings a victory over Seattle, Zimmer was especially hard on kickers, too.
Mark Wilf was scheduled for a video news conference for the afternoon. The Wilfs bought the team in 2005 and have been clear about their desire to run a stable organization, as evidenced by their patience with Spielman and Zimmer.
They have overseen the firing of four head coaches in 17 seasons, but Zimmer finished with the third-longest tenure in Vikings history behind Bud Grant and Dennis Green. Spielman and Zimmer were both given contract extensions in 2020, the expiration of their deals purposely synched.
“Our comprehensive search for a new general manager and head coach will begin immediately and will be led internally. We are determined to have sustained success and bring Vikings fans the Super Bowl championships they expect and deserve,” the Wilfs said in their statement.
In 2018, after signing Cousins after letting Keenum leave as a free agent, the Vikings drafted kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth round out of Auburn. He didn’t appear to be ready for the pressure of kicking for a team in win-now mode, and some preseason struggles even prompted Zimmer to try a 2-point conversion in an exhibition game.
Then came the game at Green Bay in the second week of the season, when Carlson missed three field goals, including two in overtime in a 29-all tie with the rival Packers. The Vikings impulsively released him the next day. When asked for an explanation, Zimmer said, “Did you see the game?”
Carlson led the NFL in 2021 with 40 field goals made for Las Vegas, missing just three all season. He sent the Raiders to the playoffs on Sunday night by going 5 for 5 on field goals, including the 47-yard winner in overtime.