Vikings Must End the Mike Zimmer Era After Week 18January 7, 2022
At 7-9 and out of playoff contention, the Minnesota Vikings will head into the offseason with multiple pressing questions, but one thing seems clear: They must break up the Mike Zimmer-Kirk Cousins union.
Who's more expendable, though? That's an easy answer.
After a trip to the NFC Championship Game with Case Keenum under center, the Vikings inked Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal in 2018. In 2020, he signed a two-year, $66 million extension. Yet, Minnesota's lucrative investments in the signal-caller haven't quite paid off.
Together, Cousins and Zimmer have one playoff win in four seasons. The Vikings will finish below .500 in back-to-back terms.
Cousins said he wants to finish his career in Minnesota. Because of his contract, he'll likely play another year with the club. He's on the books for $35 million guaranteed in 2022.
Because of the money tied to his contract, Cousins isn't the most appealing trade asset. On top of that, he's taken criticism for his inability to lead Minnesota to victories in marquee matchups.
Every time the Vikings have a standalone game, Cousins' abysmal record in the primetime slot (10-17) pops up in discussion.
With that said, he's usually productive. However, his passing numbers haven't translated to a lot of wins. Take a look at his career passer rating and the team's win-loss record with him in the starting spot following Week 13.
Phil Mackey 🎙 @PhilMackey
Yesterday Kirk Cousins climbed to 5th on the NFL's all-time passer rating leaderboard Cousins is the *only* QB among the top 15 all-time whose teams are *below .500* Interpret and distribute this information however you wish, in a respectful, mannerly fashion. https://t.co/4p0Lxd3b6e
Cousins has the numbers that suggest he's a solid starting-caliber quarterback. With the Vikings, he's thrown for 121 touchdowns and 36 interceptions while averaging at least 240.2 passing yards in each of the past four campaigns.
A squad that desperately needs a competent signal-caller such as the Carolina Panthers or Denver Broncos may inquire about him, but the Vikings don't have a replacement who's ready to take over the reins.
Going into Week 17, Zimmer made it clear that rookie third-rounder Kellen Mond didn't make enough strides to start over Sean Mannion in Cousins' place.
Cousins, though flawed with limited physical tools, has moved well as the centerpiece of the league's 11th-ranked passing attack. With a better supporting cast on the other side of the ball, he could have led the Vikings back to the postseason, which speaks to a bigger issue.
Zimmer has a background as a defensive coach. Between 2000 and 2013, he served as the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals. In each of his first six seasons with the Vikings, the club ranked top-11 in points allowed. However, the defense has eroded significantly in the last two years.
In December of the 2020 term, Zimmer called his 29th-ranked scoring defense the worst in his career.
Despite the additions of cornerback Patrick Peterson, safety Xavier Woods and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson—along with the return of familiar faces in slot cover man Mackensie Alexander and defensive end Everson Griffen, who hasn't played since Week 11 because he's taking care of his mental health—the Vikings defense hasn't shown much improvement.
Going into Week 18, Minnesota ranks 25th in points allowed and gives up the second-most yards, slightly worse than last year when the defense surrendered the sixth-most yards.
If Zimmer can't tighten up the defense—his area of expertise—the Vikings have no reason to keep him around.
Between the 2014 and 2020 campaigns, Zimmer led Minnesota to double-digit wins every other year, but that trend came to an end after a disappointing Week 13 loss to the Detroit Lions, who went into that contest winless and marched 75 yards down the field in under two minutes for a game-winning touchdown drive.
No one can blame Cousins for that embarrassing defeat; he threw for 340 yards and two scores in that outing.
Even if the Vikings prefer a younger, cheaper upstart talent over Cousins, Zimmer isn't the guy to develop the team's next quarterback. He can rely on first-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak for that responsibility, but without an influence of a strong defense, the 65-year-old doesn't have a role in the team's prospective plan to bounce back in 2022.
When Zimmer appeared on his weekly segment with team broadcaster Paul Allen, he seemed at peace with the possibility that the Vikings could let him go after Week 18.
"Regardless of anything that goes on after the season, I can stand proud," Zimmer said. "When I walk into a stadium like Lambeau, or I walk into U.S. Bank Stadium, and I say to myself, 'A billion people would love to be sitting here right now and doing this job."'
Zimmer should expect to lose his job as the team struggles in mediocrity with a bottom-tier defense. Despite a decent 71-56-1 head-coaching record and two more years left on his contract, he's run his course in Minnesota.
The Vikings won't close the gap on the Green Bay Packers or dig themselves out of the .500 lane until they either upgrade to a star quarterback, which seems highly unlikely, or find a head coach who can rectify the defense.
Though Cousins takes a lot of the blame for the Vikings' recent shortcomings, the team doesn't have a clear-cut succession plan for him.
However, the front office can replace Zimmer with a hot-name offensive coordinator to elevate a unit with young and talented skill players in wide receiver Justin Jefferson, running back Dalvin Cook and tight end Irv Smith Jr. Minnesota has enough firepower around Cousins to field a potent offense.
The Vikings should also consider coordinators who have fielded high-end defenses in recent seasons, such as Matt Eberflus (Indianapolis Colts), Dennis Allen (New Orleans Saints) and Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
If the Vikings bolster their defense, they could see more highs than lows with Cousins in big games. Remember, wins aren't a quarterback stat, and Minnesota's defense hasn't pulled its weight in two years. You can blame Zimmer for that.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.