MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf had enough of being relevant one year and an afterthought the next.
Their decision on Monday to fire coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman – who had been together since 2014 – signified an overhaul in an effort to rebuild the Vikings into a legitimate contender.
The Wilfs viewed this as the only way they could right the ship after missing the playoffs in back-to-back years, the first time that had happened during Zimmer’s eight years in Minnesota. They had gone the route of trying to be competitive while executing a soft rebuild after last making the postseason in 2019. The Vikings then parted ways with veterans deemed too expensive and relied heavily on rookies to bridge the gap.
That approach is what put the Vikings in this position in the first place, with a 7-9 finish in 2020 and 8-9 record in 2021. This time, the Wilfs decided to tear things down and start over. Two playoff wins in eight seasons was not enough to justify continuing the course with Zimmer and Spielman, who both received contract extensions ahead of the 2020 season.
“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 Wilfs said in a statement. “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.”
The Wilfs say they will begin a “comprehensive search” for their next general manager and head coach immediately, and that it will be led internally.
Hiring a general manager who will then hire the 10th head coach in franchise history is the right order of action.
Leaning on trusted staff members like Rob Brzezinski, the executive vice president of football operations who has been with the Vikings for 23 seasons, and chief operating officer Andrew Miller is also the right approach. Minnesota can bypass the route of hiring a search firm to find its next general manager and head coach and use two people who understand the culture of the Vikings organization.
The Vikings kicked off Day 1 of the offseason with sweeping changes. The rest of this offseason might be no less tumultuous with major decisions to be made about the roster.
The first order of business for Minnesota’s next general manager and head coach will be getting on the same page regarding Kirk Cousins’ contract. Zimmer and Spielman will forever be linked to their collective decision to sign the quarterback to an $84 million fully guaranteed contract in 2018, and then extend him on a two-year, $66 million deal ahead of the 2020 season. Cousins is coming off one of his best seasons statistically, but a lack of playoff success, as well as eight one-possession losses this season, do not reflect well on someone expected to be a franchise quarterback.
Cousins’ contract runs through the 2022 season and comes with a $45 million salary-cap hit. If the next GM and head coach can’t see Cousins as the quarterback who can lead this team to Super Bowl contention, they may opt to move him this offseason via a trade. For that to happen, the Wilfs likely would have to stomach paying a bulk of Cousins’ $35 million base salary, which has already been fully guaranteed, to move him to another team. It could basically be looked at as paying millions for the first-round draft pick the Vikings would expect to receive in return, but it’s still a hefty price to pay — yet one the Wilfs could deem necessary as part of the team’s rebuild.
There are other ways the team could get its salary cap back in a healthy position to be competitive in free agency while building toward the future, and it could come by parting ways – again – with expensive veterans like Danielle Hunter, Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith.
The moves the Wilfs made on Monday signal that they’re tired of merely being competitive. They’ve owned this team for 16 years, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into contracts and facilities and don’t have a Lombardi trophy to show for it.
Last offseason, the Wilfs doled out north of $46 million into guaranteed contracts for defensive players to try to rebuild a unit that had fallen apart. The Vikings finished 31st defensively in 2021, the worst ranking they’ve had under Zimmer, who is known as a defensive coach.
As the dust settles from Monday’s teardown, there are a handful of things to consider while looking back at the era that was.
Zimmer compiled a 72-56-1 record in eight seasons, which averages out to 9.1 wins per year. Minnesota was relevant more often than it was not but had only one run to the NFC Championship Game to show for it.
The same goes for Spielman, who had been with the Vikings since 2006, first as the team’s vice president of player personnel and then as general manager since 2012. He hit on a number of successful draft picks, cornerstone franchise players like Justin Jefferson, Brian O’Neill, Hunter, Stefon Diggs, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Smith.
Both Zimmer and Spielman contributed to the Vikings being one of the most stable franchises over the eight seasons, but that stability never yielded sustainable success. Vikings ownership could no longer stay the course.
“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.