Following the conclusion of the 2021 season after a 31-17 win over the Chicago Bears, the Minnesota Vikings fired coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman on Monday after eight seasons, sources told ESPN.
The Vikings finished with an 8-9 record and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the first time that occurred during Zimmer’s tenure. Zimmer, 65, was hired by Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf in 2014 after he spent six seasons as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati (2008-13). He held the same position with Atlanta in 2007 and Dallas from 2000 to ’06. Zimmer started his NFL coaching career with the Cowboys in 1994 and was a college coach from 1979 to 1993. This is the first time in Zimmer’s career that he has been fired.
Spielman has been with the Vikings since 2006, first as the team’s vice president of player personnel and then as Minnesota’s general manager, a role he held since 2012. Before he joined the front office in Minnesota, Spielman, 59, was the senior vice president of football operations in Miami. In eight seasons with the Vikings, Zimmer compiled a 72-56-1 record, which averages out to 9.1 wins per season, and made three trips to the postseason (2015, 2017, 2019) with two playoff wins. Minnesota reached the NFC Championship Game in 2017 with the league’s top-ranked defense. Zimmer’s firing comes on the cusp of Minnesota’s defense reaching historic depths. The Vikings ranked 31st defensively in 2021, which was the worst ranking of any unit during Zimmer’s tenure.
After setting a record for the most points allowed in the final two minutes of a half in the past 20 seasons with 107 in 2020, the Vikings reached historic lows this year with 128 points allowed in the final two minutes of a half, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That’s the most allowed in league history since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The Vikings invested north of $46 million in guaranteed money on defensive contracts last offseason to restore their once-vaunted defense. Minnesota finished the season ranked 24th in points allowed (426), 27th in yards per play (5.7), 26th in rushing yards allowed (130.7), 28th in passing yards allowed (252.9) and 26th on yards allowed after the catch (2049).
The story of the 2021 Vikings is one defined by games that came down to the final possession. Of Minnesota’s 17 games this season, 14 were decided by one possession, the most of any team in the NFL this season. Minnesota’s eight losses in one score games were one shy of setting an NFL record. Zimmer and Spielman both received three-year contract extensions ahead of the 2020 season. At the time of their firings, Zimmer and Spielman had two years remaining on their respective deals, which run through 2023.
Spielman’s last draft class in Minnesota featured 11 rookies with only a few regular contributors. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw did not start until a Week 6 win at Carolina while recovering from two offseason surgeries to repair a core injury, the second of which was a “surprise” to the Vikings, according to Zimmer.
The Vikings also used their highest draft pick on a quarterback in 2021 since the team took Teddy Bridgewater in the first round in 2014 when they drafted Kellen Mond in the third round. Mond, a four-year player at Texas A&M, was brought in to be the backup for Cousins but did not fulfill that role outside of a Week 16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams where Minnesota’s No. 2 QB Sean Mannion was on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Mond was Mannion’s backup in Week 17 and played one series in relief of the veteran QB. The Vikings got few contributions from the rest of their rookies with fellow third rounders Wyatt Davis, Chazz Surratt and Patrick Jones II unable to carve out backup roles in 2021. The Vikings fell short of reaching the playoffs in 2020 with a 7-9 record. Minnesota was eliminated from postseason contention in Week 17 after a 37-10 loss at Green Bay where the Vikings started backup quarterback Mannion in place of Kirk Cousins, who was on the COVID-19/reserve list.
Since 2014, Minnesota has not gone back-to-back years without making the playoffs. Both Zimmer and Spielman will forever be tied to Minnesota’s marquee signing of Cousins, who came to the Vikings as a free agent in 2018 after signing a record three-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $84 million. He was then given a two-year extension worth $66 million after the 2019 season. Zimmer and Cousins’ relationship strengthened this season as the former Vikings coach implored his quarterback to be take chances and be more aggressive after Minnesota fell to a 3-5 record coming off a Week 7 bye. That change in approach sparked the Vikings back to .500 with wins against the Chargers and Packers with Cousins putting together one of his most important wins in Minnesota versus Green Bay.
The Vikings won three of their last seven games to culminate another losing season while speculation over Zimmer’s job status became a weekly topic of discussion.
“I think he’s done a great job as head coach,” Zimmer’s son, Adam, the team’s co-defensive coordinator said. “This is one of the best year’s he’s been as a head coach because he’s really involved in helping the offense, watching the tape with them, so I can’t speculate on what the future is. I just come in here every day and try to get this football team better and hopefully bring us to a championship at some point.”
Added Cousins: “I just think no matter happens, it’s never one person. We all have a hand in success. We all have a hand in when we come up short.”
In December, Cousins was asked how Zimmer has dealt with the rollercoaster nature of Minnesota’s season and the effect it had on his head coach. “Coach Zimmer is tough-minded,” Cousins said. “He’s resilient. He’s been through a lot in his life. He’s been through a lot in his football career. That’s a guy that you’re not going to knock down easily and you can’t count him out. I think we feed off that and it makes us a resilient group. He’s always going to come in, he’s going to tell us the truth. He’s going to coach us hard, but he’s also going to tell us the truth when its, ‘Hey, there’s some positives here.’ He’s going to address those too. Every time you lose, it hurts. It really hurts. It hurts him too. But as the leader, he knows he’s got to get back up on the horse each day and keep fighting.”